Amy F. Woolf
Specialist in Nuclear
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
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