New START and Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Overview

New START does not impose limits on non-strategic warheads. No previous arms control agreement has limited these weapons. While experts agree that tactical weapons present difficult challenges, there was not sufficient time to reach an agreement on nonstrategic forces during this round of negotiations. The best way to address tactical nuclear weapons is to ratify the New START agreement as soon as possible, and then to begin negotiations with Russia on nonstrategic forces, which the Obama administration intends to do. In response to questioning from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger stated that ratification of New START is a necessary “precursor” to deal with the threat posed by Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal. Likewise, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis has argued that Lithuania (an Eastern Europe member of NATO that borders Russia) views New START “as a prologue, as an entrance to start talks about sub-strategical weaponry.” Leaving tactical weapons off the table at this time would not endanger U.S. security because Russia’s large non-strategic nuclear stockpile does not increase the threat posed by its existing strategic weapons.

The Resolution of Ratification approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 16, 2010 includes a declaration “calling upon the President to begin discussions with Russia as soon as possible on tactical nuclear weapons. It will be ever more difficult, if not impossible, to make additional progress on measures to limit or reduce strategic offensive arms if tactical nuclear weapons are not also addressed. An early priority in such efforts should be enhancing the transparency each side is willing to offer to the other regarding the size, location, deployment status, and security of these forces.”

Additional Issues

Has Russia fulfilled its commitments under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) of the early 1990s regarding non-strategic nuclear weapons?

The PNIs were a collection of voluntary commitments made by the U.S. and Russia in the early 1990s to eliminate certain types of tactical, or “battlefield,” nuclear weapons. However, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives were not legally binding agreements and neither Russia nor the United States release information about their non-strategic nuclear forces. For its part, in 2005 Russia maintained that it has cut its tactical nuclear arsenal “by four times” since 1991 and plans to “further reduce the level of these weapons.” Failure to approve New START would make it next to impossible to achieve a subsequent agreement with Russia regulating tactical nuclear weapons.