“The president [Barak Obama] made it clear the day he signed the [START] treaty on April 8, 2010, that we would be ready to turn next to further reductions in strategic and non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons, as well as deployed and non-deployed nuclear weapons,” Ms. Gottemoeller said. “Those two categories – non-strategic nuclear weapons and non-deployed nuclear weapons – are categories we’ve never tried to wrestle with in arms reduction negotiations…”
Non-deployed nuclear weapons are a delicate matter, though more or less clear: the idea is to regulate and categorize the existing storage sites. This means determining which stored warheads (or their components) can still be regarded as a non-deployed munition capable of breakout potential. Though there is room for interpretation, the methodology is generally clear.
By contrast, tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) are likely to become an intractable problem in bilateral relations. Why does this class of weapons (nuclear warheads of cruise and tactical ballistic missiles, nuclear torpedoes, nuclear depth bombs and mines, “specially designed” artillery shells and other short-range nuclear weapons) pose so many difficulties?
Key element of containment
Until recently Moscow rejected out of hand any U.S. signals to negotiate an agreement on binding bilateral TNW reductions. Given the mounting disagreements over America’s missile defense system in Europe, Russia is unlikely to relax its stance with regard to TNW.
But why does Moscow refuse to budge on its tactical nuclear arsenal? Oddly, the answer lies in the Russian Federation’s Military Doctrine from 1999, which authorizes Russia to use nuclear weapons first “in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional arms, if the aggression threatens the very existence of the state.”
The Russian military and expert community makes no bones about this policy. Given the overall superiority of China and the NATO countries in conventional warfare, TNW are the key element of military-political containment.
Simply put, there is no need to stop enemy tanks: none will enter Russia as long as it is able to decimate the forces of potential aggressors using nuclear-tipped Iskander or cruise missiles. A bit coarse, but very practical.
Even if you put aside Russia’s nuclear doctrine and geopolitical considerations, that is not the end of the problems – in fact, it is just the beginning. Registering and monitoring TNW is much more difficult than for strategic and offensive arms.
First, TNW are mostly non-deployed. Strategic nuclear missiles are kept on permanent alert status, whereas nuclear torpedoes, cruise missiles, bombs and warheads for tactical ballistic missiles remain at storage sites until a threat emerges.
Verifying and registering missile silos (or mobile launchers, or missile submarines) is much simpler than regulating storage sites. Should there be a limit to TNW storage sites in accordance with some definitive list? Should a ban be imposed on moving TNW to other bases, including non-specialized facilities (and you cannot do otherwise with tactical weapons)? What is to be done about planned transfers of TNW to units for exercises?
Second, practically all TNW elements are dual-purpose. With some minor exceptions, all these munitions can be use as both conventional and nuclear weapons. The carriers (aircraft, submarines, artillery guns, and missile launchers) can be both conventional and nuclear-capable.
How can you verify TNW non-deployment if there is no coherent method for distinguishing between a nuclear and a conventional bomber? Not to mention the speed with which one type can be converted to another (all you need is the “special munition” itself and a skilled crew).
So, in principle, a TNW could turn up anywhere. You are likely to find a nuclear torpedo at an ordinary naval base’s maintenance area. A nuclear cruise missile may find its way to any air base where carrier aircraft are deployed. Nuclear shells or warheads for Iskanders or Tochkas can be found anywhere the land forces want them.
Nuclear Augean stables
If the negotiation partners want to create a workable verification regime for TNW, they will have to allow unannounced inspections of every slightly important military facility, as well as ships and submarines. Clearly, neither Washington nor Moscow will go along with that.
If they reach the stage of formulating rules for TNW registration, they will face the difficult task of confirming baseline numbers. The problem is that no one other than authorized organizations in Russia and the United States knows even approximately how many TNW units there are in either country. This information is classified, and estimates made by independent experts have an enormous margin of error. As a result, there are numerous gaps and ambiguities.
For example, the Americans have a term, “readied for disposition,” that applies to several thousand nuclear weapons in storage. What does this actually mean? Is there any hint of a breakout potential or are they just storing mothballed weapons that are ready for future use? These and other questions will have to be answered by participants in hypothetical negotiations on TNW reductions.
There are numerous other problems of this kind, including how to register elements of dismantled nuclear weapons. For example, many thousand plutonium rods and thermonuclear-pumped components of dismantled tactical nuclear weapons are stored at Oak Ridge, in the United States. Russia has a similar storage facility called Mayak.
Russia’s TNW arsenal makes the U.S. Congress very nervous. After the signing of the New START treaty, senators warned President Obama that Russia’s tactical arsenal was the key to further progress on strategic arms reductions.
As for Russia, it flatly refused to discuss its tactical arsenal, let alone to link START talks to TNW, even at the height of its “reset” honeymoon with America.
For the sake of politeness, experts formulated possible tradeoffs, like information exchanges on the real number of tactical munitions or defensive nuclear arms reductions (special anti-air missile warheads). However, the European missile defense system overshadowed any progress, and it became clear that even preliminary consultations on TNW were a long way off. Both world powers were taking paths that led them away from talks.
The U.S. administration is very meticulous in its approach to tactical arsenals. First, they understand that merely raising the need to verify and register TNW may open Pandora’s box. Second, they heed the position of Congress, which generally reflects the existing state of affairs: strategic arsenals have been reduced to a point where TNW start playing an important role and emerge as a powerful bargaining chip.
But Russia has not budged an inch on TNW even during the warmest period of the timid trans-Atlantic love affair across the Atlantic. Moscow sees TNW as non-negotiable.
It’s unlikely that Russia’s stance has changed. Perhaps this is why Ms. Gottemoeller opted for caution. Washington more or less knows how Russia will respond to a proposal to discuss TNW reductions....