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Friday, June 8, 2012

Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons

Amy F. Woolf
Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy

During the Senate debate on the new U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in 2010, many Senators raised questions about Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons and noted their absence from the treaty limits. The United States and Russia have not included limits on these weapons in past arms control agreements. Nevertheless, Congress may press the Administration to seek solutions to the potential risks presented by these weapons in the future.

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union both deployed nonstrategic nuclear weapons for use in the field during a conflict. While there are several possible ways to distinguish between strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons, most analysts consider nonstrategic weapons to be shorter-range delivery systems with lower yield warheads that the United States and Soviet Union/Russia might use to attack troops or facilities on the battlefield. They have included nuclear mines; artillery; short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles; cruise missiles; and gravity bombs. In contrast with the longer-range “strategic” nuclear weapons, these weapons had a lower profile in policy debates and arms control negotiations, possibly because they did not pose a direct threat to the continental United States. At the end of the 1980s, each nation still had thousands of these weapons deployed with their troops in the field, aboard naval vessels, and on aircraft.

In 1991, both the United States and Soviet Union announced that they would withdraw from deployment most and eliminate from their arsenals many of their nonstrategic nuclear weapons. The United States now has approximately 1,100 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, with a few hundred deployed with aircraft in Europe and the remaining stored in the United States. Estimates vary, but experts believe Russia still has between 2,000 and 6,000 warheads for nonstrategic nuclear weapons in its arsenal. The Bush Administration quietly redeployed and removed some of the nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Russia, however seems to have increased its reliance on nuclear weapons in its national security concept. Some analysts argue that Russia has backed away from its commitments from 1991 and may develop and deploy new types of nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

Analysts have identified a number of issues with the continued deployment of U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons. These include questions about the safety and security of Russia’s weapons and the possibility that some might be lost, stolen, or sold to another nation or group; questions about the role of these weapons in U.S. and Russian security policy; questions about the role that these weapons play in NATO policy and whether there is a continuing need for the United States to deploy them at bases overseas; and questions about the relationship between nonstrategic nuclear weapons and U.S. nonproliferation policy.

Some argue that these weapons do not create any problems and the United States should not alter its policy. Others argue that the United States should reduce its reliance on these weapons and encourage Russia to do the same. Many have suggested that the United States and Russia expand efforts to cooperate on ensuring the safe and secure storage and elimination of these weapons, possibly by negotiating an arms control treaty that would limit these weapons and allow for increased transparency in monitoring their deployment and elimination. Others have suggested that any potential new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty count both strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. This, they say, might encourage reductions or the elimination of these weapons. The 112th Congress may review some of these proposals.

Date of Report: May 29, 2012
Number of Pages: 37
Order Number: RL32572
Price: $29.95

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