Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Cold War Might Be Over, but the Threat Posed by Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons Isn’t

Spanning over 17 million square kilometers, the Russian Federation is the largest country in the world. It is a beautiful country with rolling tundra, great birch forests, and breathtaking pink sunsets that slowly melt away into crisp, clear nights (remembering back to watching one such sunset from a windowsill in St. Petersburg, I realize that written descriptions don’t do such a sight justice). It is a nation with a rich culture, vast natural resources, and a patchwork of ethnic groups. It is a nation with a lengthy and detailed history that spans many centuries.

The Russian Federation is also a nation with a dangerous nuclear legacy.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian Federation and the United States have greatly reduced their nuclear stockpiles, owing both to nonproliferation treaties and the decreased threat of nuclear war. However, a serious threat still exists: the overwhelmingly large number of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons left in the Russian arsenal. Tactical nuclear weapons—also known as TNWs—are designed for use in the battlefield to strike targets ranging from carrier groups to enemy ground forces. Throughout the Cold War, the USSR maintained a large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons for use in the event of a conflict with NATO, and this arsenal inherited by the Russian Federation is still frightening large, as highlighted by the Center for Defense Information:

“Russia is currently estimated to have about 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads plus 3,400 tactical nuclear weapons. It should be noted, however, that estimates of Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal vary widely, ranging upwards to 10,000-15,000 when estimates include weapons waiting dismantlement”

Looking at this statistic, some may ask, why is this large number of tactical nuclear weapons so frightening? Aren’t strategic nuclear weapons just as dangerous as tactical ones? Well, yes and no. If strategic nuclear weapons were ever used in warfare, the resulting destruction would be immense, of course. However, as counterintuitive as it may seem, there are several reasons why strategic nuclear weapons are not as dangerous as TNWs. First off, strategic nuclear weapons tend to be mounted on missiles in silos and on submarines, making them difficult to steal, but easy to account for and secure. Strategic weapons also feature intricate security systems that require multiple levels of authorization before they can be armed and deployed. Tactical nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are just the opposite:

“Because of their often small size and portability, tactical nuclear weapons are more vulnerable than strategic nuclear weapons to accidental or illicit use. Characteristics of command unique to some TNWs—such as predelegated launch authorization, and often inadequate safeguards (i.e., effective permissive action links, or PALs) add to their potential unauthorized, accidental, or illicit use”
(Alexander and Millar 4).

The small size of TNWs also makes them extremely vulnerable to theft. This, combined with the fact that many of these weapons sit in poorly secured locations throughout the
Russian Federation—which are, in turn, guarded by underpaid and demoralized security forces—make Russian tactical nuclear weapons tempting targets for terrorists, who could acquire them either by theft or bribing corrupt security forces. And this isn’t just a hypothetical threat: senior Russian officials have confirmed that “terrorists have carried out reconnaissance at nuclear warhead storage facilities” (Bunn).

Tactical nuclear weapons come in several different types—from missile warheads that would fit into a truck to artillery shells that could fit into something as small as a backpack or suitcase—and have varying degrees of destructive power. Yields range from “relatively low—0.1 kiloton (KT)—to yields higher than those of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—10 to 15 KT, and upwards to 1 megaton” (Alexander and Millar 2). Regardless of this, a terrorist attack on a US city with a stolen Russian tactical nuclear weapon would be devastating. US government analytical tools estimated that the detonation of a 12.5 kiloton bomb—smaller than the Hiroshima bomb—smuggled into New York City would result in 52,000 immediate deaths, expose 238,000 people to direction radiation—causing an additional 10,000 deaths and acute radiation sickness for 44,000 people—and expose 1.5 million people to radioactive fallout in the following days which, in the absence of evacuation or shelter, could kill an additional 200,000 people and cause acute radiation sickness for hundreds of thousands. Another estimate by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2005 predicted that 205,000 fatalities, 295,000 injuries, and 49,000 cancer cases would result from a 10 kiloton explosion in Washington, D.C. (Ruff 6). In addition to the huge number of casualties caused by such an attack, the economic, military, environmental, and political ramifications would be grave and far-reaching.

With these dangers posed by Russia’s vast arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons in mind, a logical question that would come to mind is, “What is being done to reduce this threat?” Unfortunately, not enough, as “[t]actical nuclear weapons are not covered by any arms control pact, such as the [recent US-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty signed in 2002], nor are they the subject of any negotiations” (Wurst). Even more worrisome is the renewed Russian interest in TNWs—an interest that is “broad-based and cuts across the entire political spectrum” (Potter 3). Hence, it is imperative for the United States to work towards reducing the TNW threat. The United States should expand the original objectives of the Nun-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement to include the securing and dismantling of tactical nuclear weapons, as recommended by experts like William Potter, and developing a new arms control treaty that deals with the issue of tactical nuclear weapons (Wurst). Increased US-Russian dialogue on, and transparency regarding, tactical nuclear stockpiles is also imperative for progress. By taking steps such as these, the United States and the Russian Federation can work towards reducing the threat posed by tactical nuclear weapons.

-Gregory Proulx

Works Cited

Bunn, Matthew. “The Threat in Russia and the Newly Independent States of the Former Soviet Union.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. 3 Oct. 2007 <>.

Friedman, Benjamin, comp. “The World’s Nuclear Arsenals.” Center for Defense Information. 24 Sept. 2007 <>.

Millar, Alistair, and Brian Alexander. Uncovered Nukes: Arms Control and the Challenge of Tactical Nuclear Weapons. Washington, D.C.: Fourth Freedom Forum, 2001. 2-4. 2 Oct. 2007 <>.

Potter, Professor William C. Mounting Challenges to Nuclear Nonproliferation. Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. 2004. 3. 3 Oct. 2007 <>.

Ruff, Tilman. Nuclear Terrorism. 2006. 6. 3 Oct. 2007 <>.

Wurst, Jim. “U.S.-Russia II: Take Care of Tactical Weapons Next, U.N. Report Urges.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. 29 May 2002. 3 Oct. 2007 <>.

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