DEALING WITH RUSSIAN TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Cash for Kilotons

By Miller, Timothy D.; Larsen, Jeffrey A. | Naval War College Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

DEALING WITH RUSSIAN TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Cash for Kilotons


Miller, Timothy D., Larsen, Jeffrey A., Naval War College Review


Nonstrategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) have posed serious military and political concerns for nearly two generations.1 While many security analysts and the general public assumed that this issue disappeared with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, such was not the case. Indeed, one could argue that while strategic nuclear and conventional arms control treaties have resolved much of the central drama during the Cold War, there remains one area left uncovered by treaty constraints or reductions-the thousands of residual nonstrategic, theater, tactical, or battlefield nuclear weapons remaining on the territory of the former superpowers.

One expert on this subject has recently reminded us that "for fifty years non-strategic nuclear weapons have been the main source of the crises, accidents, and diplomatic contretemps associated with weapons of mass destruction.... In the complex world of the nuclear era, non-strategic nuclear weapons have produced more than their share of difficulty and danger."2 There are a number of reasons why this is so: the large numbers of these weapons, their multiple and varied missions, the lack of safely and surety controls when compared to strategic weapons, and their relationship to geographic location-a relationship that strategic nuclear warheads do not share.

Historically, nuclear arms control has focused on long-range strategic systems, although Russia continually tried to include U.S. tactical weapons in such talks as well-a move that the United States always resisted. Only in recent years have the tables turned, with the United States now taking the lead on nuclear initiatives. During the Cold War the Soviet Union demanded that American nuclear weapons stationed in European NATO countries be considered strategic, because they could reach the Russian homeland; once negotiations began, however, the Soviets always conceded the case. Nevertheless, in 1991 and 1992 the presidents of the United States and Russia unilaterally decided to reduce their respective arsenals of NSNW, and in the Helsinki Summit of 1997 they agreed that future strategic nuclear arms control negotiations would include a separate venue for discussions surrounding the nonstrategic weapons of both sides.3

The first years of the new century have witnessed several headlines regarding strategic nuclear arms: the release of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the successful elimination of thousands of nuclear warheads under the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the signing of the Moscow Treaty, and the development of a new strategic relationship with Russia. Yet beneath all this movement in the strategic realm, the troubling issue of nonstrategic nuclear weapons has largely been ignored. The large imbalance in the numbers of NSNW possessed by Russia relative to NATO and the opacity of intentions this imbalance may represent create real concern among U.S. and alliance security decision makers. The lack of formal agreement between the new "partners" to address this remaining legacy of the Cold War makes this situation even more disconcerting. Yet Russia has indirectly promised to engage this issue-it has committed itself to embark on a path to new relations in the twenty-first century and to develop a relationship with the United States based on trust, openness, and cooperation.

Key to recent progress in the U.S.-Russian relationship has been a mutual understanding of the intentions of the partners toward one another. In Soviet days, intentions on both sides were clear-to oppose one another ideologically at every turn. Today that ideological opposition has disappeared. During the Cold War strategic nuclear weapons were the dominant concern of the parties because of the direct threat they represented. Nonstrategic nuclear weapons were of less interest in that environment. As the strategic threat has eased, the tension in the relationship has diminished as well. …

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