Getting to Zero Starts Here: Tactical Nuclear Weapons

By Kelleher, Catherine M.; Warren, Scott L. | Arms Control Today, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Getting to Zero Starts Here: Tactical Nuclear Weapons


Kelleher, Catherine M., Warren, Scott L., Arms Control Today


A critical debate on nuclear weapons is once again in the limelight. President Barack Obama has unequivocally, ambitiously, and repeatedly stated his ultimate vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Under the Obama policy, zero nuclear weapons is, for the first time in U.S. history, an operational, tangible U.S. policy goal and thus a measuring stick against which to judge a host of shorter-range, less ambitious initiatives or actions.1

Obama has acknowledged that the goal will not be reached during his presidency, and probably not even during his lifetime. Nevertheless, it is a dramatic move, probably the most dramatic foreign policy commitment in a principally domestic presidential agenda.

The question of how to reduce or eliminate tactical nuclear weapons should be (and, Obama experts promise, will be) among the first in this ambitious cam- paign, once an agreement extending the logic and verification protocols of START is reached. An agreement to extend key provisions of the treaty, at least on an interim basis, will have to be reached by the time the current treaty expires De- cember 5. A formal agreement is expected to follow early next year. Tactical nuclear weapons are an important priority partly because of their seemingly easy solution, but also because the challenges they present are emblematic of those In the larger arms control debate.

Strategically, the weapons have little real value in the post-Cold War climate. They are vulnerable to a rogue or terrorist attack, too small or risky for independent military use, and unpopular with military forces and most political audiences. Lately, maintaining these weapons has provided many more disadvantages than advantages for the countries that possess them in their arsenals - France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States - at least as measured in terms of the costs of safety and security, of the operational burden of dedicating and preserving delivery aircraft, and of ensuring ongoing certification of forces. Even within NATO, for all but a few countries, tactical weapons have come to represent a decreasingly meaningful symbolic commitment rather than a concrete deterrent or escalation tripwire. From a U.S. standpoint, the relatively low numbers of such weapons that still exist, at approximately 1,000 in the U.S. arsenal with only 20-25 percent of that number located outside U.S. borders, would seem to make it easy to secure and verify their ultimate elimination.2

Yet, these weapons also represent one of the more complex components of reaching complete nuclear disarmament and serve as an effective microcosm of the challenges in securing U.S.-Russian agreement and eventually a global consensus on how and why to get to zero. This issue goes to the heart of what a U.S. nuclear umbrella entails, especially in Europe, in the 21st century. The United States must take the lead by setting the pace and orchestrating the multiple bargains involved.

The principal issues with the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons are political and conceptual, rather than straightforwardly military, with the single but critical exception of the risk of terrorist seizure. The notion of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, with tactical weapons serving as a real or potential down payment on a security commitment, particularly in Europe, still has significant traction within the Obama administration. Key factions in the Pentagon and perhaps in the Department of State argue that the United States must still provide allies substantial security support, especially with Iran and North Korea deeply engaged in nuclear programs. This is the case despite the indifference of many NATO allies toward technical weapons or, in some cases, direct demands for elimination. Some European countries, especially elites in the newer central and eastern European member states, attach a high symbolic importance to the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil as evidence of U. …

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