Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)

Introduction

Tactical (nonstrategic) nuclear weapons (TNWs) typically refer to short-range weapons, including land-based missiles with a range of less than 500 km (about 300 miles) and air- and sea-launched weapons with a range of less than 600 km (about 400 miles).

Though TNWs constitute a large percentage of the arsenals of the nuclear weapon states, TNWs are the least-regulated category of nuclear weapons covered in arms control agreements. They are only subject to an informal regime created by unilateral, parallel declarations made by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the fall of 1991. But the informal nature of the 1991 regime has resulted in considerable uncertainty with regard to implementation, as well as considerable disparity in numbers.

In some respects, TNWs are more dangerous than strategic weapons. Their small size, vulnerability to theft, and perceived usability make the existence of TNWs in national arsenals a risk to global security. And the new perception of the usability of nuclear weapons in both Russia and the United States, albeit for different reasons, could create a dangerous precedent for other countries.

In the last several years, a number of states have tried to push the two nuclear powers toward action in the area of TNWs. The 2000 Conference adopted a Program of Action (Next Steps) on Nuclear Disarmament, and the 2002 Preparatory Committee for the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference reinforced that message, but practical action by nuclear weapon states still seems far away.

Definition

Tactical (nonstrategic) nuclear weapons (TNWs) typically refer to short-range weapons; within the U.S.-Soviet (Russian) context, this means land-based missiles with a range of less than 500 km (about 300 miles) and air- and sea-launched weapons with a range of less than 600 km (about 400 miles). However, these definitions are not universally accepted: France classifies all its currently deployed nuclear weapons as strategic; China also classifies many weapons as strategic that in the U.S.-Russian context would be considered tactical.

Worldwide TNW Arsenals

TNWs constitute a large percentage of the arsenals of the nuclear weapon states: 30-40% of the American and Russian arsenals, nearly 100% of the Chinese and French arsenals, and all of the Israeli, Indian, and Pakistani arsenals; Great Britain no longer has short-range nuclear weapons. TNWs are also the category of weapons about which the least is known. The table below contains unofficial estimates of the numbers of deployed TNWs:

Arms Control Regime

TNWs are the least-regulated category of nuclear weapons covered in arms control agreements. They are only subject to an informal regime created by unilateral, parallel declarations made by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in the fall of 1991. Prompted by mounting concern about the security of nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union, George Bush announced on September 17, 1991 that the United States would eliminate its entire worldwide inventory of ground-launched TNWs and would remove all nuclear weapons from surface ships and attack submarines. While the Soviet government would have preferred a formal, negotiated action on TNWs, it accepted the U.S. approach as an opportunity to achieve its long-standing objective of reducing the number of U.S. TNWs in Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev responded on October 5, 1991, largely repeating the measures outlined by George Bush. Namely, the Soviet Union promised to remove all categories of nuclear weapons from deployment to "central storage facilities," while maintaining the deployment of one-half of its air-based weapons; between one-third and one-half of the weapons removed from deployment were scheduled for elimination. In January 1992, the Gorbachev statement was confirmed and slightly expanded by Boris Yeltsin in the name of Russia.

Reductions (both removal to central storage and elimination) have been measured in thousands of warheads and represent the single largest reduction of nuclear warheads, surpassing all other agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Both countries have completed the regime's stated withdrawals from deployment, and the United States has also completed the elimination of warheads. In Russia, the target date for elimination of warheads was the year 2000, and in 1999, Russia reported the job as completed for some categories and "almost" completed for the rest. In 2002, however, Russia moved the completion date to 2004, citing lack of funding for warhead elimination.

In the absence of a formal a treaty, the United States and Russia do not exchange information about stockpiles and cannot verify the process of implementation. From time to time, they have updated each other on the progress within the framework of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (established in 1997), but these exchanges specify only the share of weapons eliminated rather than hard numbers. The informal nature of the 1991 regime has resulted in considerable uncertainty with regard to implementation, as well as considerable disparity in numbers.

The Dangers Associated with TNWs

In some respects, TNWs are more dangerous than strategic weapons. Their small size and the absence of electronic locks or Permissive Action Links (PALs) on older versions contribute to their vulnerability to theft and unauthorized use. In addition, the modes of the basing and employment of TNWs also pose major problems:

Historically, TNWs were intended for the use in battlefield and theatre-level operations in conjunction with conventional forces. These missions encourage their forward-basing and can make the decision to use TNWs psychologically and operationally easier.

Military thinking argues for the pre-delegation of launch authority to lower-level commanders, especially once hostilities commence, because of an orientation toward the employment of TNWs in conjunction with conventional forces and a concern about their survivability. This might result in diminished control over TNWs by the political leadership.

Low-yield TNWs are sometimes seen as less destructive and thus more usable than other classes of nuclear weapons. This might increase the probability of limited use of nuclear weapons and is the reason for increasingly vocal demands in the United States and Russia for the creation of low-yield nuclear weapons.

Thus, the very existence of TNWs in national arsenals increases the risk of proliferation and reduces the nuclear threshold, making the nuclear balance less stable. If the two leading nuclear powers appear to consider TNWs essential and "usable," others may well emulate this example.

The Role of TNWs in the post-Cold War World

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union relied heavily on nuclear weapons for all types of missions. With the end of the Cold War, military and political relevance of TNWs declined, resulting, among other developments, in the 1991-92 informal U.S.-Russian regime. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, attention toward TNW began to increase again.

In Russia, TNWs acquired greater significance because of the deterioration of Russia's conventional forces and its growing reliance on nuclear arms as a "poor man's" counter to the "revolution in military affairs" and technological breakthroughs in costly, advanced conventional arms by the United States. This trend was observable as early as 1996, when some Russian officials began to make threats about withdrawing from the 1991 TNW regime in response to NATO's planned expansion. Reliance on nuclear weapons increased even further following the war in Kosovo in 1999. The current military doctrine, which was adopted in early 2000 following that war, provides for limited use of nuclear weapons for the purpose of "de-escalation" of (i.e., avoiding defeat in) a conventional conflict. Reliance on nuclear weapons, including their tactical variety, decreased in the context of improved relations between the United States and Russia in 2001 and 2002.

For its part, the United States continues to maintain a small stock of TNWs in Europe. These weapons, of uncertain military value in post-Cold War Europe, are regarded in Washington as still useful for the political purpose of confirming U.S. commitment to its European allies. TNWs are also promoted by some in Washington as a useful deterrent against possible chemical and biological threats from "rogue" states.

A string of calls to consider the use of TNWs in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States focused attention on proposals, many of which had been publicized years earlier, to develop new, low-yield nuclear weapons for a limited range of military contingencies--in particular, to destroy deeply buried, hardened bunkers (caves, in the case of Afghanistan). During a briefing on the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review on January 9, 2002, Assistant Secretary of Defense J. D. Crouch told that "no recommendations" had been made in the report with regard to development of a new type of nuclear weapons, adding, "We are trying to look at a number of initiatives," one of which "would be to modify an existing weapon to give it greater capability against deep or hard targets."

Reductions (both removal to central storage and elimination) have been measured in thousands of warheads and represent the single largest reduction of nuclear warheads, surpassing all other agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Both countries have completed the regime's stated withdrawals from deployment, and the United States has also completed the elimination of warheads. In Russia, the target date for elimination of warheads was the year 2000, and in 1999, Russia reported the job as completed for some categories and "almost" completed for the rest. In 2002, however, Russia moved the completion date to 2004, citing lack of funding for warhead elimination.

In the absence of a formal a treaty, the United States and Russia do not exchange information about stockpiles and cannot verify the process of implementation. From time to time, they have updated each other on the progress within the framework of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (established in 1997), but these exchanges specify only the share of weapons eliminated rather than hard numbers. The informal nature of the 1991 regime has resulted in considerable uncertainty with regard to implementation, as well as considerable disparity in numbers.

The Dangers Associated with TNWs

In some respects, TNWs are more dangerous than strategic weapons. Their small size and the absence of electronic locks or Permissive Action Links (PALs) on older versions contribute to their vulnerability to theft and unauthorized use. In addition, the modes of the basing and employment of TNWs also pose major problems:

Historically, TNWs were intended for the use in battlefield and theatre-level operations in conjunction with conventional forces. These missions encourage their forward-basing and can make the decision to use TNWs psychologically and operationally easier.

Military thinking argues for the pre-delegation of launch authority to lower-level commanders, especially once hostilities commence, because of an orientation toward the employment of TNWs in conjunction with conventional forces and a concern about their survivability. This might result in diminished control over TNWs by the political leadership.

Low-yield TNWs are sometimes seen as less destructive and thus more usable than other classes of nuclear weapons. This might increase the probability of limited use of nuclear weapons and is the reason for increasingly vocal demands in the United States and Russia for the creation of low-yield nuclear weapons.

Thus, the very existence of TNWs in national arsenals increases the risk of proliferation and reduces the nuclear threshold, making the nuclear balance less stable. If the two leading nuclear powers appear to consider TNWs essential and "usable," others may well emulate this example.

The Role of TNWs in the post-Cold War World

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union relied heavily on nuclear weapons for all types of missions. With the end of the Cold War, military and political relevance of TNWs declined, resulting, among other developments, in the 1991-92 informal U.S.-Russian regime. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, attention toward TNW began to increase again.

In Russia, TNWs acquired greater significance because of the deterioration of Russia's conventional forces and its growing reliance on nuclear arms as a "poor man's" counter to the "revolution in military affairs" and technological breakthroughs in costly, advanced conventional arms by the United States. This trend was observable as early as 1996, when some Russian officials began to make threats about withdrawing from the 1991 TNW regime in response to NATO's planned expansion. Reliance on nuclear weapons increased even further following the war in Kosovo in 1999. The current military doctrine, which was adopted in early 2000 following that war, provides for limited use of nuclear weapons for the purpose of "de-escalation" of (i.e., avoiding defeat in) a conventional conflict. Reliance on nuclear weapons, including their tactical variety, decreased in the context of improved relations between the United States and Russia in 2001 and 2002.

For its part, the United States continues to maintain a small stock of TNWs in Europe. These weapons, of uncertain military value in post-Cold War Europe, are regarded in Washington as still useful for the political purpose of confirming U.S. commitment to its European allies. TNWs are also promoted by some in Washington as a useful deterrent against possible chemical and biological threats from "rogue" states.

A string of calls to consider the use of TNWs in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States focused attention on proposals, many of which had been publicized years earlier, to develop new, low-yield nuclear weapons for a limited range of military contingencies--in particular, to destroy deeply buried, hardened bunkers (caves, in the case of Afghanistan). During a briefing on the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review on January 9, 2002, Assistant Secretary of Defense J. D. Crouch told that "no recommendations" had been made in the report with regard to development of a new type of nuclear weapons, adding, "We are trying to look at a number of initiatives," one of which "would be to modify an existing weapon to give it greater capability against deep or hard targets."

The Road Ahead

The new perception of the usability of nuclear weapons in both Russia and the United States, albeit for different reasons, could create a dangerous precedent for other countries, leading them to believe that nuclear weapons could provide tangible political and military benefits and increasing propensity to acquire nuclear capability. For that reason, it seems highly desirable to strengthen the informal 1991-92 U.S.-Russian regime on TNWs.

In the last several years, a number of states, belonging primarily to the New Agenda Coalition, have tried to push the two nuclear powers toward action in the area of TNWs. After several years of discussion within the context of the Preparatory Committees for the NPT Review Conference, the 2000 Conference adopted, as part of the final document, a Program of Action (Next Steps) on Nuclear Disarmament. The 2002 Preparatory Committee for the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference reinforced that message, but practical action by nuclear weapon states still seems far away.

Resources

Websites

  • Center for Defense Information, Current World Nuclear Arsenals, updated January 1997, www.cdi.org.
  • Natural Resources Defense Council, "Nuclear Notebook," updated May 2002, www.thebulletin.org.

Online Articles, Reports, and Presentations

  • Nikolai Sokov, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons Elimination: Next Step for Arms Control," The Nonproliferation Review, Winter 1997, https://cns.miis.edu.
  • Stephen Lambert and David Miller, "Russia's Crumbling Tactical Nuclear Weapons Complex," Occasional Paper 12, Institute for National Security Studies, CO, April 1997, www.usafa.af.mil.
  • Scott Parrish and John Lepingwell, "Are Suitcase Nukes on the Loose? The Story Behind the Controversy," Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, November 1997, www.nti.org.
  • William Potter and Nikolai Sokov, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Nature of the Problem," presentation for seminar hosted by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Geneva, March 21-22, 2000, https://cns.miis.edu.
  • Joshua Handler, "The September 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) and the Elimination, Storing and Security Aspects of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs)," presentation for Time to Control Tactical Nuclear Weapons, seminar hosted by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Monterey, and the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), United Nations, New York, September 24, 2001, www.princeton.edu.
  • Alistair Millar and Brian Alexander, "Uncovered Nukes: Arms Control and the Challenge of Tactical Nuclear Weapons," Fourth Freedom Forum, November 2001, www.fourthfreedom.org.

Books and Printed Material

  • Ivan Safranchuk, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons in the Modern World and Russia's Sub-Strategic Nuclear Forces," PIR Center, Occasional Paper No. 16, Moscow, March 2000.
  • Jacob Kipp, "Russia's Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons," Military Review, May-June 2001.
  • David S. Yost, "Russia's Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces," International Affairs, July 2001.
  • Nikolai Sokov, "The Tactical Nuclear Weapons Controversy," Jane's Defense Weekly, January 31, 2001, p. 17.
  • Walter Pincus, "U.S. to Cut Arsenal to 3,800 Nuclear Warheads," Washington Post, January 10, 2002, p. 10.
  • Nikolai Sokov, "Strengthening The 1991 Declarations: Verification and Transparency Components," presentation for Time to Control Tactical Nuclear Weapons, seminar hosted by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Monterey, and the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), United Nations, New York, September 24, 2001.
May 1, 2002
About

Nikolai Sokov provides an overview of tactical nuclear weapons and their role in nuclear arsenals in the post-Cold War world.

Authors
Nikolai Sokov

Senior Fellow, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2019.