To mark the tenth anniversary of the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev unilateral declarations on tactical nuclear weapons, UNIDIR and its collaborating partners held a meeting in September 2001 at the United Nations in New York. The meeting took place days after the terrible attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the 11th September.
At the UNIDIR meeting and many times since that fateful day, the issue of terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction and, in particular, fissile materials has been raised. The continuing lack of control over tactical nuclear weapons means that there is a clear and present danger that tactical nuclear weapons may have been, or may be in the future, stolen or sold to those with an intent to use them for the purposes of terrorism.
Tactical nuclear weapons are a particularly dangerous category of nuclear weapons. They are portable, often integrated into conventional force structures and, in some cases, less well guarded than their strategic counterparts. Despite the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, there has never been any formal agreement on the removal and elimination of tactical nuclear weapons. Despite periodic updates on progress, data were never agreed, only proportions of numbers to be eliminated or stored were declared. Still today a great deal of uncertainty exists over the implementation of the 1991 unilateral declarations.
Perhaps more worrying, there seems to be a renewed interest in this category of nuclear weapons. Post September 11, in addition to the concerns over the terrorist use of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials, there have been discussions and debates, in public and in private, on the potential use by States of small, low yield nuclear weapons to attack underground hideouts of terrorist leaders or terrorists' weapons manufacturing facilities. In addition the use of nuclear weapons as a response to chemical and biological weapons attacks is also being debated. None of these debates has led to official policy changes, but with the increasing concerns over the long-term adherence to the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that new small, short-range and “useable” nuclear weapons could be on the horizon.