Friday, November 12, 2010

Nuclear Issues: Controlling Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Tactical nuclear weapons represent the final frontier of nuclear arms control. Controlling US and Russian supplies would reduce the potential for nuclear terrorism, decrease the perceived threat to US allies and maintain momentum toward Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

By Micah Zenko for ISN Insights

Of the panoply of cavils leveled by Republican opponents to the New START Treaty, the most credible criticism centers on its omission of tactical, or "non-strategic" nuclear weapons. However, US President Barack Obama's administration was right to bypass tactical nuclear weapons in the interest of reconstituting the transparency and predictability of monitoring Russia's strategic nuclear capabilities under the treaty's verification regime.

The criticism warrants further attention, however, and the Republicans are correct in arguing that limiting and controlling these threatening weapons, which Washington and Moscow have not formally addressed since the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, should be a priority for the next round of talks. Controlling US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons would reduce the potential for nuclear terrorism, decrease the perceived threat to US allies and maintain momentum toward Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

What are tactical nuclear weapons? There is no official definition, and although the lines between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons are often blurred, the distinction is usually based on their associated delivery vehicles. When compared to the strategic nuclear weapons covered in the new START Treaty, tactical nuclear weapons are generally smaller, have lower yields and are intended for shorter range or even for battlefield use.

Tactical nuclear weapons are maintained either in an operationally deployed or inactive reserve status. Unlike strategic nuclear weapons that can be launched on very short notice, tactical weapons are not routinely loaded on US or Russian missiles, bombers, jets or submarines. In both countries, however, there are clear distinctions between military bases that are dedicated to maintaining operational tactical nuclear weapons and permanent storage sites that hold inactive reserves. The US and Russia each have a clear understanding of the differences between these sites. Operational bases contain tactical nuclear weapons that are equipped for deployment on short notice, as well as their air or naval delivery systems; permanent or nonoperational storage sites contain warheads rendered unusable due to the removal of limited-life components, such as tritium gas, and do not house delivery vehicles.

US and Russian reserves

The US reportedly has 400 operationally deployed tactical nuclear weapons and an equal number in inactive reserve. The primary use of US tactical nuclear weapons is to reinforce the nuclear umbrella that covers at least 31 allied countries - North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, Japan, South Korea, Australia and possibly Taiwan - as well as other unnamed "partner" countries.

NATO benefits from nuclear deterrence through a long-standing arrangement whereby US tactical nuclear warheads are forward-deployed in Europe under American military custody (reportedly in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey) but are on-hand for delivery by either European or US dual-capable aircraft. As a practical matter, the weapons are a political symbol of America's commitment to Europe; as one Pentagon official told me: "There are no war plans in NATO for using them."

There is uncertainty about the size of Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal, but it is estimated to contain 2,000 operationally deployed tactical nuclear weapons - some of which may be dedicated to a missile defense system for Moscow - with another 3,400 in inactive reserve. Most of Russia's operational tactical weapons are deployed at nuclear-certified bases along the borders of NATO countries.

The primary use of Russia's tactical arsenal, as spelled out in its (unclassified) military doctrine, is to respond to an attack involving nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against Russia or its allies or "in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat." This latter option is primarily intended to deter NATO's vastly superior conventional offensive military. According to the latest reports on "treaty-limiting equipment" in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, NATO maintains at least a two-to-one advantage over Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Nuclear terrorism

The tactical nuclear weapons maintained by the US and especially by Russia represent a heightened security risk in light of their vulnerability to loss or theft. As early as the late 1970s, the CIA estimated that the well-known NATO warhead depots in western Europe constituted "the most vulnerable and therefore most likely targets for future terrorist activity." In 2008, a US Air Force report - which is challenged by some Pentagon officials - warned after site inspections to NATO warhead depots that "a consistently noted theme throughout the visits was that most sites require significant additional resources to meet Department of Defense security requirements." In January 2010, peace activists spent 90 minutes walking around the Kleine Brogel Airbase in Belgium, where 10 to 20 nuclear bombs are believed to be stored. Despite such incidents, Pentagon officials contend that the security features of the underground weapons' vaults where tactical nuclear weapons are stored make their unauthorized removal or use virtually impossible.

Less is known about the security of Russia's tactical arsenal. Since 1992, the US Cooperative Threat Reduction program has provided over $12 billion to better account for, and secure, Russia's shrinking WMD stockpile. This includes funding enhanced security upgrades for permanent nuclear storage sites where Russia's nonoperational tactical nuclear weapons are maintained. However, US policy prohibits the funding of security upgrades at front-line nuclear-capable bases housing Russia's operational tactical arsenal.

Given ongoing security concerns, bringing America's tactical nuclear weapons home from Europe, and consolidating Russia's weapons at permanent storage sites that have received enhanced security upgrades should reduce their vulnerability to theft. Even though the current risk is small, the consequences of nuclear terrorism, which President Obama described as "the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term, and long-term," are of such a magnitude that such precautions are the only responsible approach.

An agreement to control tactical nuclear weapons

The broad outlines of a US-Russian agreement on tactical nuclear weapons are apparent: reciprocal data exchange on the size, location and related delivery system of the relevant weapons; verification procedures to enforce the provisions of the treaty; and an accepted categorization for the class of weapons systems to be included and their operational status. Given earlier failed attempts at bilateral talks on tactical nuclear weapons, it will be difficult - though necessary - for both Washington and Moscow to make progress on these three issues.

First, each country should reveal its tactical nuclear weapons inventory, location and operational status, either publicly or through a private data exchange mechanism, to produce a comprehensive database. To assuage Russia's concerns about the security of its declared tactical arsenal, there are well-established cryptographic technologies that would permit Washington and Moscow to exchange detailed stockpile data while controlling access to its contents.

The second component of any agreement is to verify the data exchanged and confirm that the provisions of the treaty have been implemented on an agreed timeline. While verifying limits on Russia's operational tactical nuclear arsenal would be challenging, US officials believe that if the Kremlin reverses its earlier opposition, there are sufficient verification procedures and techniques in place to ensure Russian compliance with any treaty provisions, including radiation detection, remote measurement and tamper-indicating tags.

Although there is no universally accepted categorization for tactical nuclear weapons, US and Russian militaries have each published definitions so sufficiently similar that they could be used as the basis for a bilateral treaty. The more important categorization issue is what should constitute an "operationally deployed" tactical nuclear weapon. The goal would be to agree to a list of bases where any tactical nuclear weapons would be considered operational and permanent storage sites where they would be monitored as inactive reserves. To make tactical nuclear weapons limitations permanent, both sides should also verifiably dismantle non-operational warheads at assembly/disassembly facilities. The process of dismantling thousands of warheads will take decades; the current projected dismantlement queue in the US currently stretches to 2022.

The path to zero

Even after the New START Treaty goes into effect, the US and Russia will retain over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons represent the final frontier of nuclear arms control - a critical category of weapons that have been largely ignored in past treaties. While useful in deemphasizing the utility of the bomb in US and Russian foreign policy, warhead ceilings that do not include non-strategic nuclear weapons omit a crucial piece of the global nuclear puzzle. Limiting US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons within a bilateral agreement would help to lay the foundation for achieving Obama's vision of a world truly free of nuclear weapons.

Micah Zenko is a Fellow at the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World and Toward Deeper Reductions in U.S and Russian Nuclear Weapons, a recent CFR Special Report.