Presidential Nuclear Initiatives: An Alternative Paradigm for Arms Control

Presidential Nuclear Initiatives: An Alternative Paradigm for Arms Control

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Eli Corin

Research Assistant, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


In September and October 1991, U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced a series of policy initiatives declaring that the United States and the Soviet Union—and later Russia—would reduce their arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) and delivery vehicles.[1] Russian President Boris Yeltsin reaffirmed and somewhat expanded Gorbachev's statement in the name of the newly independent Russia in January 1992. These initiatives have become known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI).[2] The PNIs were "reciprocal unilateral commitments," meaning that they are politically, not legally, binding, and are non-verifiable.[3] The countries' compliance with, irreversibility of, and intentions to maintain the policies announced by the PNIs are thus difficult to ascertain. On the other hand, the PNIs led to perhaps 17,000 TNWs being withdrawn from service, the deepest reductions in nuclear arsenals to date.

During the Cold War, TNW played an especially important role in military planning in Europe, and in the U.S. case, on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. rationale for TNWs was to use them as a counterweight to the widely assumed conventional superiority of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in Europe. These weapons would have been used in a limited nuclear war for operations where strategic nuclear weapons would be unnecessary. In such a war the United States would employ TNWs against enemy staging areas and in targeted operations against enemy command, control, communications, and information facilities. The Soviet Union, in contrast, believed any nuclear use would lead to an all-out nuclear war and envisioned using TNWs in concert with strategic nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons. Differences in strategy notwithstanding, the weapons and delivery systems of American and Soviet TNW systems were similar in design and function.[4] (See CNS Issue Brief: Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) for more information on U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons.)

The PNIs are important to arms control for two reasons. First, they remain the only tangible success in international efforts to reduce numbers of TNWs (other nuclear arms control agreements apply to strategic and land-based intermediate-range nuclear weapons). Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin had agreed in 1997 that future negotiations on a START III treaty would address TNWs, but consultations on START III ended in the fall of 2000 without result and it is no longer on the political agenda, having been superceded by the 2002 Moscow Treaty. Second, the PNIs offer an alternative model to more traditional arms control treaties, such as SALT and START. Measures such as the PNIs are not verifiable, not legally binding, and set low barriers to rearmament, yet they are politically easier to enact and they circumvent the necessity of tedious zero-sum negotiations.

Background to the PNIs

Two issues contributed to the development of the PNIs in the United States. First, some officials in the Bush administration advocated reductions in at least some categories of TNWs. At the request of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, the Joint Staff produced a study on the usefulness of TNWs, which recommended that nuclear artillery projectiles be eliminated, because they were trouble-prone and expensive, and advances in the accuracy of conventional weapons had rendered the nuclear artillery weapons largely obsolete. The recommendation was strongly opposed by the policy staff of the Department of Defense, especially by then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz.[5] National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had also advocated the elimination of ship-based nuclear cruise missiles since the mid-1980s.[6]

Second, the August 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev convinced President Bush that political instability in the Soviet Union posed a serious threat to control of Soviet nuclear weapons. In particular, during the coup, U.S. intelligence services had identified "anomalies" involving the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces. The United States was unsure who had control of the Soviet nuclear arsenal during the coup and even less certain who would control the Soviet nuclear weapons in the future if – as it seemed likely in the aftermath of the coup – the Soviet Union began to break apart. Even before the 1991 coup attempt some Soviet republics, in particular Russia and Ukraine, argued for more control over the nuclear weapons on their territories.[7] As nationalist and pro-independence movements in all republics grew bolder, there was a real risk that nuclear weapons might fall into unauthorized hands, and tactical nuclear weapons were seen as particularly vulnerable to illegal acquisition. President Bush directed his advisors in early September 1991 to develop new nuclear disarmament proposals and three weeks later announced his initiative.[8] This PNI made even deeper nuclear weapons cuts than had been advocated by Scowcroft and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and gave President Gorbachev the opportunity to make similar cuts and consolidate the Soviet arsenal. (In hindsight, it turned out that many concerns of the immediate aftermath of the August 1991 coup were exaggerated because the Soviet military, which shared concerns about control over nuclear weapons, withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from all republics except those where strategic weapons were also present – Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus – to the territory of Russia in 1990-early 1991.)[9]

President Bush's September 1991 Initiative

In a public address on September 27, 1991, President Bush stated that the end of the Cold War had brought an "unparalleled opportunity to change the nuclear posture of both the United States and the Soviet Union," abandoning global confrontation strategies. Bush also expressed a belief that coordinated, bilateral changes in U.S. and Soviet nuclear postures would entail lengthy and unnecessary negotiations. "Swifter, bolder action" was needed, and took the form of a unilateral initiative to drastically reduce U.S. deployment of TNWs, "the most fundamental change[s] in nuclear forces in over 40 years."

Specific steps included:

  • The elimination of the U.S. inventory of ground-launched short-range nuclear weapons, including nuclear artillery shells and short-range ballistic missile warheads. Such weapons deployed abroad were to be withdrawn to U.S. territory and destroyed. Air-launched TNW capabilities were to be maintained, however
  • The withdrawal of TNWs from naval surface ships and attack submarines, and land-based naval aircraft. These weapons, including nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles deployed on navy vessels and nuclear bombs on aircraft carriers, would be either dismantled and destroyed or stockpiled in central storage areas
  • The dealerting of all strategic bombers and all intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) scheduled for deactivation under START. Elimination of these ICBMs would be accelerated once START was ratified, rather than using the seven years allowed under START
  • The elimination of several ICBM modernization programs, including Midgetman modernization. Future U.S. ICBM modernization would be limited to non-mobile, single-warhead missiles.
  • Bush also proposed to eliminate all MIRVed ICBMs on a bilateral basis because these weapons were considered particularly destabilizing. Privately, it was explained that such a measure would be a major step toward denuclearization of Ukraine and Kazakhstan since all ICBMs deployed there were MIRVed.

In addition to announcing these changes to U.S. nuclear policy, President Bush suggested specific, reciprocal actions for Soviet leaders to take in response. [10] In his January 1992 State of the Union Address, Bush would announce further cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including ending production of the B-2 bomber, the Peacekeeper ICBM, and new warheads for sea-based ballistic missiles.[11]

President Gorbachev's October 1991 Initiative

About one week after President Bush's initiative, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made a televised address to the nation, presenting the Soviet response to the initiatives of President Bush. These steps included:

  • The destruction of all nuclear artillery ammunition and nuclear mines, as well as nuclear warheads for tactical nuclear missiles
  • The removal to central storage locations of nuclear warheads from anti-aircraft missiles and all TNWs on surface ships and multi-purpose submarines. Weapons from ground-based naval aircraft would also be removed to storage. Some of these weapons would be destroyed
  • The dealerting of strategic bombers, and the storage of their nuclear weapons. 503 ICBMs, including 134 with multiple warheads, would also be taken off of day-to-day alert status. Development of a short-range missile for heavy bombers would be halted
  • Abandonment of plans to develop mobile ICBMs and to build new mobile launchers for existing ICBMs. Existing railway-mobile ICBMs would be contained to their basing areas and no longer leave them for patrol
  • A pledge to eliminate an additional 1,000 nuclear warheads compared to what was required by START. After the 7-year life of START, the Soviet Union would possess 5,000 warheads, rather than the 6,000 permitted under START agreement
  • A one-year unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing.[12]

President Yeltsin's January 1992 Initiative

On 29 January 1992, President Boris Yeltsin of Russia addressed concerns over control of post-Soviet nuclear weapons and Russia's nuclear policies. Yeltsin asserted Russia's status as the legal successor to the Soviet Union in terms of international obligations, and confirmed that Russia would continue to adhere to all bilateral and multilateral agreements related to arms control. Yeltsin also stated that Russian policy was to continue to work to eradicate the world's nuclear weapons "gradually on a parity basis."

Yeltsin also made several additional pledges to reduce Russian nuclear capabilities. Some of these pledges included unilaterally ending production of existing long-range air-launched and sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles and banning further development of sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles. Yeltsin also offered to ban further development of air-launched nuclear cruise missiles and to destroy all existing sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles.[13]

The PNIs: An Arms Control Success?

Because much data about U.S. and Russian TNW deployment was and is still classified, it is difficult to ascertain whether the two sides have indeed fulfilled their PNI pledges. A series of public statements by U.S. and Russian officials have allowed the NGO community to tentatively report that the PNI pledges were successful, but these statements do not give an entirely clear picture. For example, according to Joshua Handler of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, the United States pledged in its 1991 PNI to eliminate its entire existing arsenal of W-70 Lance missile warheads—850 warheads. However according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, 1,170 W-70 warheads had been dismantled by the end of fiscal year 1997, more than had been stated to exist. Russian data can be similarly confusing; there still are no precise official data in open sources of how many TNWs the Soviet Union possessed in 1991.

The PNIs are credited with three achievements in reducing and consolidating U.S. and Russian TNW arsenals. The first accomplishment is that the United States and the Russian Federation have dramatically reduced their tactical weapons arsenals. In 2001, Handler estimated, the United States possessed 1,670 TNWs—320 submarine-launched cruise missiles and 1,350 land-based, air-delivered, B-61 nuclear gravity bombs, 180 of which are deployed in Europe[14]—compared to a 1991 total of 7,165 TNWs. The Russian TNW inventory in 2001 was 3,590, compared to the 1991 Soviet TNW inventory of 15,000–21,700.[15]

Second, remaining U.S. and Russian TNWs were consolidated into fewer storage sites in fewer countries. By July 1992, the United States had removed all TNWs from South Korea and all TNWs from Europe excluding the estimated 180 B-61 bombs at 10 European air bases — other estimates range from 150-500 U.S. TNWs in Europe (all U.S. TNWs had been deployed on South Korean, European, or U.S. territory). Between 1985 and 2001, Washington reduced the number of nuclear weapon (both tactical and strategic) storage sites worldwide from 164 to 22. The Russian military also withdrew all TNWs from other countries by spring 1992.

The third accomplishment of the PNIs was that the number of U.S. and Russian military units with nuclear capabilities was reduced. Both countries had removed TNWs completely from their ground-based armed forces (the U.S. Army and Marine Corps and the Russian Ground Forces), and consolidated control and basing of TNWs.[16] Excluding the 1,200 nuclear warheads from Russia's air defense system, 71% of U.S. and Russian TNWs were associated with the countries' respective air forces in 2001, as opposed to less than 52% in 1991; the remaining offensive TNWs were associated with the two countries' submarine fleets, though supposedly in storage facilities.[17] Within the U.S. Air Force and Navy, the number of nuclear-certified units had fallen from 44 and 200, respectively, to 21 and 38, meaning the number of military units actually trained to use nuclear weapons had fallen drastically.[18] Statistics for Russian nuclear-capable military units are unavailable.[19]

Criticisms of the PNIs

Skeptics who question the effectiveness of the PNIs argue that the two countries would have reduced and consolidated their TNW arsenals to the same extent had the PNIs not been issued. Even before President Bush's September 1991 PNI was issued, the United States had already retired and dismantled several TNW systems, including the Army Atomic Demolition Munitions, the Ground-launched Cruise Missile, and several short-range and anti-submarine rocket systems.[20] George Lewis and Andrea Gabbitas of the Atlantic Council argue that the point of Bush's PNI was not to announce changes in U.S. nuclear posture but to encourage the Soviet Union to make reductions in its TNW arsenal.[21] However, the Russian TNWs Gorbachev and Yeltsin pledged to dismantle in the October 1991 and January 1992 PNIs would have been declared obsolete and dismantled anyway, according to a 1999 statement by Dr. Alexei G. Arbatov of the Russian Duma.[22]

Besides the assertion that PNIs only publicized what would have been done anyway, there are some other major criticisms of these initiatives as an arms control measure. One such criticism is that the PNI pledges are not legally binding, and are not subject to international treaty law. This means that either country could withdraw their pledges without notifying the other. There is also no legal prohibition on actions that would undermine the spirit of the initiatives, such as research and development of new TNW systems not specified in the pledges.[23] Another criticism is that the initiatives do not include verification or data exchange mechanisms. The lack of reliable verifiable information has consistently generated suspicions and, from time to time, accusations that the other side does not live up to its obligations.

The PNIs demonstrated both benefits and pitfalls of this approach to arms control. On the positive side, this approach saves time on negotiations, allows flexibility in implementation, and is "easier" to adopt in the sense that it does not require verification, inspections, or exchange of sensitive information. Negative features of this arms control approach include its instability, the mutual suspicions and accusations that can result from the lack of verification, and the right of either country to abandon its pledges without notifying the other.

Weaknesses notwithstanding, both the United States and Russia remain committed to their PNI pledges. In the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Russian delegation reported that it "fully and consistently implemented its declared unilateral initiatives" in the field of tactical arms reduction. Russia reported that it had completed its pledges to remove TNWs from its naval surface ships and multi-purpose submarines.

The Treaty of Moscow: Following the PNI Model

The George W. Bush Administration officials that developed the Treaty of Moscow, an agreement signed in 2002 between the United States and Russia to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to levels of 1,700-2,200 warheads each, closely followed the PNI model for parallel and unilateral arms reduction. The United States originally proposed that the two countries could make the arms reductions unilaterally and did not need a formal treaty, but finally agreed to create the Treaty of Moscow at Russian insistence. This Treaty is very short on substance, and in effect follows the initial U.S.-proposed mode except for its name and legal status. It declares the intention of the two sides to make drastic reductions in their nuclear arsenals while preserving the countries' ability to respond to changes in the strategic environment. Critics argue that the treaty is unverifiable, and the reductions are not irreversible.
(See CNS Issue Brief: The Treaty of Moscow for detailed information on the Treaty of Moscow.)

Several of the policymakers who were involved in the development of the PNIs — including Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz — now serve in the current administration, suggesting that the administration may be predisposed to prefer the PNI model of arms control. There are clear arguments for why the PNI model makes sense in the post-Cold War environment. The international strategic environment has become much more unpredictable since the Cold War ended, and countries may be less willing to enter into rigid, irreversible treaties that would limit their options in possible future crises. The end of the arms race and the beginning of security cooperation between the P-5 nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China) also eliminated the need in excessively detailed, restrictive treaties that take long time to negotiate and require many tough concessions. For these reasons, policymakers will probably continue to view the model of nuclear arms reduction through unilateral and parallel measures as a viable alternative means of arms control.


  • Arbatov, Alexei. "Reductions of Tactical Nuclear Weapons: From Unilateral Steps to International Commitments." In Disarmament and Security, IMEMO Yearbook 1997-1998. Russia and International Arms Control: Development and Decline (Moscow: Nauka, 1997).
  • Handler, Joshua, Program on Science and Global Security (PSGS), Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. "The September 1991 PNIs and the Elimination, Storing and Security Aspects of TNWs." Presentation for "Time to Control Tactical Nuclear Weapons," seminar held at the United Nations, New York, 24 September 2001,
  • Lennox, Regina, Briefing Book on Tactical Nuclear Weapons: New Challenges for a New Era, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, January 2003,
  • Lewis, George and Gabbitas, Andrea. "What Should Be Done About Tactical Nuclear Weapons?" The Atlantic Council of the United States occasional paper, March 1999,
  • McManus, Doyle. "News Analysis: Bush Acted to Help Gorbachev Control A-Arms." The Los Angeles Times, 29 September 1991.
  • Millar, Alistair and Alexander, Brian. Uncovered Nukes: Arms Control and the Challenge of Tactical Nuclear Weapons. Fourth Freedom Forum Policy Brief Series, 30 November 2001,
  • Millar, Alistair. "The Pressing Need for Tactical Nuclear Weapons Control." Arms Control Today, May 2002, (3 December 2003).
  • Mizin, Victor. "The Treaty of Moscow." Center for Nonproliferation Studies Issue Brief, July 2002. Available online at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, (3 December 2003).
  • Potter, William; Nikolai Sokov; Müller, Harald; and Schaper, Annette. Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Options for Control. United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), 2000.
  • Shevtsov, A., Yizhak, A., Gavrish, A. and Chumakov, A. Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Perspective from Ukraine. United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), 2000.
  • Sokov, Dr. Nikolai. "Issues & Analysis: Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)." Center for Nonproliferation Studies Issue Brief, May 2002, Nuclear Threat Initiative,, (3 December 2003).
  • Sokov, Dr. Nikolai. "Tactical Nuclear Weapons – The Advantages and Pitfalls of Non-Negotiated Arms Reductions: The Case of Tactical Nuclear Weapons." Disarmament Diplomacy 21 (December 1997),
  • Susiluoto T., ed. Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Time for Control. United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), September 2002.
  • Yang, John E. "Bush Plan Emerged After Failed Coup; White House Wanted to Take Advantage of Timing, Officials Say." The Washington Post, 28 September 1991.


[1] Dr. Nikolai Sokov, "Issues & Analysis: Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)," Nuclear Threat Initiative,
[2] Joel M. Skousen, "A Nuclear Knife Aimed at America's Heart,", 25 March 1999; Dr. Nikolai Sokov, "Issues & Analysis: Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)," Nuclear Threat Initiative,, May 2002.
[3] Mikhail Gorbachev, "Statement by Former President Mikhail Gorbachev," in T. Susiluoto (ed.), Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Time for Control, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), September 2002.
[4] A. Shevtsov, A Yizhak, A. Gavrish and A. Chumakov, Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Perspective from Ukraine, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), 2000, pp.7-12.
[5] Colin Powell, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), 540-1.
[6] Doyle McManus, "News Analysis: Bush Acted to Help Gorbachev Control A-Arms," The Los Angeles Times, 29 September 1991.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Powell, My American Journey, 541.
[9] Nikolai Sokov, Russian Strategic Modernization: The Past and Future (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), chapter 3.
[10] U.S. President George Bush, "Address to the Nation on Reducing United States and Soviet Nuclear Weapons," 27 September 1991, (30 October 2003).
[11] U.S. President George Bush, "Address before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union," 28 January 1992,
[12] Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, "Address to the Nation on Reducing and Eliminating Soviet and United States Nuclear Weapons," 5 October 1991,
[13] Russian President Boris Yeltsin, "Address to the Nation on Russia's Policy in the Field of Arms Limitation and Reduction," 29 January 1992;
[14] Alistair Millar, "The Pressing Need for Tactical Nuclear Weapons Control," Arms Control Today, May 2002,, (3 December 2003).
[15] Joshua Handler, Program on Science and Global Security (PSGS), Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, "The September 1991 PNIs and the Elimination, Storing and Security Aspects of TNWs," 24 September 2001; presentation for "Time to Control Tactical Nuclear Weapons," Seminar held at the United Nations, New York, 24 September 2001, (5 December 2003).
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid. Exact numbers of Soviet TNWs in 1991 are still not available. The figures in Handler 2001 give a possible range of 27%–52%.
[18] Ibid.
[19] "The September 1991 PNIs."
[20] Ibid.
[21] George Lewis and Andrea Gabbitas, "What Should Be Done About Tactical Nuclear Weapons?" The Atlantic Council of the United States occasional paper, March 1999,, pp.5-6.
[22] Alistair Millar and Brian Alexander, Uncovered Nukes: Arms Control and the Challenge of Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Fourth Freedom Forum Policy Brief Series, 30 November 2001,, p.6.
[23] See the text of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties between States and International Organizations or between International Organizations, 21 March 1986 for more on international treaty law, (11 March 2004).

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