Keith Payne, a member of the US Strategic Posture Review Commission, has decried as folly the ongoing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) follow-on negotiations between the United States and Russia. The Missouri State strategic studies professor and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces Policy under the George W Bush administration, has argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the agreement could possibly lead to the weakening of the US nuclear deterrent. One of the arguments that Payne employs to make his point is that START will not deal with Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW). *
Payne contends that if Russia’s disproportionately large stockpile of TNWs is not brought to the START bargaining table, then later on the United States may have lost negotiating leverage by unnecessarily reducing their strategic launchers and weapons and will be in a substantially weaker position. Unfortunately, due to Russia’s reluctance to discuss their TNW stockpile, linking these weapons to the START follow-on could risk tanking the whole treaty. The United States would be wise to pursue separate negotiations with Moscow on TNWs in conjunction with regional security talks for a number of reasons.
First, the Russians view their TNWs as fundamentally different from their strategic nuclear weapons, and as a vital mechanism for protecting their borders. NATO has clear superiority in conventional weaponry, and the Russian conventional military force does not match that of NATO or of China at this time. Russia feels it does not have sufficient conventional military power to protect its territory, and maintains a higher number of TNWs in order to compensate. The arsenal’s critical role in Russia’s regional security policy means that Moscow will not be willing to link their reduction to the START follow-on.
Secondly, the administration does not need to worry about losing leverage for future negotiations because the United States already has a potential bargaining chip that may be used to entice Russia: NATO’s TNWs thought to be deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey (c.150-240). Russia has consistently linked their TNW stockpile to NATO’s TNWs in Europe and to the imbalance of conventional forces, which also suggests that further discussions on conventional forces and addressing regional security concerns could persuade Russia to reduce its TNW arsenal.
Thirdly, and finally, because of the strategic nature of Russia’s TNWs, and the likelihood that any conventional battlefield use of a TNW could quickly escalate to a full nuclear war involving strategic intercontinental missiles, Russia is not necessarily more likely to use TNWs than strategic weapons. The main risk comes from the possibility of unauthorized use or theft during a crisis, which is higher for these less regulated, smaller nuclear weapons. It is crucial that this risk be addressed through transparency and verification mechanisms that can only be ensured by a thoughtful and careful treaty process. For this reason, it is crucial that the Obama administration pursue an arms control strategy that is the most likely to succeed and that will not endanger the START follow-on treaty.
The issue of Russian TNWs is deeply interlaced with regional strategic defense and conventional military capabilities. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however; after the START treaty is ratified it looks like the United States and Russia will be able to turn to the issue of TNW possibly at the same time that they begin a regional dialogue on the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. The first step may be in developing what Nikolai Sokov refers to as a “transparency package”, which will be able to pave the way for further negotiated reductions that will have critical verification procedures. In order to deal with the issue of Russia’s large stockpile of TNWs, we must first get an accounting of how many they actually have, and we must work towards transparency. The security interests of the United States, NATO and Russia will be better served by beginning dialogue on TNW separately from the ratification process of the START follow-on.
* Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW), which are also known as nonstrategic or substrategic nuclear weapons, can be loosely defined as short-range missiles designed to be used during in-theater conventional battle situations, or on the “forward edge of the battle area” (FEBA).