In a recent op-ed attacking the New START negotiations, The Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen argues, among other things, that the U.S. should not reduce its nuclear arsenal unless Russia agrees to reduce it’s enormous stockpile of nonstrategic (i.e. tactical) nuclear weapons. Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris estimate that Russia deploys approximately 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, while another 3,300 are kept in reserve or are awaiting dismantlement. The U.S. deploys approximately 500 tactical nuclear weapons, 200 of which are believed to be deployed in Europe.
The emphasis Cohen puts on tactical weapons is unfounded for several reasons…
1. The Bush administration did not include tactical nuclear weapons in its 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) with Russia.
2. The bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States did not make the first round of arms reduction talks with Russia contingent upon reductions in Russia’s substantial arsenal of tactical weapons.
3. Tactical nukes are an important issue deserving of attention (and concern), as they are particularly vulnerable to attack or theft by terrorists. However, there is not enough time to address them during this round of arms reduction talks. Doing so would only complicate the negotiations. There is no reason to deal with tactical nuclear weapons now, unless, of course, your goal is to significantly delay the completion of the START follow-on agreement.
4. Holding off on dealing with tactical nuclear weapons at this time will not endanger U.S. security. Russian strategic weapons clearly pose the greater danger to the United States. Moreover, a closer look at the arsenals of tactical weapons possessed by the U.S. and Russia reveals that the huge Russian advantage cited by Cohen may not be that much of an advantage at all.
5. Tactical nukes are certainly a substantial hurdle to achieving Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. However, the issue should be addressed in the next round of arms reductions talks. Completion and ratification of the START follow-on agreement in a timely fashion will ensure that the U.S. and Russian can begin negotiations on deeper arms reductions, which should include verifiable reductions in tactical nuclear weapons. Significant progress on disarmament is difficult to achieve, but approaching the matter in a phased manner can achieve meaningful results.
For more on Russian tactical nuclear weapons, see here.