The little nukes that got away -- again

Two years ago, I wrote about the thousands of tactical or battlefield nuclear warheads left over from the Cold War.

Today, I can confidently report: they are still out there, uncounted and unseen. There has been almost no progress toward bringing these weapons into the open, or under an arms control treaty.  

Both the United States and Russia have made dramatic reductions since the visionary, unilateral initiatives of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the autumn of 1991, in which they pulled back voluntarily and without a treaty as the great confrontation of the Cold War ebbed. But the story didn't end there.

Today, the United States, which once had 7,300 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, retains about 200 B-61 gravity bombs in five NATO nations. (And there are about 300 non-deployed bombs in the United States, as well as 260 cruise missile warheads which are being phased out.) Russia now has some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons of various kinds assigned to delivery vehicles, with more awaiting dismantlement. The estimates of Russian stockpiles have been highly uncertain in the two decades since the Soviet collapse.

The fate of these weapons will be in the spotlight again at the NATO summit in Chicago May 20-21, which is expected to approve a new Deterrence and Defense Posture Review. Don't look for a dramatic shift from the status-quo; the allies want to hold onto the nuclear weapons, for now, as a political symbol of the American nuclear umbrella, and perhaps as a chip to be traded in future negotiations. And Russia, too, sees these warheads as a useful bulwark against NATO's edge in conventional or non-nuclear forces (a complete turnabout from the Cold War when it was the West that saw nuclear battlefield weapons as a way to stop a Soviet conventional invasion.)

Tactical nuclear weapons have no significant military utility in these times. A target could be just as easily put in the crosshairs of a highly-precise strategic weapon.

If NATO policy is stuck, then at least the summit should consider a very good suggestion from Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who has just completed a comprehensive look at tactical nuclear weapons, a report [pdf] chock-a-block with data and valuable insights. Kristensen, who is co-author with Robert S. Norris of the authoritative "Nuclear Notebook" column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, suggests we create some transparency as a first step to break the tactical nuclear weapons impasse.

"Russia, the United States and NATO do not disclose how many non-strategic nuclear weapons they have or where they are deployed" he writes. "As a result, uncertainty and rumors fuel a debate full of half-truths, exaggerations and worst-case assumptions."

Kristensen points out that keeping the details of tactical nuclear weapons secret is in contrast to the approach taken with operational, long-range strategic weapons, which are accounted for in the New Start treaty data. Also, in 2010, the Obama administration disclosed the size and history of the total nuclear weapons stockpile. Why not do the same with the tactical warheads? In 2011, a group of NATO nations proposed just that: exchanging data between the United States, NATO and Russia on numbers, locations, operational status, command arrangements and warhead storage security. But so far it has not been done.

Kristensen concludes:

"The stalemate in non-strategic nuclear weapons cries out for political leadership and bold initiatives. It is important that Russia and the United States take steps to drastically increase transparency. This can be done on a unilateral basis and should include overall numbers, locations, and delivery systems. It should also include verification measures to confirm data that is provided. Increasing transparency is essential because uncertainty creates mistrust, rumors, and worst-case planning.

"Most of what is assumed about Russian non-strategic nuclear capabilities still comes from literature published during the Cold War and in the first years after the demise of the Soviet Union. Since then, the U.S. intelligence community has largely stopped publishing estimates about Russian nuclear capabilities, and Russia has not offered any insight.
To that end, it is important that possible agreements on increased transparency of non-strategic nuclear weapons not be confined to confidential exchanges of information between governments but also benefit the international community."


Operation Upshot-Knothole, May 25, 1953, via Wikimedia Commons