A potential new round of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control talks might consider the stockpiles of nonstrategic nuclear weapons maintained largely in Europe by the former Cold War rivals, Voice of America reported on Wednesday (see GSN, April 2).
The United States keeps approximately 200 B-61 gravity bombs at six bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, according to specialists (see GSN, Feb. 3). Russia is estimated to wield roughly 2,000 nonstrategic atomic armaments that are in storage but available for use (see GSN, March 15).
Washington's NATO allies have deliberated how to handle the U.S. bombs, Ploughshares Fund head Joseph Cirincione said.
"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," the nonproliferation specialist said.
Still, some NATO states have argued for maintaining the U.S. atomic deployments, said issue expert David Holloway of Stanford University.
"Most notably the countries of central and eastern Europe, who are more acutely aware of the kind of danger of Russian military power," Holloway 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."
Potential revisions to the military alliance's formal defense posture are slated for consideration at a May meeting of the member nations' leaders in Chicago. NATO states are seeking to optimize their balance of antimissile systems, atomic weapons and non-nuclear armaments, Arms Control Association head Daryl Kimball said.
"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," Kimball said.
Any discussion of nonstrategic arms cuts is improbable ahead of the 2012 U.S. electoral race, said Kimball and other analysts.
Cirincione and additional observers said nonstrategic nuclear weapons are uniquely vulnerable to seizure and their disadvantages outweigh any benefits.
"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," Cirincione 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" (André de Nesnera, Voice of America, April 4).