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Sunday, March 2, 2008

On Baby Nukes, Or, Sometimes The Smallest Things Cause The Biggest Problems

We come before you today with another of those giant stories.

In fact, this one is so large that to make it a bit more digestible we’re going to break it down into smaller parts. Today’s, obviously, is part one.

The issues we’ll discuss will be an immediate concern of the next President, they impact upon our relationships with many of the world’s nations, and they directly affect whether we will return to a nuclear arms race with Russia…and even more fundamentally, whether we will be a nation that embraces the “first use” of nuclear weapons while asking others to give them up.

And with that, I bid you welcome to the mostly uncharted territory of “Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons”.

Because this is a particularly large story, I want to take a moment to offer you a preview of what’s to come: we will explain exactly what the weapons are we’re talking about, how they’re used, who has them…and of course, some history to orient our thinking, and an analysis of the potential futures to tie it all together.

(A quick author’s note: unless otherwise noted, the quotes used throughout the series are from the Congressional Research Service’s report “Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons”; which as of this writing is just over a month old.)

The first question you might be asking is: how exactly does this affect the next Administration?

Congress has also required that the next Administration conduct a new review of U.S. nuclear weapons posture and programs in the FY2008 Defense Authorization Bill (H.Rept. 110-477).

So: just what exactly are nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and how are nuclear weapons used “tactically”?

According to the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms, a strategic mission is:

Directed against one or more of a selected series of enemy targets with the purpose of progressive destruction and disintegration of the enemy’s warmaking capacity and will to make war. Targets include key manufacturing systems, sources of raw material, critical material, stockpiles, power systems, transportation systems, communication facilities, and other such target systems.

As opposed to tactical operations, strategic operations are designed to have a long-range rather than immediate effect on the enemy and its military forces.

In contrast, the tactical use of nuclear weapons is defined as “the use of nuclear weapons by land, sea, or air forces against opposing forces, supporting installations or facilities, in support of operations that contribute to the accomplishment of a military mission of limited scope, or in support of the military commander’s scheme of maneuver, usually limited to the area of military operations.”

In times past, the distinction was made through weapons design and capabilities—for example, long-range Russian ICBMs at one time were not accurate enough for tactical use; and there was no delivery system capable of launching short-range US nuclear artillery shells from Germany to Moscow.

This view seems to be no longer valid. For example, first generation Soviet submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) had a relatively short range of less than 500 miles, but were absolutely strategic weapons. By the same token, modern US Air Force or Navy cruise missiles that we normally use tactically can become strategic weapons if the targeting is changed.

In fact, the same Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched from the sea into command and control targets in downtown Baghdad during the “shock and awe” campaign might have been used just as easily against Chinese naval vessels in the Taiwan Strait…and it may happen yet, if our defense establishment is to be believed.

A third way of defining “nonstrategic” weapons is by identifying them as those weapons that are not today covered by any other arms-control treaties or agreements.

While this third definition is the one we’ll be focused upon in these discussions (most of the time anyway); we should also keep in mind as we go along that the “strategic and tactical” definition of these weapons intertwines with our “not in a treaty” definition, and neither is mutually exclusive of the other.

Estimates suggest that by 1991 the Soviets possessed somewhere around 20,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, down from a peak of about 25,000. It is estimated the US possessed a number nearer to 7,000. These numbers had been trending down throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s as both sides modernized weapons systems and ratified various arms-control pacts.

What types of weapons are we talking about?

At different times during the period, [the Soviet Union] deployed “suitcase bombs,” nuclear mines, shells for artillery, short-, medium, and intermediate ballistic missiles, short-range air-delivered missiles, and gravity bombs.

With the exception of suitcase bombs (as far as we know) the US deployed the same types of weapons in Europe and Asia.

Both sides required so many nonstrategic weapons, particularly in the European theater, because Soviet doctrine envisioned surprise tactical nuclear attacks on NATO positions followed by masses of armor and infantry as the beginning of a Western European invasion (picture the process of “walking” artillery into an enemy encampment with your ground forces close behind the explosions and you have the idea on a smaller scale)…and NATO doctrine saw them as a tool to delay or stop such an invasion.

It is worth noting that for NATO these weapons also serve a political purpose. There are today weapons in storage sites located on bases in several of the NATO countries. Agreement among the NATO members seems to be required before they would be used…but beyond that, the presence of these weapons on European soil means even if the US chose not to respond to an aggression against a NATO ally, that ally could. This creates a certainty of deterrence that is believed to benefit the alliance in ways that extend beyond the weapons’ direct military utility.

By the 1980s, Soviet leaders had come to the conclusion that any tactical use of nuclear weapons against the US or NATO would lead to a “full exchange” of weapons, which would be…well, Mutually Assured Destruction.

In 1991, the United States began unilaterally reducing not just the inventory of warheads, but more importantly, nonstrategic nuclear weapons’ delivery systems. Nuclear anti-aircraft systems and the “atomic cannon” were among the decedents.

Current public disclosure reports only US attack submarines and aircraft can deliver such weapons.

It is reported that about 1100 of these weapons currently remain in the US arsenal. About 500 of the weapons are believed to be bombs which are stored in the NATO countries. About 320 sea-launched cruise missiles are believed to be stored in facilities in the US. The remainders are believed to be bombs, also stored on US territory.

The US, at the direction of the smarter President Bush, began to destroy the warheads from these weapons. The work continues to this day at the Pantex Plant in Texas (An example of how fast progress is made? The last W-79 nuclear artillery shell was destroyed in 2003). Due to the volume of backlogged work and the inability to increase processing capacity, job security at Pantex seems to be assured for some number of years to come.

Concurrent with the US reductions, the Soviet Union and later Russia also unilaterally reduced the number of their deployed weapons…but they do not appear to be dismantling all the warheads (despite earlier promises to do so), choosing instead to store them; either for future use or to be dismantled when more funding becomes available for such efforts.

For a number of years the Russian Federation has also been destroying strategic warheads (consistent with other treaty obligations); and in addition to the factors discussed above capacity restraints might account for the decision not to destroy the nonstrategic warheads.

Additionally, the Russians have recently made public statements that they need to store the warheads because they are concerned about US efforts to develop new generations of warheads.

Another reason the question of future use is being raised is because Russia, in contrast to our position at the time, chose to continue to consider the use-including first use-of nonstrategic nuclear weapons to be important part of their military doctrine.

From the CRS report:

Russia revised its national security and military strategy several times during the 1990s, with each successive version appearing to place a greater reliance on nuclear weapons. For example, the military doctrine issued in 1997 allowed for the use of nuclear weapons “…in case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation.”

The doctrine published in 2000 expanded the circumstances when Russia might use nuclear weapons to include attacks using weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies “as well as in response to large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.”

To understand the second paragraph of that quote completely, see: Chechnya, Inability to End Insurgency Using Conventional Forces…and then read the faux book “Russia Doesn’t Need Another Afghanistan, Thank You”.

There seems to be a low probability that Russia will resume a conventional military buildup sufficient to allow the nation’s military to reduce its reliance on “substrategic” nukes (the term favored by the United Nations’ WMD Commission) if only because of the unbelievable cost involved.

The US is looking at the better part of $800 billion, by my estimation, to “re-up” our military rolling stock and aircraft after the current Iraq adventure—and that does not include the cost of payroll for the soldiers to operate the new equipment…a cost we bear today, but the Russians do not.

There is no evidence that the kind of money required for such a buildup is even available to the Russian Federation—and as the Soviets discovered, the public will eventually demand butter over guns if they discover butter.

And today, Russian citizens know about butter.

That said, there were other reasons for the Russian decision to continue to rely on “battlefield nukes”. Examples include the concerns regarding NATO expansion and the inability to influence the NATO military actions against the Serbs in Kosovo; both of which also appear to have factored into the mix to one degree or another.

It is speculated that Russia may today have the ability to deploy nonstrategic nuclear weapons from aircraft, ships at sea, and in the form of air-defense missiles. There may also be weapons deployable by ground forces.

One Russian analyst has speculated that the [military planning] documents approved in 1999 focused on the development of operations plans that would allow Russia to conduct “limited nuclear war with strategic means in order to deter the enemy, requiring the infliction of preplanned, but limited damage.”

The concerns were as much about countries to the south (Iran, Pakistan, and maybe Iraq, we are told) as the US—and the ten years since then have made that assessment more relevant than ever.

These matters have become more noteworthy since Russia threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in the first half of 2007.

Let’s take a moment to reconsider where we’ve been so far:

There are certain nuclear weapons that once could be classified by their targeting, or their size, or their range, as “non strategic” or “substrategic” nuclear weapons.

Today we recognize them as those weapons not included in other arms-control regimes. We also now realize that many weapons could conceivably be strategic or nonstrategic depending on how the device is targeted.

Both the US and the Russian Federation are unilaterally decreasing the numbers of weapons in this class that are deployed, but there are issues related to the destruction of the warheads associated with those weapons and their possible future use.

Russian military doctrine continues to envision the first use of nuclear weapons against some targets…and as concerns over Islamist-inspired terrorism and its impact on the Russian state increase; the probability of their actual use does as well.

That probability is further increased when you realize that Russian Federation conventional forces are not today likely to be able to mount an expeditionary campaign similar to our own Iraq/Afghanistan campaigns, should they be the victims of a “9/11” style attack.

That’s plenty to digest for today…and for next time: the evolution of US doctrine regarding the use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the changing cast of potential characters, and the challenges we face going forward as those first two topics interact.

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