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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 21, December 1997

Tactical Nuclear Weapons
by Nikolai Sokov

The Advantages and Pitfalls of Non-Negotiated Arms Reductions: The Case of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Introduction: The Temptation of Unilateralism

Since 1993, the process of arms reductions has again become slow and tortuous, like it was in the 1970s and early 1980s. This should come as a surprise: after all, there is no Soviet Union - and thus no second superpower - and no ideological, nor even serious geopolitical confrontation in the world. But START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) II has not been ratified yet, and even if it is, START III talks promise significant difficulties: the issue of Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty demarcation remains virtually deadlocked (the agreements signed in New York last September only - yet again - postponed the crucial issue of high velocity systems instead of solving it); CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) ratification remains in serious doubt; the CFE-2 (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty talks are stalled again after a short-lived impetus given by the talks on the Russia-NATO Founding Act last spring.

In the meantime, arms modernization is again overtaking disarmament. The United States is conducting subcritical tests of nuclear warheads, is developing a laser weapon with potential ABM capabilities, and has resumed production of the B-2 strategic bomber. Russia is modernizing delivery vehicles in all three legs of its strategic triad; the most recent development is modernization of heavy bombers, which as recently as 1996 seemed doomed to extinction.

A closer look would reveal, however, important differences between today and the 1970s. Unlike then, governments appear to be capable of rather productive cooperation. It is the domestic political scene that offers the greatest hurdles, especially the parliaments. The traditional model of arms control - negotiations, signing of a formal treaty, and then ratification - faces mounting challenges from domestic opposition, which, in practically all relevant countries, is increasingly bent on unilateralism in security policy. Influential groups or even majorities of legislatures prefer to avoid binding limitations and instead keep freedom of maneuver to pursue whatever measures seem fit in the current and projected situation. This is true for modernization programs and even for alliance policies: the enlargement of NATO is but one example of such an approach.

The seeming inadequacy of traditional arms control has prompted a "response in kind" from proponents of disarmament: a greater emphasis on unilateral or parallel arms reductions. According to this increasingly popular alternative model, governments can informally agree on certain measures and implement them unilaterally. Disarmament could proceed even without prior consultations: one side could take the initiative and the other would follow suit.

Theoretically, this should be an effective mechanism. Legislatures and domestic opposition are simply bypassed, and over time the de facto reduction of weapons becomes institutionalized. Disarmament is likely to receive support from the public, while domestic costs would be relatively low. The international norm, which favors disarmament, will also help to prevent a reversal.

The showcase of unilateral disarmament is the parallel unilateral statements of George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in September-October 1991. These provided for deep reductions of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) without any prior consultations or formal treaty. This apparent success warrants close attention. The following analysis will demonstrate that the record is not straightforward and that the informal regime is not sufficiently stable. That unilateral measures are not sufficient, that they can represent only the first step and have to be replaced by a formal treaty is the key lesson from the TNW reductions.


In the aftermath of the August 1991 attempted coup in Moscow, the Bush Administration, like many others in the West and in the Soviet Union, became concerned about the possibility that control over nuclear weapons might slip from central authorities into the hands of the increasingly assertive republics. Tactical weapons were perceived as the greatest risk - TNW are usually considered to be less resistant to unauthorized use - and they were assumed to be more widely dispersed than strategic ones: the latter were deployed in only four republics out of 15, while it was possible that tactical weapons could be deployed in all 15 republics. (In reality, TNW were only deployed in the territories of the four republics where strategic weapons were stationed - Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine - but the Soviet Union never disclosed this information.)

Understanding that negotiating a formal treaty would demand too much time, and mindful of the high costs of delay, the US Administration chose the method of a unilateral statement - a disarmament challenge, which the Soviet Union was expected to match. The calculation was correct: only a week later the Soviet Union responded with a statement of its own, repeating the TNW-related measures of the US initiative and even going slightly farther. The pressure of the example and the Soviet leadership's own concerns about control over nuclear weapons played a significant role. In addition, the Soviet military finally achieved its long-standing goal of deep reductions of US TNW in Europe. In fact, the Soviet Union was about to propose formal talks on this subject, but the United States "stole" the initiative and offered a different approach. After the breakup of the country, the governments of the new independent States confirmed Gorbachev's obligations and subsequently tactical nuclear warheads were withdrawn from all former republics to Russia.

The 1991 measures created a new arms control regime. All substrategic nuclear warheads except the air-based ones were withdrawn to storage or slated for elimination; the number of the air-based warheads was significantly reduced, but a portion of them remained operational.

The choice of unilateral statements over negotiations was apparently the correct one, at least from the US perspective: the Soviet Union was quickly disintegrating and speed was essential.

The regime has been in existence for the last six years, which attests to its stability and success. Admittedly, it could serve as a model for progress in other areas. A careful analysis would reveal important deficiencies, however.

Two important problems undermine its effectiveness. One is the absence of data exchange and verification. Another is reversibility of the unilateral statements.

Transparency and Verification

Transparency occupies an important place in the theory of international regimes; some even suggest that transparency is one of the key reasons why regimes come into existence. The 1991 statements represent a rare case of a complete divorce between the regime and the principle of transparency.

Unlike START I (which was signed only two months before the dramatic breakthrough on TNW), which includes elaborate provisions on data exchange and verification, the unilateral statements contained nothing in this regard. The numbers of TNW each side had in 1991 remained unknown; they were not even disclosed at confidential briefings the sides held in the aftermath of the parallel statements. The US side apparently did not know that TNW had been already removed from the majority of republics. The share of warheads slated for elimination and those moved to storage remained unknown as well. The process of elimination of warheads is still completely closed.

In the fall of 1996 the then Secretary of Defense William Perry called upon Russia to complete the elimination of tactical warheads that had been subject to elimination under the 1991 obligations. The Russian Foreign Ministry officially declared that the process of elimination was continuing as planned, was expected to be completed by the end of the century, and that there was no ground for concern. Still, the very fact that such a statement was made meant that the United States had doubts whether elimination had slowed down or stopped altogether. Even if the suspicions were unfounded, their mere existence is a reason to be concerned, at least because they create distrust and provide domestic opposition on the other side (the US in this case) with arguments against disarmament.

It is not even clear how many warheads remain deployed with troops today (tactical nuclear warheads for aircraft are "deployed" in the sense that they are located in the vicinity or at airbases and are readily available for use, not in the sense that they are deployed directly on the aircraft). Unofficial sources suggest that the United States has about 1,000 warheads, about 500 of them in Europe. Russia has - also according to unofficial information - about 3,000 warheads; the share of those deployed in Europe is unknown.

Voluntary disclosure of information is highly improbable under the current strained state of relations between Russia and the West. But even if this would happen, there is no way to verify the accuracy of information: there are no verification procedures, and those could be developed only as a result of lengthy negotiations and would require a special formal agreement.

The absence of provisions on data exchange and verification in the 1991 regime is not accidental: this is one of the reasons why unilateral obligations were preferred to a formal treaty. The disclosure of information and granting access to sensitive facilities to inspectors usually gives rise to strong opposition. In the case of the TNW regime the situation is exacerbated by the fact that it covers warheads rather than delivery vehicles, so a whole new set of procedures has to be designed and they are likely to cover more sensitive information than ever before. In this sense, the choice for unilateral measures was correct because it helped to avoid what would have been very lengthy and difficult negotiations. But today we see the other side of the coin.

The first lesson of the 1991 regime, therefore, is that any future reductions conducted outside the treaty framework need to include data exchange and verification provisions. Some, arguably rudimentary ones, could be established by the same unilateral statements, but more intrusive and reliable procedures would require negotiations, whether the result is codified in a treaty or not.


Compared to the lack of information, of even greater significance is the fact that the 1991 regime is reversible. Of course, almost all treaties are theoretically reversible because they usually contain an escape clause. The difference, of course, is that termination of a treaty involves a complicated legal procedure and a "waiting period" until the decision to terminate a treaty goes into effect (e.g., six months for START I). In contrast, unilateral obligations could be reversed by a decision of the government or a legislature and termination does not involve advance warning.

The enlargement of NATO gave Russia a strong motive to revise the 1991 statement. The possibilities discussed in late 1996-early 1997 included redeployment of nuclear warheads on land-based missiles and returning warheads to ships and submarines. Russia is completing the development of a new land-based tactical missile to replace the SS-23 Oka, which was eliminated under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; the new missile is designated by NATO as SS-X-26. Moving warheads to ships and submarines would be technically even easier. In addition, Russia was considering a possibility of forward deployment of TNW in Belarus. Some even proposed the development of new nuclear warheads - smaller in size and with lower yields than the ones Russia possessed prior to 1991.

These proposals were abandoned as the NATO-Russian dialogue, which led to the signing of the Founding Act, intensified, but they are not completely forgotten. The security situation remains uncertain, as far as Russia is concerned. The CFE-2 treaty has not been secured yet and will hardly address all Russian concerns, especially those related to deployment of troops in the territories of new members.

The possibility of deployment of NATO nuclear weapons to the East cannot be ruled out either. NATO has adopted a statement about the absence of intention to do so, but in Russia this is seen as a weak, almost a non-existent guarantee: it is not even a unilateral obligation and could be reversed even more easily than the 1991 TNW regime. It is also known - and Russia is certain to pay close attention to this - that the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, insists that in the process of enlargement NATO does not adopt any limitations on movement of either troops or nuclear weapons.

In 1996-97 the chance of survival of the 1991 regime was probably no better than fifty-fifty. The odds will be significantly different if more members are admitted into NATO and especially if the Baltic States are invited in the next few years. This will increase the perceived threat and the 1991 regime might break down. The likely response will be the return of nuclear warheads to land-based missiles: this idea is extremely popular in the Duma, the powerful lower house of the Russian parliament. It goes without saying that a new round of the nuclear arms race, this time in the substrategic category, is likely to follow.

Maintenance of the Regime

Even barring a reversal, regimes established through unilateral measures are vulnerable to other unilateral decisions, such as modernization and replacement of weapons, or, as in the case of NATO enlargement, to actions in only indirectly related issue-areas. Modernization might be a soft spot for the 1991 TNW regime.

The uncertainty of the situation in Europe might play a crucial role when Russia will have to decide whether it wants to replace the tactical nuclear warheads it currently has. According to unofficial information, the service life of all warheads for tactical delivery vehicles will expire around the year 2003. If Russia wants to keep this class of weapons in its arsenal, it will have to manufacture new warheads. The time of decision is probably around the year 2000: for some of the warheads warranty will be already expiring and anyway it takes time to restart production.

When making the decision, Russia will certainly consider the following facts. First, the limitations on US tactical nuclear weapons are unilateral, nonbinding, and unverifiable; nothing will prevent the United States from reconstituting the TNW arsenal in the future. Second, NATO has a large superiority in conventional weapons: three-to-one, according to some calculations. Third, the United States has TNW in Europe and recently a new mission for them has been quietly, but consistently, promulgated: deterrence of "rogue" States with suspected WMD potential (Libya is mentioned most often); this means that TNW will remain in Europe for the foreseeable future. Fourth, nothing prevents the movement of American TNW eastward. This is particularly important because from the territories of new members, substrategic delivery vehicles can reach 70-80 percent of the facilities that belong to Russian strategic forces, thus affecting the "central" balance. Finally, the year 2000 is the year of the presidential election campaign, and security issues are likely to play an important role in deciding who emerges as the next president of Russia.

The most likely decision under these circumstances is to replace the existing warheads, although Russia will most probably stay within the parameters of the 1991 regime. But the very fact that production of nuclear warheads would resume might lead to a negative reaction in Washington and trigger admittance of the Baltic States into NATO; the likely consequences of this have been described above. The reaction of the West would be even stronger if Russia decides to manufacture a new type of warheads instead of replicating the existing ones (and, by implication, this might revive the pressure in favor of nuclear tests).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Of course, these negative scenarios are far from certain. It is still possible to build a positive relationship between NATO and Russia; economic integration will certainly play a large part in averting confrontation and arms race.

It is also important to strengthen the informal 1991 regime and move further, toward complete elimination of tactical nuclear weapons, first in Europe and then worldwide. Indeed, a formal treaty will be a crucial condition to avoid the replacement of tactical nuclear warheads in Russia. This can be achieved only if NATO TNW are eliminated as well. At worst, the formal treaty will prevent an overreaction of the United States to warhead production in Russia; the number of warheads will simply remain the same as now, awaiting a new agreement on their elimination.

The treaty will have to include data exchange and verification provisions. This is not an easy task, but by no means insurmountable. Back in 1991, when the Soviet Union was preparing for negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons, a set of realistic proposals was developed. They could be resurrected.

Of course, Russia will be very reluctant to embrace a treaty to eliminate TNW. They are viewed today as an important component of its security system. The West will need to take the initiative and demonstrate that it is ready to embrace far-reaching radical and fair reductions. The domestic political costs will be considerable on both sides. But the payoff is certainly worth it.

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the opportunity was missed in 1991-92. Back then, Russia was more favorably disposed toward radical reduction of nuclear weapons. The domestic political costs in the United States were not excessive: the public supported such measures, Congress was more strongly interested in it, the military probably could "buy" the agreement as well. The choice, however, was made in favor of an almost "cost-free" solution.

The lesson is clear. Arms reductions through unilateral steps or parallel obligations are possible and are an important tool in achieving disarmament. But they should be the first step rather than the whole story. They have to be transformed into binding verifiable agreements as soon as possible, while the political momentum lasts. Otherwise, they will always remain hostage to changed international and domestic circumstances and be susceptible to unraveling. Most important, they do not constitute a sufficient security guarantee when weapons modernization or replacement is considered by governments and legislatures; decisions are likely to be based on the expectation of the regime's demise.

The 1991 regime does, of course, provide a positive lesson. But it also warns about the pitfalls of unilateralism.

Nikolai Sokov is a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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