This question arises from a comment made by Daryl G. Press, PhD at a seminar on “Nuclear Weapons and European Security—a good match?” in Stockholm, on 26 January this year.
Additionally, the seminar’s title raises the question of the potential enemy against which Europe remains armed, through NATO and therefore through the USA, with nuclear weapons. The Cold War is over. The quick answer is that the potential adversaries are found in East Asia and the Persian Gulf.
The full sentence uttered by Dr. Press that gives rise to this article’s title is, from my notes: “We need to be publicly frank about who really are the adversaries, otherwise our communications will lead toward hypocrisy.”
The sponsors of the seminar were the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). The participants and their credentials are listed at the end of this article.
To frame the question more fully, here are essential facts gleaned from the seminar and the Internet:
- What kind of nuclear arms are there and what are their purposes?
- Which are the nations that have nuclear arms, and how many?
- What are factors affecting the continued development and maintenance of nuclear arms?
Strategic: weapons with the greatest range of delivery, with the ability to threaten the adversary’s command and control structure, even though they are based many thousands of miles away in friendly territory. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are the primary delivery platforms for strategic nuclear weapons. The main purpose of strategic weapons is in the deterrence role, under the theory of mutually assured destruction.
Tactical, or “non-strategic”: battlefield weapons, used by a theater commander to offset a numerically superior force. They will be targeted based on rapidly changing local circumstances, not pre-targeted like a strategic weapon. However, even the smallest nuclear weapon is considered a “threshold decision” and is under the control of the highest national authorities, not local commanders. (Source)
Active non-deployed: spare and “responsive” warheads, i.e., those warheads that could be returned to the field quickly to increase the number of deployed warheads. All active warheads are filled with limited life components (e.g., tritium) and are maintained through regular surveillance schedules.
Inactive: warheads still intact but with their tritium removed; thus, it would take longer to return them to service upon a decision to do so.
Nations with Nuclear Arms and their Numbers
Note: “Deployed” include strategic and tactical warheads. “Other warheads” are active and inactive non-deployed warheads.
Although not discussed in the seminar, the seemingly clear distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons is no longer clear:
It is estimated that there are about 2,500 weapons designated as ‘tactical’, of which Russia possesses over 2,000. The United States has fewer than 500, and deploys around 200 of these on the territory of five European countries in accordance with agreements between the United States and its NATO allies. To describe these as ‘tactical’ or ‘theatre’ nuclear weapons (TNW) is misleading outside the context of the Cold War, when over 10,000 were deployed. Though China, France, Israel, India and Pakistan also have short to intermediate range weapons in their arsenals, it is unlikely that these would be classified as ‘tactical’ and considered distinct from these countries’ longer range (strategic) nuclear arsenals. Nowadays it is understood that any crossing of the threshold to use nuclear weapons would have strategic consequences. (Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy).
Nonetheless, at least two of the four panelists made this distinction due, I believe, to the fact that governments and the communication media still use the terms. There seems to be a lag time between the development of current realities and the ability of the diplomatic and other organizational machinery, and the media, to keep pace. Also, publicly discussing the reduction of the number of strategic warheads provides good political theater for politicians in Russia and the USA.
Using the questionable distinction, it seems that strategic weapons, holdovers in Russia and the USA from the Cold War, are less of a threat than the smaller (but extremely destructive in their potential), tactical weapons. To quote further from the Acronym Institute:
Tactical nuclear weapons are portable, vulnerable and readily usable. They are potentially destabilizing and create additional risks and insecurities, including possible acquisition and use by terrorists. The risk of terrorist acquisition should not be over-stated, and the bombs are protected by a variety of timers, switches, mechanical and electronic locks and procedural safeguards against any attempt to bring about an unauthorised nuclear explosion, but the possibility of detonating at least a radiological ‘dirty’ bomb cannot be discounted.
The latest START treaty deals only with strategic weapons, those held solely by Russia and the USA:
Under terms of the treaty, the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers will be reduced by half. The treaty limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, which is down nearly two-thirds from the original START treaty, as well as 30% lower than the deployed strategic warhead limit of the 2002 Moscow Treaty… It will also limit the number of deployed and non-deployed inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments to 800. Also, it will limit the number of deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments to 700. The treaty allows for satellite and remote monitoring, as well as 18 on-site inspections per year to verify limits…The treaty places no limits on tactical systems… (Source). [Emphasis added by Pavellas].
NATO’s “tactical” nuclear bombs in Europe are all owned by the United States and are stored under the control of the US Air Force. So, a discussion about Europe’s security necessarily involves discussion of NATO and the USA, which it did during this seminar.
- The new START Treaty is a positive development in that it will cause a reduction in nuclear warheads, will restore the idea of nuclear accountability and provides a legal framework for reduction.
- For nations, it is quietly recognized that tactical nuclear weapons have no military value, but are used primarily for political purposes, e.g., in “signaling” other nations about capabilities and intentions. (This does not address the dangers of nuclear arms in the possession of non-nation entities, such as terrorist organizations).
- The domino theory of nuclear arms proliferation (i.e., if country A gets them it will induce country B to get them) is contestable by the facts. For instance, North Korea has them, but South Korea doesn’t and says it won’t. But, of course, the USA has promised to defend South Korea.
- Existing nuclear warheads need to be maintained to be operational, and this is a costly enterprise. The implication is that older warheads will not be maintained fully over time and that there will be a decline in their numbers and capability, everywhere. However, new warheads can be produced by those countries with the means in the “tactical” realm without violating treaties and other public promises.
- Other perceived threats to humans seem more immediate and needful for attention that the funding of nuclear weapon development, such as: climate change, pandemics and secure national borders.
- There is increasing transparency (i.e., visibility) of those activities that threaten national and world stability. This transparency aids the work of civil, i.e., non-governmental, advocacy organizations such as IKFF, university research departments and private think tanks, some of which were represented at this seminar (see below). Timely and publicly available oversight by such organizations can lead to more timely responses to threats to peace and freedom.
Pavel Podvig: affiliate and former research associate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Daryl G. Press: Associate Professor of Government, Dartmouth University.
Fredrik Westerlund: Security policy analyst, Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).
Petra Tötterman Andorff: Secretary General, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Sweden (IKFF).
Strategic Outlook 2010: Swedish Defence Research Agency (PDF)
The Nuclear Dimension of US Primacy (PDF): by Daryl G. Press
The Fallacy of Nuclear Primacy, by Bruce G. Blair and Chen Yali
The Future of Nuclear Weapons in NATO, by Ian Anthony and Johnny Janssen