Some habits, even dangerous ones, can be difficult to break. Nearly 50 years ago, the United States introduced so-called tactical nuclear weapons into NATO forces in Europe to deter and, if necessary, use against a Soviet land attack. Not long after, the Soviet Union followed suit.
The U.S.-Soviet military rivalry is now over. Yet, both countries cling to the remnants of their massive tactical nuclear arsenals. They serve no meaningful military role for the defense of Europe or Russia, and the possible loss or theft of these weapons poses an unacceptable risk of nuclear terrorism. It is past time to account for and verifiably eliminate tactical nuclear weapons, beginning with those stationed in Europe.
During the Cold War, each side amassed thousands of these “battlefield” nuclear bombs for delivery by bombers, ships, and artillery. Today, the United States continues to maintain approximately 1,300 tactical nuclear weapons, including about 480 bombs deployed on NATO military bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. In response, Russia is estimated to possess at least 3,000 of these generally smaller, portable, but still devastating weapons.
The first and last serious effort to address the issue came in 1991, when Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally withdrew most forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons to build confidence as the Soviet Union collapsed. Yet, in the absence of verification measures, significant questions remain about how Moscow has implemented its 1991 pledges and about the size, location, and security of Russia’s remaining tactical nuclear forces.
In 1997, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to explore controls on tactical nuclear weapons in the context of future nuclear arms negotiations but failed to do so. Unfortunately, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin did not address the issue in the context of the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.
Although senior Bush administration officials and leading Democrats have expressed interest in controlling tactical nuclear weapons, there is no active effort to do so. Russia, which has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons, refuses to enter into talks on tactical nuclear arsenals mainly because the United States and its NATO partners still deploy such weapons in Europe.
NATO’s current strategic plan claims that its nuclear forces in Europe “provide an essential political and military link” between the United States and European alliance members. As a result, NATO maintains an antiquated nuclear posture, which allows for the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, including in reply to an attack with conventional weapons.
In the 21st century, tactical nuclear weapons are more useful for terrorists than for fighting terrorism or keeping the peace between nations. Whatever symbolic value the weapons may provide for NATO unity is far outweighed by the risk that some of Russia’s weapons might be lost, stolen, or sold to another nation or a terrorist group. Russia’s inadequate nuclear command and control systems and weapons transportation practices make its thousands of tactical nuclear devices a prime terrorist target. Just one of these bombs could be used to destroy a city.
Complicating progress on tactical nuclear arms reductions, the United States is also exploring new battlefield nuclear weapons. If left unchecked, the effort could lead to the development and deployment of a modified version of an existing high-yield bunker-busting warhead or possibly a new type of lower-yield tactical nuclear weapon. Russia and other states can be expected to match any such U.S. move.
The devastating power and inescapable collateral effects of such weapons make them inappropriate tools against non-nuclear targets. Rather than treating tactical nuclear weapons as just another part of the vast U.S. arsenal, the United States must diminish their value and vulnerabilities and cancel the new weapons research.
The next U.S. administration must align tactical nuclear weapons policy with present-day realities, and soon. To open the way to cooperation with Russia on the consolidation and dismantlement of its large and destabilizing tactical nuclear stockpile, NATO should announce that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons and begin withdrawing its obsolete tactical nuclear forces from Europe. The United States should also invite Russia to negotiate an agreement on warhead accounting and the verifiable dismantlement of excess tactical nuclear weapons.
Through two U.S. and two Russian presidencies, government leaders have failed to tackle the dangers posed by their Cold War tactical nuclear weapons arsenals. A new initiative to reduce and verifiably eliminate these weapons would reduce the salience of all nuclear weapons, reinforce global nonproliferation efforts, and lower the danger of nuclear terrorism.