Next Steps in Nuclear Disarmament: The Challenge of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

William C. Potter
December 2, 1996

Nuclear weapons of a non-strategic variety have not figured prominently in the arms control and disarmament agenda since the Bush and Gorbachev initiatives in the fall of 1991. This paper argues that they deserve increased attention, and that unless creative steps are undertaken, one may soon witness new deployments of and increased reliance upon tactical nuclear weapons.

Nature of the Problem

Tactical nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction. Their danger, however, stems not only from their destructiveness, but from the risk of their early and/or unauthorized use and vulnerability to theft. These characteristics are a function of the weapons’ relatively small size, widespread dispersal, and the absence among older generations of these weapons of effective electronic locks or Permissive Action Links (PALs) to prevent their unauthorized use. The risks also derive from the forward basing of the weapons and the tendency to predelegate launch authority to field commanders in times of crisis in anticipation of the disruption of communication between central political and military authorities and the field.

Significant progress was made in reducing these risks as a consequence of the parallel unilateral declarations on nuclear reductions made by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in the fall of 1991. These initiatives had the effect of eliminating the entire U.S. world-wide inventory of ground-launched theater nuclear weapons (i.e., nuclear artillery shells and short-range ballistic missile warheads); the removal of all nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles from U.S. surface ships and submarines, as well as nuclear bombs abroad aircraft carriers; the dismantling and destruction of many of these U.S. warheads, and the securing of the remainder in central storage areas. The Soviet Union, for its part, pledged (and subsequently Russia reaffirmed its commitment) to eliminate all nuclear warheads on land-based tactical missiles, as well as nuclear artillery munitions and mines; to withdraw nuclear warheads for air defense systems and to store them at central bases; to remove all tactical weapons from Soviet surface ships, submarines, and land-based naval aviation; and to secure those tactical nuclear weapons that were not eliminated at central storage sites in Russia. These unilateral steps to eliminate or secure categories of sub-strategic nuclear weapons coincided with Moscow’s efforts to redeploy all tactical nuclear weapons from the Soviet arsenal on Russian territory.[1] This redeployment was accomplished by the spring of 1992.

Unfortunately, the security of tactical nuclear weapons in Russia today is compromised by the lack of adequate storage facilities to handle the influx of warheads and by the continuing turmoil, economic hardship, political uncertainty, and general malaise within the armed forces. Tactical nuclear warheads are particularly vulnerable to theft by disgruntled past or present Russian Special Operations (Spetsnaz) soldiers, who are trained to use atomic demolition weapons and may have special knowledge of and even access to nuclear weapon storage depots. Tactical nuclear weapons for aircraft pose special risks since they are not kept at central storage sites.

The problem of tactical nuclear weapons in Russia is magnified by Russia’s growing reliance on nuclear arms as its conventional forces deteriorate. This dependency is reflected in Russia’s abandonment in 1993 of its no-first use policy, and in the open discussion among prominent Russian military and defense industry figures of the need to develop a new generation of nuclear munitions for tactical and battlefield use. Some advocates of tactical nuclear weapons go so far as to contemplate Russian abrogation of the 1987 INF Treaty.[2] The dangers in this shift of emphasis are compounded because of Moscow’s reliance on a “launch-on-warning” nuclear strategy and by the deterioration of Russia’s early warning system.[3]

This very destabilizing trend in Russian policy will almost certainly be reinforced and accelerated should the United States depart from the 1972 ABM Treaty and seek to achieve a national missile defense capability. Even more certain to exacerbate Russia’s dependence on nuclear weapons and to prompt a reversal in the 1991 initiatives is NATO expansion. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a Western initiative better conceived to assure the redeployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, as well as on ships at sea and on tactical aircraft. Under such circumstances, Europe could experience a new arms race involving those nuclear weapons most susceptible to unauthorized use, theft, and accident. Prospects also would diminish for timely ratification by the Russian Duma of START II, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Is There a Way Out?

One must be careful not to assume that there are any easy solutions to the problems manifest in Russia’s growing reliance on nuclear weapons and NATO’s struggle to adjust to a post-Cold War environment. It is impossible, moreover, in this short paper to examine thoroughly the obstacles in the way of implementing the disarmament steps proposed below, or to elaborate means to overcome those difficulties. Rather, the following proposals should be thought of as an agenda that may merit further study.

1. A Central and East European Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

If, as appears increasingly likely, NATO enlargement will proceed, it is important to anticipate and mitigate its potential negative consequences. One approach that until recently has received little serious consideration is the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in Central and Eastern Europe.[4]

Such a zone was proposed by Belarus at the United Nations General Assembly in 1990 and reiterated at last year’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Review and Extension Conference. The zone most likely would include the Visegrad nations (Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, and Hungary) and the Baltic states, as well as Belarus, Ukraine, and possibly Moldova. It also might encompass the Balkans and non-NATO Scandinavia.

Creation of the zone would not alleviate Russian concerns about the eastward deployment of NATO’s smart conventional weapons. It could, however, be an important new confidence-building measure and a boost for stability in the region. It also might be part of a larger package of measures to assure Moscow that NATO enlargement is not directed against Russia.[5]

Although neither Russia nor the NATO states were supportive of Belarus’ NWFZ proposal, Moscow recently has promoted Minsk’s initiative as its own, raising it at the April 1996 Nuclear Safety Summit.[6] Undoubtedly, it has come to see the virtue of delinking NATO expansion, which may be inevitable, from the deployment of nuclear weapons on the territories of prospective new NATO members. In this instance, however, what appeals to Moscow may also make sense to the West, since it is difficult to conceive of circumstances in which it would be politically feasible and militarily practical for NATO to deploy nuclear weapons eastward.

It is doubtful, moreover, if Poland or the other Central European states really want to see nuclear weapons deployed on their territory. Rather, they are inclined to say whatever it is they think NATO statesmen would like to hear about their readiness to accept NATO deployments. Although their reaction to the 1995 Belarus proposal was dismissive — seeing it as a distraction from their priority aim of getting into NATO as soon as possible — they have been more circumspect in responding to recent Russian and Ukrainian initiatives, objecting primarily to the timing but not the substance of the idea. In fact, the countries of Central Europe probably recognize that the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone might enhance their long-term security, especially if the alternative to a zone is Russia’s forward deployment of nuclear weapons and the targeting of their territory. In this regard, it is important to note that in the case of all other zones of this kind, the nuclear-weapon states have formally pledged or are expected to pledge that they will not use nor threaten to use nuclear weapons against any zonal state.

In addition, one may note that membership in such zones is compatible with membership in a defensive alliance. Australia, for instance, is both a member of the ANZUS pact and the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone.

The argument sometimes is raised that one should resist any arrangements with new NATO states that would set unfortunate precedents or create the appearance of different classes of membership. In fact, the precedent already exists for non-nuclear NATO states. There is a longstanding Norwegian policy, for example, communicated to Moscow, that no nuclear weapons will be deployed in peacetime in Norway. In the context of the treaty that secured reunification of Germany, it also was agreed that no nuclear weapons should be deployed on the territory of the former East Germany. Preclusion of nuclear weapons deployments in new NATO states in Central Europe by means of a nuclear-weapon-free zone, therefore, would simply be an extension of these prior unilateral arrangements.

2. Formalization of the 1991 Unilateral Declarations

Consistent with the establishment of a NWFZ in Central and Eastern Europe, and an important disarmament measure in its own right, would be the transformation of the parallel 1991 unilateral declarations by the United States and the Soviet Union on the withdrawal of sub-strategic nuclear weapons into a legally-binding treaty. This action is important because in their current form the declarations contain no verification provisions. Although they appear to have been implemented, they can be reversed at anytime — a policy that has been advocated by some Russian officials as an appropriate response to NATO expansion.

In February 1996 the Swedish Foreign Minister, Lena Hjelm-Wallen, noted that the reduction of sub-strategic nuclear weapons were even more important to the security of small states such as Sweden than were strategic arms reductions. As a consequence, she urged that the 1991 unilateral declaration become codified into international law in order to guard against “fluctuating international or domestic developments.”[7] Aside from Norway, however, the Swedish initiative has generated little interest or support. Although the lack of Russian enthusiasm for the proposal at this time is understandable, it is more difficult to explain the silence on the part of the United States and other Western states. To be sure, it will be difficult to formally engage Russia in any negotiation until the issue of NATO enlargement is resolved. It is appropriate, however, to begin the serious study of what a verification regime might look like for a treaty incorporating the elements of the 1991 declarations.

3. Elimination of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe[8]

Proposals that constrain the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe may be a useful means to reduce the negative consequences of NATO enlargement. The total elimination of tactical nuclear arms in Europe, however, also has a separate but parallel logic that relates both to the diminished military relevance of tactical weapons for Western use and to the risks posed by Russian doctrinal changes, problems with weapons stewardship, and command and control.[9]

As the Canberra Commission properly notes, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact has removed whatever security rationale there was for the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. NATO now enjoys a significant conventional force advantage over Russia, and the continued deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe unnecessarily reinforces the domestic political standing of those in Russia who maintain that the Cold War lingers on — a message that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, rather than marginalizing the importance of the U.S. nuclear guarantee, actually would strengthen deterrence by removing a provocative category of weapons from the region and raising the firebreak between conventional and nuclear arms. Although some of NATO’s West European members are apt to be skittish about any change in the alliance’s nuclear posture, a thorough review of this strategy is long overdue.

The political dynamics in Russia today make the need for ending deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons more urgent, but also more complicated. Sadly, one of the unanticipated consequences of the growth of pluralism and democracy in Russia is the difficult task of marshaling and maintaining support for disarmament measures. This dilemma is apparent not only in parliamentary opposition to START II and the CWC, but to substantial support among a wide range of national security officials and analysts for a Russian defense policy that relies heavily upon nuclear arms, including tactical weapons. In the eyes of many of these advocates, and in language reminiscent of that heard in the West decades ago, tactical nuclear weapons are a relatively inexpensive equalizer to counter a disadvantageous military situation in the West and potential threats from the South.[10]

Given these Russian concerns, the impetus for movement toward further elimination of tactical nuclear weapons probably will have to come from the United States. An important first step should be a declaration by the United States that it will unilaterally return to U.S. terrritory all of its air-based tactical nuclear weapons currently deployed in Europe. This pronouncement, which would lead to the elimination of all U.S. substrategic nuclear arms in Europe, could go a long way toward dispelling Russian fears about NATO and would help to revive the spirit of the parallel 1991 initiative.

As a second, related step, efforts should be made to codify the 1991 unilateral declarations and to negotiate the exchange of data, plans for elimination of weapons covered by the treaty, and other aspects of a formal verification regime. The achievement of 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 tactical nuclear weapons. Russia, for its part should be interested in a legally binding agreement principally because of the greater predictability it would afford, especially with regard to limitations on sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) and the preclusion of rapid U.S. redelpoyments of substrategic nuclear weapons to Europe. These concerns were among the factors behind a bold proposal restricting substrategic nuclear forces that was prepared in the late summer of 1991 by the Russian Foreign Ministry and endorsed by the General Staff, but was preempted by President Bush’s September 1991 unilateral declaration.

The third step, which might well be undertaken simultaneously with the data exchange related to the 1991 declarations, should entail the exchange of data on all other tactical nuclear weapons in Europe (defined to include all of Turkey and Russia west of the Urals). Ideally, this data exchange should be extended to cover substrategic nuclear systems globally.

Finally, with respect to the process of eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, steps should be taken to consolidate and corral all warheads covered by the data exchange at declared storage sites. The warheads would then be removed for dismantling at jointly monitored facilities. Although verification of the elimination process would be extremely complex, it is not insurmountable and would be facilitated by the procedures already in place for the START, INF, and CFE treaties. The verification task also would be simplified if the elimination regime were applied on a global basis.


It is naïve to assume that it will be easy to overcome the current stalemate in nuclear arms reduction negotiations. Domestic political obstacles and the resurgence of “old thinking” in key states pose a major challenge for those who take seriously Article VI of the NPT. Although efforts should continue to be directed toward reducing the arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons, it is increasingly urgent to reinvigorate the process of eliminating tactical nuclear weapons. The failure to do so may result in a reversal of prior arms control and disarmament accomplishments and the onset of a new and destabilizing arms race.


  1. Soviet tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed on the territory of 14 of the 15 Soviet republics.
  2. See, for example, Viktor Mikhailov, “NATO’s Expansion and Russia’s Security,” Vek (September 20, 1996). On this point see Nikolai Sokov, “Reduction and Elimination of Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Unpublished manuscript, November 6, 1996.
  3. For an excellent discussion of this problem see Bruce Blair, “The Effects of U.S. Policy on Russian Nuclear Control,” Paper presented to the Aspen Strategy Group, Aspen, Colorado (August 10-15, 1996).
  4. The most detailed examination of this approach appears in a number of papers by Jan Prawitz. See, for example, “A Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea,” Unpublished paper (August 1996). See also William C. Potter and David Fischer, “Nuclear Free: Better than NATO,” Los Angeles Times (September 30, 1996).
  5. These measures could include a charter between Russia and NATO that formalized and institutionalized a set of multilateral consultative arrangements.
  6. Ukraine also has endorsed the concept. See, for example, the statement of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko, Interfax-Ukraine (April 29, 1996).
  7. Cited by Prawitz, p. 11.
  8. This section draws upon the ideas proposed by Sokov, “Reduction and Elimination of Tactical Nuclear Weapons.”
  9. This logic is the subject of a masters thesis being completed by two U.S. Air Force officers at the Naval Postgraduate School. See Stephen P. Lambert and David A. Miller, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe (Forthcoming 1996).
  10. See, for example, Vladimir Belous, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons under New Geopolitical Conditions,” in V. Larinov, Yu. Lebedev, G. Mikhailov, eds., Protsess ogranicheniia i sokrascheniia vooruzhenii v rossiisko-amerikanskikh otnosheniiakh (The Process of Arms Limitation and Reduction in Russian-American Relations) (Moscow: Federation of Peace and Accord, 1996); Andrei Kokoshin, “On Certain Military-Political Aspects of Conducting a Reform of the Armed Forces of Russia,” Segodnia (August 7, 1996); and Anton Surikov, “START II Contradictions Remain,” Yaderny Kontrol, No. 18-19, 1996.
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