The Pressing Need for Tactical Nuclear Weapons Control

Article excerpt

By ignoring the issue at the upcoming Moscow summit, the Bush administration is

missing an excellent opportunity to place tactical nuclear weapons back on the U.S.Russian agenda.

hen Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow at the end of May to formalize reductions in strategic nuclear weapons, the issue of tactical nuclear weapons control will not be on the agenda, halting a decadelong trend toward increasing constraints on such weapons. President George H. W. Bush and his counterparts in Moscow took steps in 1991 and 1992 to reduce substantially the Cold War deployments of tactical nuclear weapons. In 1997, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed that tactical nuclear weapons would be addressed in the context of future START III negotiations.

In the post-September 11 world, however, where fears of nuclear terrorism ostensibly top his list of priorities, President Bush has inexplicably dropped the issue of tactical nuclear weapons. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has said that the administration is "willing to discuss tactical nukes" with Russia but that tactical nuclear weapons are not a top priority.' Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith has admitted, "The issue of Russian tactical nuclear weapons... gets very little attention. 112

At the same time, Feith acknowledges that the Russians have "lots of tactical nuclear weapons" that are dangerous from a proliferation standpoint and that there have been news reports that terrorist organizations are actively attempting to procure nuclear weapons from Russia, which has notable problems securing its nuclear forces. President Bush has stated that al Qaeda is seeking nuclear weapons and ways to deliver them against U.S. and other Western targets.

Although further reductions in operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons is a laudable goal, transparency in tactical stockpiles and reductions of tactical nuclear weapons is a more urgent concern from a proliferation standpoint. The Bush administration needs to place tactical nuclear weapons control at the top of the U.S.-Russian agenda, and by ignoring the issue at the upcoming Moscow summit, it is missing an excellent opportunity to do so. The Danger From Russian Weapons The definition of "tactical," or "substrategic," nuclear weapons is somewhat tenuous and can include many criteria, such as range, yield, target, national ownership, delivery vehicle, and capability. For the most part, tactical nuclear weapons have smaller explosive power than strategic nuclear weapons and are generally intended for "battlefield" use against enemy forces, rather than against enemy cities or strategic nuclear forces. Tactical nuclear weapons include a broad array of devices, from so-called nuclear landmines and nuclear artillery shells to air-dropped or missile-launched nuclear warheads. Their yields can be relatively low (0.1 kiloton), equal to those of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (15-20 kilotons), or very large (1 megaton).' Tactical nuclear weapons were identified as a separate category of weapon during the Cold War to allow U.S. and Soviet arms control negotiators to concentrate on the larger weapons that they considered more threatening to stability. (In a sense, then, the definition of tactical nuclear weapons can be expanded to include all weapons not covered by the SALT and START agreements.) But the failure of arms control to address tactical nuclear weapons in a treaty belies the threat they pose. Even a "moderately sized" tactical nuclear weapon could destroy a city, and the relative smallness of tactical nuclear weapons-and therefore their relative portability-increases their vulnerability to theft by terrorists. Even in the hands of state militaries, tactical nuclear weapons are more susceptible to unauthorized or accidental use than strategic weapons-they are often deployed near the front line; they are far more sensitive to communications problems under crisis conditions; and they can be fired by a soldier in the field without going through the stringent safety precautions that govern the launch of strategic nuclear weapons. …