The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START [in force since February 5] , deals only with U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear weapons. There's a question about whether Washington and Moscow will now focus their attention on short-range, or tactical, nuclear weapons.
The New START Treaty sets a limit of 1,550 deployed strategic, or long-range, nuclear weapons on each side. What the new treaty does not address is the issue of tactical, or short-range, nuclear weapons.
Joseph Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focusing on nuclear weapons policy.
“There is no difference in the explosive power of tactical versus strategic nuclear weapons. They are both hydrogen bombs. They are both weapons that are 10, 20, 50 times more powerful than the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The difference is the range," said Cirincione. "What’s the purpose of the weapons? So we consider strategic weapons bombs that are placed as warheads on long-range missiles or carried by bombers that can span the oceans. Tactical weapons are considered useful in battlefield fighting - so this would be short-range artillery, short-range aircraft, short-range missiles.”
Experts say neither the United States nor Russia has provided detailed information about their stockpiles of tactical nuclear weapons.
Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, a private research organization, described what is known about the U.S. arsenal.
“The United States has a number of tactical nuclear weapons stored in the United States - but it also has about 180 gravity bombs, nuclear gravity bombs, at five bases in European NATO allies: Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. And these weapons are, generally speaking, stored in bunkers. They are not deployed on the F-16 fighters or the Tornado fighter bomber jets that can deliver them,” Kimball.
Russia's tactical nuclear weapons supply
Analysts say Russia has between 2,000 and 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons - but not all available for operational use. Many are awaiting dismantlement and others are in deep storage bunkers.
David Holloway, Russia and arms control expert at Stanford University, gives one reason for Moscow’s vast superiority in tactical nuclear weapons.
“In the 1990s, when their conventional forces - the army, basically - fell apart, they made the argument that tactical nuclear weapons would compensate for the weakness in conventional forces, just in the way that NATO did during the Cold War. NATO took the position that tactical nuclear weapons would compensate for its inferiority in conventional forces,” said Holloway.
Kimball said another reason has to do with China.
“They [the Russians] see tactical nuclear weapons as a way to counterbalance China’s larger number of conventional forces on their eastern border. So the Russians have retained, since the Cold War, a relatively larger number of deployed tactical nuclear weapons than the United States,” he said.
Cold War mentality
Many analysts, including Joseph Cirincione, say the tactical nuclear weapons are a throwback to the Cold War.
“Absolutely. These weapons have no military utility. It’s inconceivable that NATO would face a military mission that would require the use of a nuclear bomb. Just think about it - the U.S. hasn’t used a nuclear weapon in 67 years and it has fought the Korean war, the Vietnam war, two Iraq wars, the Afghanistan war. It has faced threats from a wide variety of countries - never, never did it seriously consider using a nuclear weapon. And now, with the end of the Cold War, it’s hard to imagine a requirement for one nuclear weapon, let alone 10 nuclear weapons or 200 nuclear weapons.”
Many experts say the next round of arms control negotiations between Washington and Moscow might involve the issue of tactical nuclear weapons. Analysts say that is not expected to happen anytime soon, though, given the presidential election year in the United States.