Obsolete Relics of a Dead Conflict

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Obsolete Relics of a Dead Conflict


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


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. …

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