The Pressing Need for Tactical Nuclear Weapons Control

Alistair Millar

When Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow at the end of May to formalize reductions in strategic nuclear weapons, the issue of tactical nuclear weapons control will not be on the agenda, halting a decade-long trend toward increasing constraints on such weapons. President George H. W. Bush and his counterparts in Moscow took steps in 1991 and 1992 to reduce substantially the Cold War deployments of tactical nuclear weapons. In 1997, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed that tactical nuclear weapons would be addressed in the context of future START III negotiations.

In the post-September 11 world, however, where fears of nuclear terrorism ostensibly top his list of priorities, President Bush has inexplicably dropped the issue of tactical nuclear weapons. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has said that the administration is “willing to discuss tactical nukes” with Russia but that tactical nuclear weapons are not a top priority.1 Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith has admitted, “The issue of Russian tactical nuclear weapons…gets very little attention.”2

At the same time, Feith acknowledges that the Russians have “lots of tactical nuclear weapons” that are dangerous from a proliferation standpoint and that there have been news reports that terrorist organizations are actively attempting to procure nuclear weapons from Russia, which has notable problems securing its nuclear forces. President Bush has stated that al Qaeda is seeking nuclear weapons and ways to deliver them against U.S. and other Western targets.

Although further reductions in operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons is a laudable goal, transparency in tactical stockpiles and reductions of tactical nuclear weapons is a more urgent concern from a proliferation standpoint. The Bush administration needs to place tactical nuclear weapons control at the top of the U.S.-Russian agenda, and by ignoring the issue at the upcoming Moscow summit, it is missing an excellent opportunity to do so.

The Danger From Russian Weapons

The definition of “tactical,” or “substrategic,” nuclear weapons is somewhat tenuous and can include many criteria, such as range, yield, target, national ownership, delivery vehicle, and capability. For the most part, tactical nuclear weapons have smaller explosive power than strategic nuclear weapons and are generally intended for “battlefield” use against enemy forces, rather than against enemy cities or strategic nuclear forces. Tactical nuclear weapons include a broad array of devices, from so-called nuclear landmines and nuclear artillery shells to air-dropped or missile-launched nuclear warheads. Their yields can be relatively low (0.1 kiloton), equal to those of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (15-20 kilotons), or very large (1 megaton).3

Tactical nuclear weapons were identified as a separate category of weapon during the Cold War to allow U.S. and Soviet arms control negotiators to concentrate on the larger weapons that they considered more threatening to stability. (In a sense, then, the definition of tactical nuclear weapons can be expanded to include all weapons not covered by the SALT and START agreements.) But the failure of arms control to address tactical nuclear weapons in a treaty belies the threat they pose. Even a “moderately sized” tactical nuclear weapon could destroy a city, and the relative smallness of tactical nuclear weapons—and therefore their relative portability—increases their vulnerability to theft by terrorists. Even in the hands of state militaries, tactical nuclear weapons are more susceptible to unauthorized or accidental use than strategic weapons—they are often deployed near the front line; they are far more sensitive to communications problems under crisis conditions; and they can be fired by a soldier in the field without going through the stringent safety precautions that govern the launch of strategic nuclear weapons.

For these reasons, when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in late 1991 following an aborted coup, the fate of its tactical nuclear arsenal was of great concern. To prevent these weapons from falling into the hands of rogue states or individuals in the Soviet republics, the elder President Bush announced the unilateral reduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and proposed that the Russians respond in kind. The Soviet Union under Gorbachev, and then Russia under Yeltsin, reciprocated by agreeing to reduce the Soviet/Russian tactical nuclear arsenal.

The reductions under the so-called presidential nuclear initiatives of 1991 and 1992 have been significant. An estimated 3,050 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons were to be eliminated under the 1991 and 1992 initiatives.4 Currently, the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal contains approximately 1,670 warheads. Of these, about 180 are land-based, substrategic nuclear gravity bombs stored at 10 bases in seven European countries.5 Although exact figures are not available, it is believed that since 1992 Russia has reduced the number of tactical nuclear warheads it deploys by as many as 18,000—either by removing them from service and storing them in central facilities or by dismantling them.6 The reductions were defined by Yeltsin as the elimination of all army tactical nuclear weapons; one-third of naval tactical nuclear weapons; half of all air force tactical nuclear weapons; and half of all air defense tactical nuclear weapons. Other weapons removed from deployment were to be transferred and placed in central storage facilities, provided that the United States did the same.7

However, Moscow’s reductions have not been transparent, fueling concerns about the extent to which Russia actually fulfilled its pledges under the initiatives, how many tactical nuclear weapons remain, and how they are stored. There have been occasional, vague announcements from Russian officials about progress made, but Western experts and officials rightly see the lack of information on the location and safety of these weapons as a serious security problem. Without reliable data on the vast number of Soviet-era tactical weapons, no one can be sure if any have fallen, or are in danger of falling, into the wrong hands.

The “loose nuke” problem in Russia has, of course, been a source of concern for some time, but viewed through the prism of the September 11 attacks, Russia’s lax nuclear security is even more troubling. For example, Colonel General Yevgeniy P. Maslin, chief of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for nuclear munitions, claimed in 1996 that theft from Russian nuclear weapons facilities is “impossible.” But he qualified his statement by noting that during transport Russia’s nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to theft by criminals or terrorist groups. Maslin expressed concern about the potential theft of nuclear weapons by insiders, rhetorically asking, “What if such acts were to be undertaken by people who have worked with nuclear weapons in the past? For example, by people dismissed from our structures, social malcontents, embittered individuals?”8

As defense analyst Matthew Bunn has pointed out, Russia’s security problem stems partly from its communist past in which Russia had “a closed society; closed borders; pampered, well-cared-for nuclear workers; everyone under close surveillance by the KGB. Now, it’s largely the same security system having to face a world with an open society; open borders; rampant theft; crime; corruption; desperate, unpaid nuclear workers. It’s a totally different situation that the system was never designed to address.”9 In a February 2002 report, the CIA explained, “The [Russian nuclear weapons] security system was designed in the Soviet era to protect weapons primarily against a threat from outside the country and may not be sufficient to meet today’s challenge of a knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist group.”10

These concerns about the security of Russian nuclear weapons are compounded for tactical nuclear weapons because of their size and because Moscow’s haste to move its tactical force from a variety of Soviet republics into Russia in the early 1990s led to poor accounting of the number and location of those weapons. It is possible that even the relevant high-level officials in Moscow have no idea how many tactical nuclear weapons there are on Russian territory.

As Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) stated in an October 1997 hearing, “No one in the West, and few in Russia, know for sure whether dozens of small nuclear weapons, ideal for terrorist use, are unaccounted for and perhaps in the wrong hands. The important point is that increases in crime, corruption, incompetence, and institutional decay are so advanced in Russia that the theft of nuclear weapons, unthinkable in the Soviet war machine of the Cold War, seems entirely plausible in the Russia of today. The mere possibility that terrorists or rogue states may have acquired some Russian nuclear weapons should be a matter of gravest concern to the governments of the West.”

Recent Efforts

Since the presidential nuclear initiatives, further efforts to control tactical nuclear weapons have been largely unsuccessful despite an apparent U.S. and NATO desire to address the problem. According to the Congressional Research Service, “Some in the United States would like further restrictions on Russian tactical nuclear weapons both because they believe these might pose a proliferation risk and because Russia has a far greater number of these weapons than does the United States.”11 NATO has openly expressed its concerns about the large number of Russian “tactical nuclear weapons of all types” and has called upon Russia “to bring to completion” the reductions in these forces that were announced in the 1991 and 1992 presidential nuclear initiatives.12

In fact, NATO proposed a set of transparency measures in a December 2000 report that was part of an internal review of NATO’s nuclear weapons policies. The NATO report had more to say on the issue of Russian substrategic nuclear weapons than any public document previously released by NATO. Noting “the extensive Russian nuclear arsenal,” the report called for “specific CSBM [confidence- and security-building measures] proposals to enhance mutual trust and to promote greater openness and transparency on nuclear weapons and safety issues,” including the “exchange [of] data on U.S. and Russian sub-strategic nuclear forces.”

More recently, the final communiqué from the NATO foreign ministers meeting in December 2001 noted that NATO and Russia are intensifying their cooperation on “non-proliferation, export control and arms control matters, arms transparency and confidence building measures.” At the defense ministers meeting later that month, NATO announced that it had reached agreement with Russia on the need for dialogue on nuclear weapons safety and security issues, noting that such an exchange would be a “constructive development toward improved transparency, predictability and growing mutual trust between NATO and Russia in this important field.”

These proposals and agreements, however, have not achieved many tangible results in large part because tactical nuclear forces continue to be viewed as essential security guarantees in both Europe and Russia.

Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the core threat to NATO that it embodied enabled radical reductions in substrategic forces in Europe, the political significance attached to the remaining weapons has remained essentially the same as during the Cold War. Indeed, despite the seeming lack of a military rationale for these weapons given Russia’s current conventional weakness, the European-based U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal possesses a strong symbolic value for the European defense establishment that should not be underestimated.

NATO maintains that it depends heavily on widespread participation in nuclear roles by its European members. For example, the final communiqué of a NATO working group on nuclear weapons said that NATO will continue “widespread participation in nuclear roles and peacetime basing by Allies. Sub-strategic nuclear forces committed to NATO continue to provide the necessary political and military link to NATO’s strategic nuclear forces and an important demonstration of Alliance solidarity.”13 For the alliance, the presence of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil ensures that allies on both sides of the Atlantic are sharing the risk and the burden associated with NATO’s nuclear mission. Withdrawal of these forces would weaken the value of the alliance substantially because the European members want both a tactical and a strategic nuclear umbrella to be part of NATO’s defenses.

Russia’s reluctance to restrict further its tactical arsenal stems more from demonstrable military need. Russia’s economic straits have made the cost of maintaining conventional military hardware and supporting personnel unmanageable, and Russia’s military may be further stressed by future rounds of NATO expansion. Russia has sought to make up for the qualitative and quantitative deficiencies in its military forces by, in 1993, officially abandoning its pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict and, in 2000, placing increased emphasis on the combat role its tactical nuclear arsenal would play in a defense of Russia. Russian defense analysts have articulated a number of roles for tactical nuclear weapons, including compensating for weaknesses of conventional forces brought on by economic retraction, serving as placeholders of Russian status and prestige in the post-Cold War world, preventing regional conflicts, and serving as deterrents against strategic escalation.14

Progress between NATO and Russia on tactical nuclear weapons has thus been slow because each side considers its remaining weapons to have value. While NATO insists on maintaining some tactical nuclear forces in Europe, the Kremlin has repeatedly asserted that it will not consider negotiations to control its tactical nuclear arsenal if the United States will not remove its nuclear weapons from Europe. As NATO expands eastward toward the Russian border, Moscow is also anxious about the deployment of NATO nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states. In addition to demanding the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe, Russia has continually refused to enter into talks on tactical nuclear weapons until NATO formally agrees not to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members.

Further difficulties stem from the recent U.S. push to redesign or develop new models of nuclear weapons. For example, Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, has argued that “nuclear weapons do have a place and a purpose today.” He suggested development of what he called a “To Whom It May Concern” force for use against nations or subnational entities.15 The Bush administration’s nuclear posture review calls for “greater flexibility” in nuclear forces and its 2003 budget requests $15.5 million for cost and feasibility studies of a “robust nuclear earth-penetrator” that could destroy deeply buried or hardened underground targets, such as bunkers and bomb shelters.

In Russia, although there have been debates about the military role of tactical nuclear weapons in recent years, no drive to modernize nonstrategic nuclear weapons has been publicized, and it is difficult to conclude that research is being conducted in this direction. However, there have been reports that Russian officials are mimicking the U.S. call for low-yield weapons to threaten underground targets,16 and U.S. efforts in this area will not serve to make Russia’s tactical arsenal less important to its military.

A Way Forward

Although there is no confirmed evidence that tactical nuclear weapons are missing or have been stolen by terrorists, poor data and lack of transparency concerning Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons makes the issue of tracking and preventing theft more complicated. It is imperative that the United States and NATO gain verifiable information about the quantity, security, and safety of these weapons to assess the threat accurately and take steps to prevent their proliferation.

Despite the Bush administration’s reticence to address tactical nuclear weapons and the less-than-outstanding success of NATO’s transparency initiatives, the improving relationship between Russia and the West provides an opportunity to make progress on tactical nuclear weapons. Statements by Putin in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks suggest a greater willingness to accept NATO expansion, and in late 2001 NATO and Russia announced that they had “decided to give new impetus and substance to our partnership, with the goal of creating a new council to bring together NATO member states and Russia to identify and pursue opportunities for joint action at 20.” Building NATO-Russian relations and cultivating a common sense of purpose in the campaign against terrorism could generate a level of confidence between both parties necessary to tackle the issue of tactical nuclear weapons.

To gain Moscow’s acquiescence in its last round of expansion, NATO offered Russia the “Founding Act” and the Permanent Joint Council, which set up a consultative mechanism for “cooperation, joint decision-making and joint action” on security issues, including arms control and nuclear safety between NATO and Russia. In response to Russian concerns about the possible nuclear roles of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, NATO said it had “no intention, no plan and no reason” to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members of the alliance. Given Russian concerns about further enlargement, NATO could offer additional palliatives, including an adjustment to the symbolic reliance on NATO nuclear weapons and a more enhanced role for the Permanent Joint Council on nuclear issues.

Of course, even in such a cooperative atmosphere, difficult problems will have to be addressed. Past discussions on tactical nuclear weapons control have broken down over the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe. The argument for maintaining these weapons in Europe is difficult to justify from a military standpoint, but some European governments attach exaggerated political importance to maintaining tactical nuclear weapons on their soil. A U.S. offer to withdraw these weapons could help to jump-start negotiations with Russia on accounting for and reducing its arsenal.

Other steps could be taken without getting bogged down on the question of withdrawing nuclear weapons from Europe. For example, NATO could offer to disclose to Russia the exact number and location of stored and deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as a voluntary transparency measure and could offer to provide technical and financial assistance to help Russia account for its tactical nuclear weapons. Such steps would provide the West with vital information about Russia’s weapons and allow the United States and NATO to prevent proliferation better. It would have the added advantage of enabling Russia and the United States to demonstrate progress toward their commitments to increase transparency under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

There are also near-term, bilateral opportunities for the United States and Russia to address control of tactical nuclear weapons. If Washington is serious about working with the Russians to prevent nuclear terrorism, it could put the issue of reducing tactical nuclear arsenals back on the table at the Moscow summit. Russia is concerned about the breakout potential of Washington’s newly proposed “responsive force” and is therefore seeking verifiable and irreversible reductions in strategic warheads. Given concerns about the lack of basic information about Russian tactical nuclear weapons, the United States should offer to destroy rather than store its downloaded weapons in exchange for a Russian agreement to provide transparency concerning excess nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

The United States and Russia have made progress in controlling these weapons under less favorable circumstances over the past decade. Sweeping an entire class of nuclear weapons under the rug perpetuates an unnecessary security risk and will not remove unwanted relics from a budding post-Cold War relationship. At the very least, the issue of tactical nuclear weapons should be put back on the agenda and discussed in an effort to build trust and confidence.

1. “Expounding Bush’s Approach to U.S. Nuclear Security: An Interview With John R. Bolton,” Arms Control Today, March 2002.
2. Douglas J. Feith, “Breakfast Meeting in Washington, D.C. With the Defense Writers Group,” February 20, 2002.
3. For an overview of world tactical nuclear weapons munitions and delivery systems, see “Appendix: Types, Delivery Systems and Locations of TNWs,” in William Potter et al., Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Options for Control (Geneva: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, 2000).
4. Joshua Handler, “The September 1991 PNIs and the Elimination, Storing and Security Aspects of TNWs,” presentation for “Time to Control Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” hosted by UNIDIR et al., United Nations, September 24, 2001.
5. Handler, “The September 1991 PNIs”; Martin Butcher, Otfried Nassauer, and Stephen Young, “Nuclear Futures: Western European Options for Nuclear Risk Reduction,” BASIC/BITS Research Report, December 1998.
6. According to Alexei Arbatov, member of the Russian Duma, “Whereas in 1991 the USSR had about 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons, at present Russia retains around 3,800….” Alexei Arbatov, “Deep Cuts and De-alerting: A Russian Perspective,” in Harold Feiveson, ed., The Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, DC.: Brookings Institution, 1999), p. 320.
7. Handler, “The September 1991 PNIs.”
8. Graham H. Turbiville, “Russian Officer Admits Concerns Over Nuclear Theft,” Special Warfare, January 1996.
9. Tony Wesolowsky, “Russia: Nuclear Security Poses Challenges,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 8, 2001.
10. Central Intelligence Agency, Annual Report to Congress on the Safety and Security of Russian Nuclear Facilities and Military Forces, February 2002.
11. Amy F. Woolf, “Nuclear Weapons in Russia: Safety, Security and Control Issues,” Congressional Research Service, December 5, 2001.
12. NATO Ministerial Meetings of the Defense Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Group, Final Communiqué, June 12, 1997.
13. Final communiqué of a meeting of the Nuclear Planning Group of the North Atlantic Alliance, October 17-18, 1991.
14. Nikolai Sokov, “The Advantages and Pitfalls of Non-Negotiated Arms Reductions: The Case of Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Disarmament Diplomacy, December 1997; David S. Yost, “Russia and Arms Control for Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces,” in Jeff Larsen and Kurt Klingenberger, eds., Controlling Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons: Obstacles and Opportunities, (Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Institute for National Security Studies, 2001).
15. C. Paul Robinson, “A White Paper: Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century,” Sandia National Laboratories, March 2001.
16. Pavel Felgenhauer, “Bomb Makers’ Trade Union,” The Moscow Times, March 14, 2002, p. 9.

Alistair Millar is vice president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and director of its Washington office.