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Tackling Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
December 22, 2010
Foreign Policy

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As the New START treaty limped through the tortuous Senate ratification process, its Republican opponents threw a unique roadblock in its path: They complained that the treaty failed to reduce the number of "tactical" nuclear weapons -- low-yield warheads intended for short range applications or even battlefield use -- maintained by the United States and Russia. Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) purportedly in an effort to remedy this problem, proposed an amendment that would have added a mention of tactical nukes in the treaty's preamble.

Risch's amendment was little more than a political ploy -- its only practical effect would have been to kill New START by sending it back to another round of negotiations with the Russians -- which treaty supporters soundly defeated. However, Risch inadvertently touched on a critical issue: Tactical nukes do represent a significant national security concern, and negotiators should press for a limit on the number of warheads in the next round of U.S.-Russian negotiations.

Russia's alleged deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the borders of NATO set off alarm bells as recently as this spring. And for all of President Dmitry Medvedev's rhetoric about security cooperation at last month's NATO summit, Russia's vast tactical nuclear arsenal remains cloaked in secrecy. This isn't simply an arcane issue that concerns only arms-control wonks: Moscow sees these weapons as a counterbalance to NATO's conventional superiority in Europe.

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