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Controlling Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
November 11, 2010
ISN Insights


Of the panoply of cavils leveled by Republican opponents to the New START Treaty, the most credible criticism centers on its omission of tactical, or "non-strategic" nuclear weapons. However, US President Barack Obama's administration was right to bypass tactical nuclear weapons in the interest of reconstituting the transparency and predictability of monitoring Russia's strategic nuclear capabilities under the treaty's verification regime.

The criticism warrants further attention, however, and the Republicans are correct in arguing that limiting and controlling these threatening weapons, which Washington and Moscow have not formally addressed since the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, should be a priority for the next round of talks. Controlling US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons would reduce the potential for nuclear terrorism, decrease the perceived threat to US allies and maintain momentum toward Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

What are tactical nuclear weapons? There is no official definition, and although the lines between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons are often blurred, the distinction is usually based on their associated delivery vehicles. When compared to the strategic nuclear weapons covered in the new START Treaty, tactical nuclear weapons are generally smaller, have lower yields and are intended for shorter range or even for battlefield use.

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