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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Future of US, Russian Short-Range Nuclear Weapons Could Be on Negotiating Table

April 04, 2012

André de Nesnera | Washington

The United States and Russia still have tactical - or short-range - nuclear weapons, most of them located in Europe. These weapons could be the focus of U.S.-Russian talks.

President Barack Obama has made reducing nuclear weapons worldwide a priority foreign policy issue. Experts say the New START treaty reducing U.S. and Russian long-range, or strategic nuclear weapons, was a major step in that direction.

"Battlefield Weapons"

But the new agreement does not address the issue of short-range, or tactical nuclear weapons. Those are mounted on land and air-based missiles with a range of less than 500 kilometers - so called "battlefield weapons" used alongside conventional forces.

Neither the U.S. nor Russia has provided detailed information about their stockpiles of tactical nuclear weapons.

Analysts say Russia has between 2,000 and 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Not all are available for operational use - many are awaiting dismantlement and others are in deep storage bunkers.

Experts say the United States has about 200 short-range nuclear missiles located in five European countries: Germany, Italy, Turkey, Belgium and The Netherlands.

NATO debate

Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focusing on nuclear weapons policy, says there is an internal debate within NATO on what to do with those weapons.

"The Germans and the Belgians in particular have pressed to get the weapons out of Europe. They say these are anachronistic, that maybe there was a purpose for these during the Cold War. But it’s inconceivable that they would face a Russian invasion or any military contingency that would require them to use nuclear weapons," said Cirincione.

But David Holloway, Russia and arms control expert at Stanford University, says other NATO countries have differing views.

"Most notably the countries of central and eastern Europe, who are more acutely aware of the kind of danger of Russian military power," he said. "Because given their history and more fearful of Russian intentions, they say: ‘No, we should keep the tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, even though they are not based in central or eastern Europe. We should keep them in Europe as a kind of signal to Russia that it needs to be careful in how it conducts its policy toward Europe."

Asset or liability?

Joseph Cirincione and others say tactical nuclear weapons are more of a liability than an asset and they also pose a specific security risk.

"You have a greater security risk for tactical weapons than you have for strategic weapons. And the reason is that the strategic weapons tend to be bolted onto large pieces of metal - missiles, or at bomber bases - things that are very secure, very hard to steal," he said. "Tactical weapons, particularly with the Russian weapons, tend to be in storage depots which have a lesser degree of security. And there are lots of them - so you are talking about thousands of tactical weapons compared to hundreds of strategic weapons."

Experts say NATO is currently revising its military doctrine, which will be discussed at its May summit in Chicago.

Seeking right weapon mix

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private research firm, says the alliance is currently looking at the proper mix of nuclear, conventional forces and missile defenses needed to protect NATO countries.

"NATO can be expected to say at the Chicago summit that NATO’s defense can be maintained with conventional forces primarily, and the supreme guarantee of the alliance’s defense are the strategic nuclear weapons that the United States and France and the United Kingdom possess. They will likely say that they are interested in further steps with Russia to account for and reduce tactical nuclear weapons," he said.

But Kimball and others do not believe talks on reducing tactical nuclear weapons will begin anytime soon given the presidential election year in the United States.

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