At the end of this week, thousands of experts in one of humanity’s most terrible possibilities — nuclear war — will meet here in Washington to discuss how to avoid what they have spent their careers planning to do, in hopes they never will. Michael Krepon, one of America’s most experienced practitioners of the arcane art of nuclear planning, offers the following critique of both Russia and America’s plans for nuclear modernization. Of course, the Russians aren’t attending the summit, but Krepon’s arguments are really aimed at the American national security establishment. Read on. The Editor.
Russia possesses more tactical nuclear weapons and a larger number of low-yield nuclear weapons than the United States. Published estimates suggest that Russia possesses perhaps four times more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States. But this ratio is deceiving. The Kremlin’s heavy reliance on these weapons comes from a place of weakness rather than strength. The United States does not need as many tactical nuclear weapons as Russia, but does still need to base some in Europe.
The disparity in numbers of US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons reflects how the Cold War ended. When Warsaw Pact countries faced off against NATO, the Soviet Union enjoyed conventional military advantages. Soviet military planning assumed the use of large numbers of tactical nuclear weapons combined with a massive ground campaign. Now that the Warsaw Pact has dissolved, along with the Soviet Union, and some Warsaw Pact members have joined NATO, Russian doctrine continues to emphasize the role of tactical nuclear weapons, as might be expected given the advantage the West possesses in conventional military capabilities.
When the Soviet Union was dissolving, President George H.W. Bush took the lead in removing the least safe and secure weapons from US Army units, naval surface combatants and submarines. The Bush administration hoped that President Mikhail Gorbachev would follow suit and agree to parallel Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. Gorbachev did, but his successors didn’t follow through completely.
The United States Army and Navy remain content to operate without tactical nuclear weapons. The US Air Force retains a small stockpile of these weapons for prompt delivery by nuclear-capable aircraft. Perhaps 160 to 200 weapons remain in Europe to reassure NATO partners of US resolve and extended deterrence. They are deployed in Italy, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Russia possesses an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. One presumed location is Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between NATO member states Lithuania and Poland. Moscow has reportedly deployed Iskander nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. As Rasa Juknevičienė, Lithuania’s former defense minister, noted, “The infrastructure for tactical nuclear weapons is still there and we don’t know whether the Iskanders in Kaliningrad are ready for use.”
Meanwhile, Russia is carrying out an across-the-board modernization program for its nuclear forces, which presumably includes tactical nuclear warhead refurbishment or replacement. Former Director of Russia’s Sarov nuclear laboratory Viktor Mikhailov has referred to a future where Russian low-yield weapons can be used as a “nuclear scalpel.” And Russian Vice Adm. Oleg Burtsev has pointedly announced that, “We can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles.”
The United States is also modernizing and extending the service life of its nuclear warheads, including the B61 mod 12s, which possess dial-a-yield capabilities as low as one-third of a kiloton (for comparison, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of between 15-21 kilotons). The replacement of the B61 mod 12’s parachutes with steerable fins makes it one of the most accurate weapons in the US arsenal. Russian leaders have every reason to expect that B61 mod 12s will be forward-deployed in Europe.
In 2000, Russia introduced a military doctrine that proposed the use of limited nuclear strikes as a way to “deescalate” a conventional conflict in which they would be overmatched. Russia’s nuclear doctrine also leaves open the possibility – first enunciated in 1993 — of crossing the nuclear threshold first. Likewise, the United States reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first, but the likelihood of doing so has seemed remote after the Soviet Union dissolved.
Now, with Russia’s military campaign in eastern Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea, there are growing concerns raised in the United States about the need to reinforce lower rungs on the nuclear escalation ladder. This argument proceeds from the assumption that, lacking more options for low-yield weapons’ employment, Washington would be at a disadvantage in the event of the first use of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. In this view, a US president should never be in a position to either respond to Russian military actions with large-yield detonations or be self-deterred and choose not to act.
For example, Clark Murdock, formerly of the Center of Strategic and International Studies, has argued that the United States needs to develop “low-yield, special-effects warheads (low collateral, enhanced radiation, earth penetration, electromagnetic pulse).” In his view, credible deterrence requires matching Moscow rung for rung on the escalation ladder.
We believe the choice between retaliation with higher-yield nuclear weapons or standing down because of Russia’s use of low-yield detonations is a false dichotomy. The United States retains the capability to respond in kind to the use of low-yield nuclear detonations, if the need arises. But it is folly for Russian strategists to think of nuclear weapons as a “scalpel” and as a mechanism for de-escalation. It is also folly for the United States to lend credence to such dangerous thinking by placing greater emphasis on the utility of tactical nuclear weapons. Detonating low-yield nuclear weapons remains an open-ended invitation to uncontrolled escalation, since the number of detonations matters as much their yields. Padding the number of forward-deployed B61 mods12s or adding new warhead designs for tactical nuclear weapons won’t help escalation control if the Kremlin goes off this deep end.
The United States is embarking on what may be a trillion-dollar strategic modernization program over the next three decades. If this is not enough to convince Russia and US allies of extended deterrence, then adding to this expense by increasing the number and types of tactical nuclear weapons won’t be persuasive, either. There are better ways to reinforce deterrence and reassurance in Europe – ways that play to US and NATO strengths rather than to mimic Russian reliance on tactical nuclear weapons.
Besides, there is little interest and much resistance in the United States and NATO for developing new warhead designs for low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons. The George W. Bush Administration tried and failed to garner congressional support for the Reliable Replacement Warhead and the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. The Obama administration has clarified that it wishes to refurbish existing designs, not pursue new ones. If a future US administration changes course and decides to pursue new warhead designs, it can expect firestorms at home and abroad.
There is, however, a working consensus in the United States on refurbishing existing warhead designs like the B61 mod12s. If modest numbers of this warhead do not suffice to deter the first use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia, larger numbers in Europe won’t help. If deterrence fails and Russia uses many tactical nuclear warheads, its “scalpel” would become a bludgeon, and the finely tuned rungs on escalation ladders embraced by nuclear deterrence strategists will go up in smoke and radioactive ash.
The best way to dissuade the Kremlin from making the incalculably bad decision of using nuclear weapons in Europe and to demonstrate US strength and alliance solidarity with NATO partners is to beef up conventional capabilities. The worst way is to mimic dangerous Russian thinking and to construct new rungs of a nuclear escalation ladder that NATO partners do not wish to climb.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center, where Joe Kendall works as an intern.