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Tactical Nuclear Weapons, the Menace No One Is Talking About

5 years ago
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All hail the U.S. and Russian negotiators who begin work this week on a new strategic nuclear weapons reduction treaty, a worthy goal. But Presidents Obama and Medvedev, who agreed on the outlines of the treaty at their Moscow summit, seem to have overlooked thousands of nasty nuclear weapons bristling right under their noses in Europe: Russian and American tactical nukes.

About 4,500 of these war-fighting weapons, mostly bombs and short-range missile warheads, are stored in Europe and in western Russia. They are not a subject of the strategic nuclear arms talks announced in Moscow. In fact, they are not part of any arms control treaty or negotiation.

The security of the facilities where they are stored, including underground U.S. bunkers across Western Europe, has come under question. The Russians have at least eight times as many of these weapons as the United States has deployed in Europe, an imbalance that a panel of senior American experts recently called "stark and worrisome.''

In the shifting geopolitics of post-Cold War Europe, tactical nuclear weapons play an increasingly important role in Russian military doctrine, a brute reminder of Russian power against the growing influence of the West along its borders. For instance, the Russians are working to fit tactical nuclear warheads onto submarine-launched cruise missiles, a weapon that "will play a key role'' in Russian strategy, according to Vice Adm. Oleg Bursev of the Russian General Staff. "Their range and precision are gradually increasing,'' he said this spring.

On the U.S. side, the arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe serves as a powerful symbol of America's guarantee of protection to its European allies, including former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Small wonder, given the military and political clout of these armaments, that the summit agreement to reduce nuclear weapons never mentioned tactical nukes.

"I'm not surprised -- tactical nuclear weapons is a much tougher issue,'' said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the nonpartisan Federation of American Scientists.

Strategic nuclear weapons are the big, obvious ones, the warheads mounted inside the nose cones of intercontinental ballistic missiles blasted from underground silos or submarines. They also include the heavy thermonuclear bombs carried by long-range bombers. These strategic weapons, hundreds of times more powerful than the 1945 Hiroshima bomb, are too terrible ever to be used. They are not for war-fighting; they are for deterrence. The United States has missiles humming away in their silos, pointed at Russia (and elsewhere), so that the Russians wouldn't dare shoot. And Medvedev has his missiles pointed at us. This, say nuclear strategists, makes us safe.

Tactical nukes are a different matter. These are bombs carried on ordinary jets, like F-16s, and mounted on short-range ballistic missiles. This class of weapons might still include the nuclear land mines and nuclear artillery shells that were deployed by the tens of thousands in Europe during the Cold War. The United States and Russia both say they've gotten rid of these weapons, but intelligence services on each side harbor doubts.

The U.S. tactical weapons, mostly B-61 thermonuclear bombs, are stored in underground vaults in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Turkey, where they are under the control of U.S. Air Force munitions support squadrons. The arrangement is that in wartime, they'd be handed over to the host nation to use in its own aircraft as part of a NATO military operation. The Air Force, in a worldwide inspection of its nuclear facilities, looked at these bases in 2007 and found that "most sites require additional resources to meet DOD [Department of Defense] security requirements.''

Part of the problem, according to the Federation of American Scientists, which obtained the internal Air Force report, is that the base security provided by the host nations varies widely, with some bases being guarded by military conscripts with little training or experience.

Almost nothing is known publicly about Russia's tactical nuclear weapons storage sites. The exact numbers and types of tactical nuclear weapons also are secret. Kristensen puts the number of deployed Russian weapons at 2,050, with an additional 5,390 in deep storage. Deployed U.S. weapons are said to number "less than 500.''

"Russia enjoys a sizable numerical advantage,'' the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Defense Secretary William Perry, reported this spring. Russia "stores thousands of these weapons in apparent support of possible military operations west of the Urals,'' the report said. Whatever the number, strategists are coming to consider these weapons as an increasingly destabilizing factor in Europe.

Ultimately, of course, there is concern about miscalculation in an escalating confrontation over, say, Georgia. Many conflicts start unintentionally, and the tactical nuclear weapons are close at hand for saber-rattling purposes.

A more immediate problem looms, however. As Russia and the United States reduce their strategic nuclear weapons, the relative clout of tactical nukes rises. The existing imbalance in tactical nukes "will become more apparent" and U.S. allies will be "less assured,'' the commission said.

As Kristensen described it to me, the concern is that "as you cut down the deployed strategic forces, you end up with more tactical than strategic weapons deployed and that begins to create some problems. In the U.S., we don't have very many non-strategic [tactical] nuclear weapons compared to the Russians. If we agree to go down to very low levels of strategic weapons, that begins to matter to strategists.''

Especially to strategists concerned about maintaining a strong "nuclear umbrella'' over its friends and allies in Europe. Let's say, however improbable, that Moscow and Washington agree to throw tactical nuclear weapons into the arms reduction negotiations that Obama and Medvedev agreed to this week.

How likely is a deal? Not very, experts suggest.

For one thing, tactical nukes are small and easily hidden. And their "delivery vehicles'' -- arms-control jargon for the aircraft or missiles that carry them -- are also used for other purposes. Reliably counting these weapons and verifying reductions is devilishly difficult, the experts say.

Another reason is that the numbers are too important to each side to think seriously about reductions. Russia's conventional military forces are smaller and vastly inferior to those of the United States, and Russian analysts see their nuclear weapons as a critical counterbalance. Russia also needs its tactical nukes to deter problems along its long border with China.

On the U.S. side, a key goal is keeping Europeans reassured that Russia can't muscle them around. It's not that Washington would fire off its tactical nuclear weapons in a crisis, but that simply withdrawing the weapons would make some vulnerable European nations -- Lithuania comes to mind -- uneasy. And "uneasy'' is something to be avoided in a crisis.

The blue-ribbon commission, in laying out a proposed U.S. approach to the issue, succinctly demonstrated the problem: The United States should go after deep cuts in Russian tactical nukes, but go easy in cutting its own.

"All allies depending on the U.S. nuclear umbrella,'' it said in a statement that probably mirrors the Kremlin's own thinking, "should be assured that any changes in its forces do not imply a weakening of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantees.''

Tactical nukes, then, will stay.
Filed Under: National Security

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