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Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Nature of the Problem1
By William Potter and Nikolai Sokov
This lack of attention to TNWs is unfortunate and dangerous given their large number, the risks of early and/or unauthorized use, and their vulnerability to theft. The regime itself is increasingly precarious since it is not legally binding, does not provide for data exchanges, and lacks a verification mechanism. As such, it is poorly equipped to withstand increasing challenges, such as the deterioration in US-Russian political relations; the growing scepticism in both countries about the role of arms control treaties in providing for their national security; the revival of interest in TNWs in both Russia and, to a lesser extent, in the United States; growing pressure in Russia to re- manufacture and/or modernize its TNW force as the existing stocks near the end of their service life; and finally, the renewed interest in TNWs in South Asia following the nuclear detonations by India and Pakistan in 1998.
Although the US-Russian 1991-92 unilateral statements have resulted in significant reductions in TNWs, the future viability of the regime is at risk. This chapter examines:
Properties of Tactical Nuclear Weapons
The dangers associated with TNWs relate to both their physical properties and the policies for their deployment and employment. The small size of the weapons and the absence among older generations of electronic locks or Permissive Action Links (PALs) contribute to their vulnerability to theft and unauthorized use. The modes of their basing and prescribed use also pose major problems in terms of their physical and political control. These risks derive from several factors:
Thus, the very existence of TNWs in national arsenals increases the risk of proliferation and reduces the nuclear threshold, making the nuclear balance less stable. If the two leading nuclear powers appear to consider TNWs essential and "usable," others may well emulate this example.
Deterioration of US-Russian Relations
The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations is evident in many forums, including the arms control arena. This erosion impacts upon the issue of TNWs in several ways. First, it has slowed progress toward conclusion of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) III. This stalemate in strategic arms control, which was only broken in April 2000 with the Dumas ratification of START II, directly relates to TNWs since both sides have avoided separate negotiations on this issue. According to the joint statement adopted by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in March 1997, TNWs were to be discussed in the context of START III, although this objective no longer appears to be certain.
The cooling of US-Russian relations, especially following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military campaign in former Yugoslavia, has also reduced the already limited transparency with respect to TNWs. Although the 1991 parallel declarations did not provide for data exchange regarding implementation of the initiatives, information had been exchanged at meetings of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC). The breakdown of that mechanism following the actions in former Yugoslavia have precluded data exchanges at that venue, at least temporarily.
The Demise of Negotiating Arms Control Accords
There are disturbing signals from both Washington and Moscow that many policymakers have begun to question the efficacy of arms control treaties in combatting the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and in providing for US and Russian national security. This tendency is apparent in the defeat last year in the US Senate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the extended delay by Russia in ratifying START II, and the sentiment among many in the US Congress that the United States must proceed with a system of National Missile Defense (NMD) with or without Russian consent to modification of the Anti- Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Should that NMD scenario unfold, there is a very good prospect that Russia will respond by withdrawing not only from START I and START II, but also possibly from the 1991-92 parallel, unilateral declarations.
This threat is not new. Since the fall of 1996, a number of Russian officials have warned that NATO enlargement and, later, military action in Kosovo might necessitate the scrapping of the 1991 declarations and the redeployment of TNWs in Belarus, the Kaliningrad oblast, and on naval ships in the Baltic Sea. A decision by the United States to abrogate the ABM Treaty, however, would probably precipitate another kind of NMD, what George Bunn has called: "No More Disarmament." Such a policy would be in keeping with the more general questioning by current Russian policy makers of the efficacy of the arms control legacy of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s and its relevance to Russian security interests in the new millennium. This rethinking may be hinted at in the 2000 National Security Concept that not only emphasizes the importance of nuclear weapons, but also suggests that Russia should "adapt the existing arms control and disarmament agreements to the new conditions in international relations...."2
Recent Developments in Military Doctrines
A number of factors contribute to the renewed interest in TNWs in Russia and the United States. In the more optimistic scenario, in which deep reductions of strategic weapons are accomplished for example, a START III environment in which strategic weapons are reduced to the level of 1,500-2,000 the share of TNWs in the nuclear arsenals of the two countries will increase substantially. This will likely increase their share of assigned nuclear missions.
In Russia, regardless of progress on the START front, TNWs also acquired greater significance because of the deterioration of Russias conventional forces and its growing reliance on nuclear arms as a "poor mans" counter to the "revolution in military affairs" and the technological breakthrough by the United States in costly, advanced conventional arms. Indeed, while chemical weapons are often said to be a "poor mans nuclear weapon," for Russia, nuclear weapons are a poor mans substitute for advanced conventional arms. Regrettably, but understandably, in Russia nuclear weapons in general and TNWs in particular enjoy a renaissance.
This trend was observable as early as 1996 when some Russian officials began to threaten withdrawal from the 1991 TNW regime in response to NATOs planned enlargement. Although those initial threats represented primarily an emotional response, the debate over NATO enlargement stimulated interest in Russia in TNWs as a counterweight to NATO conventional forces, an interest that has not diminished.
In 1999 Russia launched a fundamental reassessment of its military doctrine, a process stimulated to a large extent by the war in former Yugoslavia. Tactical nuclear weapons figure prominently in the ongoing debate. Current Russian thinking on TNWs is informed, to a large degree, by American concepts developed during the Cold War, which have been adapted to the specific circumstances Russia faces and is likely to face in future conflicts. For NATO, TNWs were an instrument of deterring a large-scale attack; for Russia TNWs are supposed to help "de-escalate" a limited conflict, compensating not only for numbers, but also and probably chiefly for the superior quality of NATO/American conventional weapons. The broadened scope of missions for nuclear weapons in Russia is referred to under the name of "expanded deterrence". This innovation is reflected in the increased integration of nuclear weapons into war planning, and was evident in the "West-99" military exercises last summer.
One can also observe a shift in Russian diplomacy, which now interprets the Tashkent Treaty on Collective Security to allow for Russian deployment of nuclear weapons in Central Asia under certain conditions. This policy shift, evident after April 1999, is apparent in quiet but effective Russian diplomacy to weaken the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone Treaty that is currently under negotiation.
For its part, the United States continues to maintain a small stock of TNWs in Europe. These weapons, of dubious military value, are regarded in Washington as still useful for the political purpose of signalling a US commitment to its European allies. TNWs are also promoted by some in Washington as a useful deterrent against possible chemical and biological threats from "rogue" states.
It is interesting and important to note that revival of interest in tactical nuclear weapons in Russia and, to a lesser extent, in the United States is not correlated with the dynamic of changes in their quantity. TNW arsenals are dwindling in at least in four out of the five original nuclear weapons states. The danger to the 1991-92 regime stems from qualitative developments, including doctrinal changes, deployment of TNWs in the manner inconsistent with the regime, as well as new types and modifications of TNWs. It also relates to the weakness of the regime, which is a function of the manner in which it was created.
The 1991-92 U.S.-Soviet Initiatives: Strengths and Weaknesses
On 17 September 1991, George Bush announced that the United States would eliminate its entire worldwide inventory of ground-launched TNWs, and would remove all nuclear weapons from surface ships and attack submarines. This initiative, following the failed coup attempt on 19-21 August, was prompted by the mounting concern about the security of nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union. It was designed to prompt a reciprocal response, which would facilitate the process of TNW consolidation and reduction.
One reason for the choice of a unilateral statement instead of a negotiated treaty was indicated in the statement itself: events demanded "swifter, bolder action" than long-drawn negotiations could afford. It also was easier to enlist the support of the US armed forces for a non-binding initiative than for one that required a verification regime, especially one which, by virtue of the weapons at issue, would have to be more intrusive than any prior accord.
Mikhail Gorbachev responded promptly and positively to the Bush initiative on 5 October, largely reciprocating in kind, with relatively few minor modifications. The Soviet government saw it as an opportunity to achieve its long-standing objective of reducing US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Consolidation was much less of a concern because by that time tactical nuclear weapons had been withdrawn from all Soviet republics except those where strategic weapons were also deployed (i.e., Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus ). The Soviet military had initiated this withdrawal in early 1990, and none too soon: in at least one case, in Azerbaijan, there was an attempt by the local Popular Front to prevent their withdrawal.
Having recognized Western concerns in the aftermath of the aborted August coup, relevant agencies of the Soviet government began preparations for formal negotiations on TNW disarmament, and by the time of the Bush initiative the work was in full swing. Although the disarmament method chosen by the Americans was accepted, there was also hope among some government players in Moscow that formal talks would commence as well, and their failure to do so provoked some dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, in early 1992, President Yeltsin affirmed, with minor additions, Russias adherence to implementation of Gorbachevs declaration.
These parallel declarations provide for removal to central storage facilities or elimination of all tactical nuclear warheads except for a limited number of gravity bombs which remain deployed (i.e., usable on short notice). Also included were systems whose precise classification was contested long-range nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs). Reductions (both central storage and elimination) measured in thousands of warheads and represent the single largest reduction of nuclear warheads, surpassing all other agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. The target date for implementation is the year 2000, and the reductions may well be completed on time.
The lack of a formal treaty, however, resulted in the absence of any kind of hard data on the existing stockpiles as well as the number of warheads to be put in central storage, eliminated, or deployed. The initiatives only contained the share of warheads subject to elimination, and inevitably produced two unwelcome consequences which haunt the US-Russian and international arms control agenda today: uncertainty with respect to their implementation and considerable disparity of numbers.
Periodically, both countries have updated each other and other countries on the status of reductions. This process became more formal in 1997 when the NATO-Russia PJC emerged as a venue for exchanges of information with respect to TNW reductions. Still, even in that forum, the sides only discussed the share of warheads eliminated or transferred to central storage, but not absolute numbers. In 1999, in the wake of the NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia, contacts in the PJC were severely limited and information exchanges on TNWs stopped. One can only hope that they will resume now that there is an understanding that the PJC will resume its work.
Approaches to Strengthening the 1991-2 Regime: Lessons from Theory
A fundamental property of international security regimes is the provision of predictability which mitigates the impact of anarchy in inter-state relations and weakens the propensity to plan policy proceeding from worst-case scenarios. Not only are states interested in obtaining accurate information about other states, but they also seek to provide similar information about themselves to dispel the fears of others.
International security regimes, including arms control agreements, facilitate this process. By entering into agreements, States send a clear signal about their preferences and intentions. They also constrain future policy choices because withdrawal from the agreement can have legal, political, material, and other costs. Limits on the numbers, types, deployment patterns, and modernization of weapons help to reduce the risk that the other side can gain unilateral advantage. Verification procedures enhance the acquisition of reliable evidence that the other side is not acting contrary to the accord or preparing to withdraw secretly from the agreement.
Regimes vary widely in their scope and legal nature and, consequently, the predictability they provide. Although the value of the existing TNW regime is undeniable, it is deficient on many counts. An analysis of these deficiencies suggests a number of options for improving the regime.
The existing TNW regime:
This assessment of the informal TNW regime provides a useful lesson about the inherent limitations of unilateral and/or parallel actions as a method of disarmament. In the last several years, this method has become popular among proponents of disarmament, probably in response to the stalled START II ratification in Russia and disillusionment with the overall progress of US-Russian nuclear arms reductions. Enthusiasm about unilateral actions, however, is as much a sign of desperation as optimism. In fact, opponents of disarmament also promote unilateralism and claim that treaties are not really necessary. One can imagine how the ongoing debate about the ABM Treaty would look if the Treaty were instead an informal regime consisting of unilateral statements by Brezhnev and Nixon.
To be sure, unilateral parallel measures may facilitate disarmament by circumventing lengthy formal negotiations and even more difficult ratification processes. They allow countries to implement quickly measures that they are ready to undertake anyway and only need a sign from the other side that their initiative will be reciprocated. At the same time, they overlook the most basic properties of international regimes, which guarantee stability and insure against withdrawal.
Unilateral measures only make sense if they are complemented subsequently by formal negotiations, which lead to legally binding agreements replete with verification provisions. In this respect, 1991 and 1992 represent not only the years of achievement on TNW disarmament, but also a period of a missed opportunity: a unique time when the United States was already and Russia was still in favour of TNW reductions. In short, unilateral measures are most effective as a precursor to formal treaties, not as their substitute.
A Preliminary List of Steps Toward the Control and/or Elimination of TNWs
If the bad news is that the informal US-Russian TNW regime is at risk, the good news is that the long- neglected issue finally has begun to receive more attention. This development was most apparent at the May 1999 NPT Preparatory Commission (PrepCom) meeting where a surprisingly large and diverse group of states spoke out about the compelling need to address immediately TNW disarmament. Among the more forceful proponents of this view were Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Iran, and Nigeria. Although Russia objected to language proposed by the chairman of the PrepCom in his Working Paper of May 20 to "reaffirm the need for the nuclear-weapon states to reduce further their reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons and to pursue negotiations on their elimination as an integral part of their overall nuclear disarmament activities," the chair of the Russian delegation did take positive note in his opening statement in the general debate of Russias full and consistent implementation of the declared TNW initiatives made by President Gorbachev and reaffirmed by President Yeltsin.
There are no easy, practical solutions to the problems of TNW arms control and disarmament. A preliminary and partial list of measures that may merit serious consideration, however, is presented below. No attempt is made to address the political, economic, bureaucratic, and verification merits and liabilities of these approaches. Following this list, a set of priority measures aimed at strengthening the 1991-92 regime is provided.
There is no official, public data on the number or location of deployed or non-deployed warheads for TNWs. There is a similar data deficiency with respect to the number of eliminated nuclear charges. A potentially important next step in controlling and/or reducing further TNWs is for the nuclear-weapon states to exchange data on the number of their current TNW stocks by category (i.e., deployed, reserve/long-term storage, slated for elimination). It also would be useful to exchange data on the pace of TNWs reductions since 1991 and the distribution of remaining TNWs by region.
Freeze on Deployments
Another possible option is the negotiation of a freeze on both the number and location of TNW deployments. Such a freeze could apply initially to the area covered by the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty from the Atlantic to the Urals. A freeze that contained a provision for reciprocal on-site inspections could provide the basis for the reduction in and eventually the elimination of TNWs in the region covered by the freeze.
Formalization of the 1991 Unilateral Declarations
Although the 1991 unilateral declarations appear to have been implemented, they can be reversed at any time. It therefore may be desirable to codify the existing declarations into a legally binding treaty, ideally with verification provisions. Such an approach has been advocated by Swedish and Norwegian officials since 1996, but with little additional international support to date. At the initial stage, formalization of the informal 1991-92 TNW regime only would require conversion of the existing texts of the relevant unilateral statements into legally binding language. Data exchange on TNW could also be included. At a later stage, the more difficult task of negotiating verification measures and deeper reductions could be undertaken.
A variant of this proposal, which might be more attractive to Moscow, would be to revise partially the coverage of the 1991 regime in a codified, legally binding version. More specifically, Russia probably would prefer the option to deploy a limited number of land-based or sea-based TNWs at the expense of air- based TNWs.
Additional Unilateral Initiatives
The argument can be made that the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact has removed whatever security rationale there was for the deployment of TNWs in Europe. The political justification for retaining TNWs in Europe also may be outdated. If so, it may be desirable for the United States to declare its intention unilaterally to return to US territory all of its air-based TNWs currently deployed in Europe. This pronouncement, which would lead to the elimination of all US TNWs in Europe, could go a long way towards dispelling Russian fears about NATO and could help to revive the spirit of the parallel 1991 initiatives.
Formal and Informal Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZs)
There is a long history of proposals to create a NWFZ in Central and Eastern Europe. Although the logic of a NWFZ in the region may continue to make sense, the political prospects for such a formal arrangement appear to be slim in the foreseeable future. The gradual emergence of a de facto NWFZ in much of Europe, however, could develop if new NATO parties emulated the Norwegian or Spanish precedents regarding non- deployment. Also potentially significant as a TNW disarmament measure is the creation of a NWFZ in Central Asias development that has gained considerable momentum since February 1997 and has produced a draft treaty that is nearly complete.
Treatment of TNWs as a Separate Issue
The nuclear-weapons states have shown little inclination to jumpstart TNW negotiations, and the START process remains the designated negotiating forum for TNWs. Given the delayed beginning of START III and the complexities associated with its negotiation, it may be desirable to initiate separate negotiations on TNWs.
Utilization of the NPT Review Process
Very little attention was given at the 1997 PrepCom to the issue of TNW. A number of States Parties, however, did address the topic in the 1998 session and considerable interest in the issue was apparent at the 1999 session. A carefully conceived initiative by influential States Parties at the 2000 NPT Review Conference regarding selected TNW disarmament approaches such as the adoption of transparency measures could build significant international support for timely TNW disarmament action. It may also be opportune for States Parties to consider inclusion of language calling for progress on TNW disarmament as a specific objective for a revised set of "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non- Proliferation and Disarmament" or for a forward-looking document of another name.3
Multilateral Agreements on TNWs
An important long-term objective, which will be difficult to achieve, is an international and universally applicable treaty on TNWs, which would ban nuclear weapons of certain agreed categories. A potentially controversial aspect of a multilateral agreement on TNW is the definition of the systems covered by the treaty, since delivery systems defined as TNWs in the bilateral US-Russian context may be viewed as strategic by other states. As a consequence, it may be necessary to adopt a different definition for a multilateral TNW accord.
As noted earlier, there are both general dangers associated with the properties of TNW and specific challenges to the 1991-92 parallel, unilateral declarations. This informal regime, one of the most significant arms control and disarmament accomplishments of the 1990s, is particularly vulnerable to the impact of both new Russian thinking about nuclear weapons and possible US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. A high priority should be given to reinforcing the regime and erecting a "firewall" to prevent its erosion and collapse.
Among the most important steps that should be taken are (1) the reaffirmation by the United States and Russia in a joint statement of their continued commitment to the 1991 parallel, unilateral statements, or (2) preferably the signing of an executive agreement to that effect. Ideally, action of this sort should be taken at an early Clinton-Putin summit meeting, before Russia commits to new TNW production or deployments. It could, but would not necessarily need to be, part of a larger deal involving the issues of ABM Treaty modification and START III.
It also would be highly desirable, although much more difficult politically, to codify the existing declarations into a legally binding treaty, preferably with data exchange and verification provisions. Concerted efforts should be made to reach an early agreement on the initiation of negotiations on TNWs reductions. Although these negotiations could conceivably be held within the START III framework, this forum is already burdened by other issues and it probably would be desirable to address TNWs in a separate, dedicated negotiation.
The two presidents could start by converting the existing texts of the relevant unilateral statements into a legally binding executive agreement and exchange at least basic data. They could also agree to begin negotiations on verification measures and/or deeper reductions. Although verification of a TNW regime would be extremely complex, it should not be insurmountable and would be facilitated by the procedures already in place for the START, INF, and CFE treaties.
The goal of securing effective verification provisions should be especially attractive to the United States, which to date has had little success in promoting transparency with respect to Russian TNWs. Russia, for its part, is likely to be wary of increased transparency, but under certain circumstances might be receptive to a legally binding accord because of the greater predictability it would afford. Of special interest to Moscow in this regard are the limitations on sea-launched cruise missiles and the preclusion of rapid US redeployments of TNWs in Europe. These concerns were reportedly among the factors behind a bold proposal restricting sub-strategic nuclear forces that was prepared in the later summer of 1991 by the Russian Foreign Ministry and endorsed by the General Staff, but was pre-empted by President Bushs September 1991 unilateral declaration.
One can identify logical reasons why Russia should be interested in codifying the 1991 initiatives. Nevertheless, Russian concerns about a US/NATO advantage in conventional (and especially advanced conventional) forces, as well as fears in Moscow about further NATO enlargement and preparations by the United States for possible deployment of a National Missile Defense system, means that the impetus for strengthening the informal TNW regime will have to come from the United States. This initiative should be supported strongly by European allies of the United States who have the most to gain by reinforcing the existing regime and who should welcome, rather than fear, the consequences of greater transparency with respect to TNWs.
One should not underestimate the difficulty of implementing any of the aforementioned proposals. Recent international developments, however, clearly demonstrate that the overall situation with respect to TNWs is serious and requires urgent and concerted action. We cannot wait for START III. We also should not assume that a future START III Treaty will, in fact, cover TNWs simply because the March 1997 Helsinki Joint Statement allowed for the exploration, in the context of that treaty, of measures related to TNWs. Finally, even if one is successful in moving forward on TNW disarmament in the bilateral US-Russian context, this progress is only the first, albeit a critical step on a longer road toward global elimination of this class of nuclear weapons.
Given the renewed interest in TNWs in Russia, and to a lesser extent in the United States, other States will have to take an active role in devising and promoting TNW arms control and disarmament. To do so will require considerable political courage, creativity and perseverance. To keep silent and to ignore the issue, however, is to accept the probability of the unravelling of one of the most successful disarmament accomplishments and the emergence of a new tactical nuclear arms race.
 Report initially prepared for a discussion session on tactical nuclear weapons organised by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Geneva, 21-22 March 2000. The authors thank UNIDIR as well as countries and foundations which have contributed funds to this timely project. Nikolai Sokov expresses special gratitude to the Ploughshares Fund that supported his research on the topic.
 National Security Concept of the Russian Federation. Approved by the Decree of the President of RF No. 1300 of 17 December 1997, version of the Decree of the President of RF No. 24 of 10 January 2000.
In May 2000, a month after the UNIDIR workshop, the 2000 NPT Review Conference included a plank on TNWs in its final document. The Nuclear Disarmament Plan of Action stipulates that nuclear-weapon States would take steps, "in a way that promotes international stability and based on the principle of undiminished security for all," toward "the further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons, based on unilateral initiatives and as an integral part of the nuclear arms reduction and disarmament process." This reference is the first time an NPT Review Conference has agreed upon language regarding TNW disarmament.
Dr. Potter is director of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Dr. Sokov, a former Russian arms control negotiator, is a senior associate at the Center.(Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors.)
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