Though there is no single agreed upon definition of a tactical nuclear weapon, it is generally characterized by a lower yield and shorter range than a long-range (strategic) nuclear weapon. Tactical nuclear weapons are also sometimes referred to as battlefield nuclear weapons.
Estimated Numbers of Tactical Nuclear Weapons as of 2010
• U.S.: The U.S. has not made public the number of tactical nuclear weapons that it maintains. The U.S. is believed to deploy approximately 500 tactical nuclear warheads, including about 200 B61 gravity bombs deployed in five NATO states (Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Germany, and the Netherlands). The U.S. also maintains approximately 700-800 additional tactical warheads in storage.
• Russia: Estimates of the size of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal differ. According to one open source estimate, Russia retains approximately 5,390 tactical nuclear warheads, approximately 2,000 of which are deployed, while the rest are in inactive storage or retired. Russia is alleged to deploy some of these forces in areas adjacent to Europe such as Kaliningrad and the Kola Peninsula.
Negotiated Limits on Tactical Nuclear Weapons
During the Cold War, there were no treaties or international agreements that regulated tactical nuclear weapons. In the early 1990s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to a set of unilateral “Presidential Nuclear Initiatives” that significantly reduced their respective tactical nuclear arsenals. However, these agreements were not legally binding and devoid of any monitoring or verification provisions. There have been no further negotiated reductions or transparency measures for tactical nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War.
The Removal of American Tactical Nuclear Weapons from Europe would Enhance U.S. and European Security
• The original rationale for deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Europe was to deter a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. This threat disappeared when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s.
• U.S. military leaders increasingly suggest that the European deployment serves no military purpose.
• Given their small size and mobility, tactical nuclear weapons are particularly vulnerable to loss or theft by terrorists.
• A growing group of NATO members, including host nations such as Germany and Belgium, have called for the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
• The longer NATO puts off a collective decision about removing tactical nuclear weapons, the greater the odds that changes could be forced upon the alliance under circumstances not of its own choosing. For example, the five European nations that host U.S. B61s will soon have to make difficult political and budgetary decisions about whether and how to replace the aging aircraft that would deliver these weapons, a cost which some of these nations may be unwilling or unable to pay.
• The U.S. can maintain its commitment to the defense of NATO without the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
• Russia points to the presence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as a convenient excuse to refuse to talk about its enormous non-strategic arsenal.