No “Reset Button” For Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Also published here.

Gen. Roger Brady, USAFE Commander, is shown B61 nuclear weapon disarming procedures on a “dummy” in an underground Weapons Security and Storage System (WS3) vault at Volkel Air Base, Netherlands in June 2008. (Photo credit: US Air Force, via FAS. Click to enlarge.)

When the average American thinks of “US nuclear weapons”, they probably have a vague idea of large missiles ready to launch from silos at various locations in our country. Given the recent news coverage of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, they might even have a more specific idea of how these weapons are controlled, and who controls them.

What most people don’t realize is that US nuclear weapons aren’t all at the tips of ICBMs, and they aren’t all in America. Not only that, but not all of our weapons are even covered by a formal treaty.

I’m talking about “the little nukes that got away“, also known as tactical, or nonstrategic nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union amassed thousands of these smaller, more portable “battlefield” weapons. They ranged in size from artillery shells to B61 gravity bombs. Over the years, the numbers of US and Russian forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons have declined, but even though the Cold War has been over for 20 years, there are still plenty of these weapons out there. The US currently maintains about 200 of them in five different European countries, in fact. The Russians maintain many more.

Discussion of these weapons, and their security role, has enjoyed a resurgence over the past year or so, most recently at the NATO foreign ministers meeting last week in Estonia. Given President Obama’s interest in nuclear disarmament, many arms control advocates, as well as a number of European leaders, hoped that the US would commit to reducing these weapons in Europe, and therefore signal a welcome change from a rather outdated Cold War mindset.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Statements from Secretary of State Clinton, and NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, were quite to the contrary, and better suited for the 1980s instead of 2010:

“As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance,” Clinton said in remarks prepared for delivery to NATO foreign ministers.

“As a nuclear alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities is fundamental,”


NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that while the Western security alliance must debate the matter, he personally believed “the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe is an essential part of a credible deterrent.”

The problem isn’t just that NATO wants to hang onto Cold War relics; the problem is that the US is equating our tactical nuclear weapons in Europe with assurance of security.

Via a telephone interview, Dr. William Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, explained it to me:

What’s most unfortunate in terms of the statements by [Secretary Clinton] as well as by Rasmussen is that it reinforces, I think, the very dubious notion that the nuclear weapons that we retain in Europe have anything to do with the US commitment to come to Europe’s defense. I see this, really, as creating a potential self-fulfilling prophecy. We keep talking about the need to keep these weapons in Europe to demonstrate our commitment, when in fact our more general policy of extended deterrence, whether you like it or not, serves that same purpose, and I think the commitment by the US to Europe’s defense has really little, if anything, to do with the nuclear weapons that we deploy in some country’s territory.

So we tend to reinforce the arguments of those who favor retention, in capitals in Europe, rather than acknowledge that the foreign ministries in many of these capitals would like nothing better than to get rid of the weapons. So I think it’s a most unfortunate statement.

He also emphasized that the issue is not one-sided:

What is little noted, but what I think is tremendously important, is regression on the Russian side in that they (that is, the Russian government) will no longer acknowledge that they have any obligations under the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. These were the unilateral, voluntary, parallel declarations that were made by the United States and the Soviet Union in ’91, and reiterated by President Yeltsin in a slightly modified form in ’92, to greatly reduce the numbers of tactical nuclear weapons and to deploy the remaining numbers in central storage.

To the best of my knowledge, and I’ve had direct discussions with Russian officials on this point, they simply refuse to acknowledge that those Presidential Nuclear Initiatives are active, or remain in force. That is, I think, regression and needs to be highlighted.

Taking a step back and looking at the big picture, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before, from Russia’s backsliding and lack of transparency, to the US saying “you go first“, and proposing linking our withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe to reductions on the Russian side. As Daryl Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association said:

Linking NATO action on its residual tactical nuclear stockpile to Russian action on tactical nuclear weapons is a recipe for delay and inaction.

I would go as far as to say that although we’ve made some progress toward better relations with Russia when it comes to strategic nuclear weapons, we’ve hardly “hit the reset button” when it comes to tactical nuclear weapons.

In fact, given the statements coming out of the NATO meeting, I think we’ve hit the “pause” button.

There is a unique window of opportunity in the current political atmosphere, but it won’t stay open forever. Sadly, I think we’re looking back at the past instead of thinking about the future.

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