Strategic Choices on Tactical Weapons

Daryl G. Kimball

In one of the smartest and boldest moves of the nuclear age, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed in 1991 to withdraw most U.S. and Soviet forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons and dismantle a large portion of those weapons. These actions reduced tensions and the risk of nuclear catastrophe as the Soviet Union broke apart.

On Sept. 27, 1991, Bush announced the United States would end naval tactical nuclear deployments and withdraw and eliminate ground-launched tactical stockpiles. This prompted Russian leaders to pursue reciprocal steps, including the withdrawal of their tactical nuclear weapons to Russian territory.

Twenty years later, however, there have been no formal talks reducing the remaining tactical nuclear stockpiles. This is due in part to Russia’s belief that tactical weapons help counter Chinese and NATO forces and the view among some in NATO that U.S. forward-deployed nuclear weapons are a symbol of alliance cohesion.

In the coming weeks, NATO leaders can take decisive steps to change the alliance’s outdated nuclear policy and open the way for reductions of these Cold War nuclear relics.

Introduced into Europe more than half a century ago to counter Soviet conventional forces, battlefield nuclear bombs serve no meaningful military role in the defense of NATO or Russia. Top U.S. officials acknowledge this point; senior White House adviser Gary Samore has said that “whatever military mission they serve could of course also be accomplished through the use of systems that are not tactical systems based in Europe.”

Nevertheless, the United States still stations about 180 nuclear gravity bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. For its part, Russia is estimated to possess 2,000 usable tactical nuclear weapons. The devastating power and collateral effects of such weapons make them inappropriate tools against non-nuclear targets, while the possible loss or theft of these weapons poses additional dangers.

The United States can and must persuade its NATO partners to eliminate any formal military or political requirement for forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons in the alliance’s Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, which is to be completed before NATO’s May summit in Chicago.

The posture review was launched earlier this year to determine “the appropriate mix of conventional, nuclear, and missile defence forces”—an issue that alliance members failed to resolve in the course of their deliberations on their November 2010 Strategic Concept.

The Strategic Concept declares that it is NATO’s goal to “seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members.”

To spur action by Russia, however, the alliance must signal that it is willing to withdraw the obsolete U.S. tactical weapons from Europe if Russia is prepared to take reciprocal actions. By agreeing to eliminate its nuclear relics, NATO would increase pressure on Russia to account more fully for and to further consolidate its own stockpile.

If some NATO member states insist that even a few U.S. weapons remain in Europe, however, Russia is likely to continue to use them as cynical justification to keep its larger stockpile, and everyone’s security will be diminished.

Reaching agreement within NATO is never easy. In the coming weeks, President Barack Obama and his team must step up efforts to persuade NATO partners to eliminate any requirement in the posture review for maintaining forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The review should clarify that these weapons are not necessary to deter or respond to external threats, including those from Russia.

NATO’s new Strategic Concept already states that “[t]he supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance” and not the U.S. tactical bombs stored in Europe.

NATO’s posture review also should clarify that the fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons for the alliance is to deter a nuclear attack by a potential adversary and that NATO pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that are non-nuclear-weapon states.

This policy would bring NATO into alignment with the results of the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and with British nuclear doctrine. It would signal that NATO is reducing the role and salience of nuclear weapons and thus bolster the global nonproliferation regime. Such a policy also would demonstrate that NATO recognizes that the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats or adversaries would be disproportionate, inappropriate, and inconsistent with the values of NATO member states.

Although alliance members have vowed that as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world NATO will remain a nuclear alliance, it is in NATO’s interest to declare a more limited role for its nuclear capabilities and clear the way for overdue reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear forces.