Updated: July 2017
Near the Cold War’s end, leaders in Washington and Moscow made reciprocal unilateral pledges to substantially limit and reduce their nuclear weaponry, most notably their tactical or “battlefield” nuclear weapons, such as nuclear artillery shells. President George H.W. Bush initiated these commitments, collectively known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), in September 1991 in recognition of the break up of the Eastern bloc and out of concern for the Kremlin’s ability to maintain control of its vast nuclear arsenal as political changes swept the Soviet Union. By pledging to end foreign deployments of entire categories of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, Bush hoped that leaders in Moscow would follow suit; and they did, at least in part. All Soviet nuclear weapons were reportedly successfully consolidated on Russian soil. Still, Washington alleges Moscow has not yet fulfilled all of its PNI destruction commitments. Meanwhile, Russia opposes the continued stationing of U.S. tactical nuclear gravity bombs in Europe, which the PNIs did not cover. Despite lingering concerns about each other’s tactical nuclear weapons, the two sides have not negotiated further reductions or transparency measures for these arms since the early 1990s.
U.S. Presidential Nuclear Initiatives:
On Sept. 27, 1991, Bush announced a raft of unilateral initiatives to limit and reduce the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons arsenal. Specifically, he pledged to:
- withdraw to the United States all ground-launched short-range weapons deployed overseas and destroy them along with existing U.S. stockpiles of the same weapons; and
- cease deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on surface ships, attack submarines, and land-based naval aircraft during “normal circumstances.” Implicitly, the United States reserved the right to redeploy these arms in a crisis.
Soviet/Russian Presidential Nuclear Initiatives:
On Oct. 5, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev responded to Bush’s speech with reciprocal Soviet measures. Specifically, Gorbachev committed to:
- eliminate all nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for tactical missiles, and nuclear mines;
- remove all tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships and multipurpose submarines. These weapons would be stored in central storage sites along with all nuclear arms assigned to land-based naval aircraft; and
- separate nuclear warheads from air defense missiles and put the warheads in central storage. A “portion” would be destroyed.
On Jan. 29, 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reaffirmed Gorbachev’s commitments and expanded on them in response to a second round of unilateral U.S. nuclear weapons cutbacks focused on strategic forces. (Following the Soviet Union’s Dec. 25, 1991 collapse, Russia assumed responsibility for the Soviet Union’s nuclear complex and arms control commitments.) Yeltsin said Russia would:
- eliminate a third of its sea-based tactical nuclear weapons and half of its ground-to-air nuclear missile warheads; and
- halve its airborne tactical nuclear weapons stockpile. Pending reciprocal U.S. action, the other half of this stockpile would be taken out of service and placed in central storage depots.
A precise accounting of U.S. and Soviet/Russian fulfillment of their tactical nuclear weapons PNIs is difficult because of ambiguity, then and now, surrounding the composition, size, and location of these arms. By 1991, the United States had nearly 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons deployed overseas, most of which were assigned to NATO. Estimates on the size of the Soviet tactical nuclear arsenal at that same time ranged widely from 12,000 to nearly 21,700 weapons.
The United States completed its proposed reductions and withdrawals of deployed tactical nuclear weapons in 1992. The elimination process was finished in 2003.
As a result of the PNIs, the U.S. withdrew and destroyed around 2,000 ground-launched nuclear artillery shells and short-range ballistic missiles, all TNWs on navy surface ships and attack submarines, and on land-based naval aircraft, destroyed all nuclear depth bombs, de-alerted strategic bombers, and cancelled planned nuclear systems. By the mid-1990s, the stockpile of TNWs fell to below 1,000 warheads. Between 1990 and the end of 1994 (when the START Treaty entered into force), the U.S. nuclear stockpile of active and inactive warheads fell from 21,392 to 10,979, a 50 percent reduction.
At a Dec. 21, 1991 conference at Alma-Ata, the Soviet Republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine pledged to return all Soviet tactical nuclear weapons on their territories to Russia by July 1, 1992. All three states met their commitments despite the Soviet Union’s breakup four days after these pledges were made. Otherwise, Russia has released little information substantiating its PNI activities. At the May 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, Moscow announced that all Russian tactical nuclear weapons “are now deployed only within the national territory and are concentrated at central storage facilities of the Ministry of Defense.” In 2007, Colonel-General Vladimir Verkhovtsev remarked, “Russia particularly committed itself to removing tactical nuclear weapons from the ground forces completely. Those weapons were also cut by 50 percent in the Air Force, by 60 percent in missile defense troops and by 30 percent on nuclear submarines of the Russian Navy,” the general said.
Still, the Department of State has publicly questioned Russia’s PNI record. Specifically, it noted in June 2005, “Russia has failed to state publicly the status of the elimination of its nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for air defense missiles, nuclear mines, or nuclear weapons on land-based naval aviation.” These concerns were not expressed in the 2017 State Department Compliance Report, however.
As of 2016, the United States possesses about 500 B61 gravity bombs, 150-200 of which deployed in five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey). As of 2017, Russia retains approximately 1850 nonstrategic weapons, all of which are stored on Russian territory.
Since the PNIs, the United States and Russia have not agreed on additional measures to share information on or limit their tactical nuclear weapons. The two countries agreed in March 1997 to explore measures relating to tactical nuclear weapons, but nothing came of this effort. In June 2005, Russia conditioned additional talks on tactical nuclear weapons to the U.S. withdrawal of its remaining nuclear weapons in Europe. The United States has said these weapons are deployed as part of NATO policy and that a decision to withdraw them would need to be taken by all alliance members. In 2005, Congress passed legislation calling on the Bush administration to investigate measures to help Russia account for and secure its tactical arms and assess whether tactical nuclear reductions with Russia should be pursued.
In 2010, the Barack Obama administration stated that it was the goal of the United States to seek further reductions in all types of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons—strategic and nonstrategic, deployed or nondeployed—following the conclusion of the 2010 New START talks. The 2010 NATO Strategic Concept states that the goal of the alliance is to "seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members." officials insist that the U.S. should first withdraw all of its tactical nuclear weapons to its national territory. In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama Administration announced a unilateral retirement of the Navy’s stockpile of nuclear-armed submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCMs).
In April 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the U.S. could remove nuclear weapons from Europe in exchange for a reduction in the size of Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal. In 2013, Obama gave a speech advocating for the U.S. to work with European allies and Russia to negotiate future reductions in nonstrategic nuclear weapons.
However, to date the United States and Russia have not commenced talks regarding additional cuts on nonstrategic weapons, and a range of arms control disputes threatens to continue to obstruct progress on the matter. Russia is unlikely to discuss cuts to its nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal until the United States removes nonstrategic nuclear forces from Europe and agrees to limitations of its ballistic missile defense program.