A Tactically Sound Nuclear Arms Strategy

The Case For Leaving Tactical Weapons Out of New START

Leaving tactical weapons out of New START maintains needed strategic stability in the short term while keeping the door open for future negotiation, writes Ben Morris-Levenson.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about New START on June 17, 2010. (AP/Drew Angerer)
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about New START on June 17, 2010. (AP/Drew Angerer)

New START has been working its way through the Senate Armed Services Committee since Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the arms control treaty in April. It’s a modest treaty, reducing the number of American and Russian strategic nuclear weapons and launchers and continuing the mutual inspection regime that has been in place since the Reagan administration. Yet a group of conservatives are opposing the treaty partially on the grounds that it does not address tactical nuclear weapons.

Tactical nuclear weapons are designed for use in combat rather than against major targets or cities. It makes sense that they wouldn’t be included in New START because Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal does not pose a direct threat to the United States or our allies. And if we want to regulate these weapons in the future, ratifying New START will greatly increase our chances of being able to do so. Failing to ratify New START, on the other hand, would effectively destroy any prospect for further bilateral arms control negotiations in the foreseeable future, including any agreement on tactical nuclear weapons.

Opponents of New START have criticized the treaty’s “failure” to address Russia’s numerical advantage over the United States in tactical nuclear weapons, which could be as great as 10-to-1. Their concern is that the number of strategic weapons has fallen so low that it emphasizes the disparity in tactical weapons, posing a threat to U.S. security that New START’s cuts to the strategic arsenal would only exacerbate.

Yet there is good reason for not including tactical nuclear weapons in New START. Tactical and strategic nuclear weapons are fundamentally different. Tactical weapons are designed for use on the battlefield to achieve victory over an enemy force, whereas the strategic nuclear weapons governed under New START are built to obliterate entire cities, rendering “victory” itself a dubious concept in the strategic context. This difference highlights a crucial point: even reduced to the levels called for in New START, a strategic arsenal of 1,550 warheads renders any Russian advantage in tactical weapons insignificant in the broader context of deterrence.

Nuclear deterrence at the strategic level relies on each side’s ability to annihilate the other, even after suffering a preemptive nuclear strike—a dynamic known as mutual assured destruction, or MAD. New START’s provisions do not threaten our second strike capability; even if Russia launched a full-scale nuclear assault, we would still have enough warheads remaining—in silos, bombers, and submarines—to devastate them in retaliation. Nuclear deterrence theory and 60 years of history show that, with America and Russia in a MAD situation, neither side will risk even a limited nuclear exchange because the consequences of escalation are so horrific that even minimal risks become unjustifiable. Russia’s “advantage” in tactical nuclear weapons is therefore largely irrelevant to American security.

Russia’s short-range nuclear arsenal is not a realistic threat to our allies, either. The U.S. strategic deterrent is extended to our NATO allies through Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an attack against any one of the member states will be considered an attack against them all, thereby extending the American nuclear umbrella and protecting our partners from both conventional and nuclear attack. Our NATO allies recognize this strategic reality and “have endorsed the new treaty, without exception,” according to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). Russia’s tactical weapons do not pose the same immediate danger as its strategic arsenal, and maintaining stability at the strategic level—which New START does—should therefore be the first priority for our arms control efforts.

That is not to say that tactical nuclear weapons do not pose significant dangers. Their battlefield applications and relative mobility present a significant risk of proliferation and miscalculation, particularly in conflicts along Russia’s border. But ratification of New START will facilitate negotiations on tactical weapons in the future.

When the original START treaty expired on December 5, 2009, it removed the verification measures that provide transparency and stability in the U.S.-Russia nuclear balance, making it imperative for the Obama team to reach a new deal. New START reestablishes the system of verification and regulation necessary for trust and stability at the strategic level and provides a foundation for future arms control talks because we did not derail the negotiations by insisting on including provisions for tactical weapons.

The importance that Russia places on its tactical arsenal means that any talks must be handled carefully. Russia has responded to the degradation of its conventional forces since the Soviet Union’s collapse by incorporating more tactical nuclear weapons into its national security doctrine for uses as fundamental as preserving its territorial integrity, particularly with regard to China. Despite what they say in public, Russian officials see China as their most significant long-term threat.

Russia fears creeping annexation via migration, if not outright invasion, from China’s huge population and long border with Russia’s mineral-rich and sparsely settled Far East. Combine these factors with China’s increasingly modern conventional army, and the Kremlin’s decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the Chinese border is clearly meant to hedge against the threat. Trying to include tactical nuclear weapons in New START would have therefore made the agreement on strategic nuclear weapons impossible, and the treaty is vital in the short term to get boots back on the ground and restore bilateral strategic verification.

As much as New START will help future arms control talks, failing to ratify the treaty would hurt far more. Some critics have seized upon former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a reason to block treaty ratification. Schlesinger testified that the strategic arsenals specified in New START are “adequate” in “the stated context of strategic nuclear weapons.” Critics argue that Schlesinger’s seemingly reluctant endorsement is evidence that the United States should insist on the inclusion of tactical nuclear weapons in a revised deal with Russia. But even Schlesinger recognized the limits of this argument when he testified that “it is obligatory for the U.S. to ratify this treaty.”

New START provides the strategic environment that is immediately necessary for bilateral nuclear stability in the short term and will allow for subsequent talks about Russia’s tactical arsenal in the long run. New START’s failure would not only put us back to square one in the effort to regulate strategic nuclear weapons, but would also crush any chance for future negotiations on tactical weapons by undermining the U.S.-Russia relationship. We have to ratify the relatively modest New START treaty before we can move on to address more contentious issues such as tactical nuclear weapons. It’s time for the Senate Armed Services Committee to take the next step and send New START on for ratification.

Ben Morris-Levenson is an intern in the national security department at the Center for American Progress.

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