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Next US-Russia Arms Talks Could Involve Short-Range Nuclear Weapons

Soldiers prepare to destroy a ballistic SS-19 missile in the yard of the largest former Soviet military rocket base in Vakulenchuk, Ukraine, December 24, 1997.
Soldiers prepare to destroy a ballistic SS-19 missile in the yard of the largest former Soviet military rocket base in Vakulenchuk, Ukraine, December 24, 1997.
President Barack Obama has made reducing nuclear weapons worldwide a priority of his administration.

The New START treaty limits to 1,550 deployed long-range nuclear warheads on 700 deployed strategic nuclear delivery systems such as long-range rockets and heavy bombers.

But the new agreement does not address the issue of short-range, tactical nuclear weapons.  Those are mounted on land or air-launched  missiles with a range of less than 500 kilometers - so-called “battlefield weapons” used alongside conventional forces.

Analysts say Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, not all operational.  Many are awaiting dismantlement and others are in deep storage bunkers.

Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, said the U.S. has a much smaller stockpile.

“In Europe, we still have an estimated 180 nuclear gravity bombs - the B-61 bomb that can be carried by fighter bombers like the F-16.  They are located in five NATO countries: Belgium, The Netherlands, Turkey, Germany and Italy,” he said.

NATO Discusses Future of Nuclear Arms

Analysts say there is a debate within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on what to do with those weapons.

Kimball said several countries, including Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany, say these tactical nuclear weapons serve no military purpose for the defense of NATO today and should be scrapped.

“These weapons are stored in bunkers. They would take days to prepare for delivery by fighter bombers. Their use will have to be authorized by all of NATO’s [28] members which is a difficult accomplishment on virtually any issue, let alone using nuclear weapons for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

But David Holloway, a nuclear weapons expert at Stanford University, said other NATO members have differing views.

“Other countries, especially the newer members in eastern/central Europe, want to keep the tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as an element of the commitment, as it were, or a sign, symbol of the commitment of the United States to the defense of the NATO countries, because they are more concerned about a potential threat from Russia, than the countries of western and southern Europe are,” he said.

Obama Calls for Reducing Nuclear Weapons

During a recent speech in Berlin, President Barack Obama said the United States and NATO will “seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.”

Holloway said that could be an arduous task.

“The issue of getting reductions in tactical nuclear weapons has traditionally been extremely difficult because Russia says, ‘We need tactical nuclear weapons because our conventional forces are very weak compared with either those of NATO, or with those of China. And therefore we need tactical nuclear weapons for our defense.’”

Russia Worries about China

Holloway said for Russian military officials, it is essential to have adequate defenses against China.

“Let’s say if the Chinese decided no matter how strange a threat it may seem at the moment, if they were to decide to attack or to invade the [Russian] Far East, what could Russia do with just conventional forces?  As one Russian retired general said to me, 'We talk about NATO, but we worry about China,” said Holloway.  

“So I don’t know even from a U.S. or NATO perspective how good it would be to have an agreement that says you can keep lots of these weapons over on the Chinese border, but you can’t have them in Europe.  That would not be well received, I imagine, by the Chinese.”

Experts say reducing American and Russian short range nuclear weapons is a much more complicated issue than lowering the number of long-range missiles by one-third - a proposal also made by President Obama in his Berlin speech.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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