Russia’s small nukes are a big problem


The United States and Russia are pretty evenly matched in terms of the number of nuclear weapons, right? Well, not really.

Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — also known as New START — both countries have 1,550 deployed strategic (i.e., high-yield and long-range) nuclear weapons each.

But New START doesn’t cover nonstrategic (i.e., low-yield and short-range) nuclear weapons. And when it comes to these tactical weapons, Russia has a tremendous advantage.

Moscow has about 2,000 tactical nukes, while the U.S. and NATO have about 200 — half of them deployed in Europe and half stored in the United States. Put another way, in the European theater, Russia has an approximate 20:1 advantage in these battlefield weapons and a 10:1 advantage over the United States and NATO overall. This asymmetry is deeply troubling.

Tactical nuclear weapons are meant for use against military installations or troop and equipment concentrations. But they could be used against civilians, as well.

There are deep concerns that Russia might use these weapons to change the course of its war on Ukraine.

There is also unease that Moscow’s tactical nuclear weapons could also be used against NATO as part of an “escalate to deescalate” stratagem. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review describes this as: “Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.”

During a conventional conflict with NATO, for example, Russia might decide to use a tactical nuke (or more) to prevent defeat, consolidate territorial gains or even freeze a conflict in place, limiting the prospect of further fighting.

Given the nearly 10:1 disparity in the tactical nuclear arsenals, Moscow may think a nuclear response from NATO isn’t credible due to Russia’s numerical advantage or concerns over escalation.

Today, there’s no end in sight to Russia’s war on Ukraine or its belligerence toward NATO. It’s critical that the West try to dissuade, deter, and deny Russia from using its tactical nuclear weapons.

Here are four steps the Biden administration and Congress should take, in cooperation with our NATO allies.

First, bolster NATO’s conventional force posture to deter future Russian adventurism against NATO territory and interests. This should include armor, air and theater missile defenses and long-range fire capabilities, especially in frontline NATO countries (e.g., Poland and the Baltic States). Deterring conventional war with Russia is critical to preventing escalation that involves Russian nuclear weapons.

Second, undermine Russia’s asymmetric advantage against NATO by deploying additional tactical nuclear weapons to Europe. This will narrow the nuclear deterrence gap with Russia, provide political reassurance to nonnuclear NATO allies and send a firm signal to Moscow discouraging first use — or the threat of first use as a stratagem. As with conventional deterrence, NATO allies should fully share the cost of these efforts.

Third, deploy additional theater missile defenses to offset the threat of Russia’s missile-based tactical nukes. Some NATO members still rely on Soviet-era air defense systems. These should be replaced with modern systems to improve interoperability, maintenance, supply, and air and missile defense integration.

Fourth, assess U.S. and NATO readiness to respond to a Russian tactical nuclear attack. Congress should hold open- and closed-door hearings and oversight visits to determine the readiness of U.S. and NATO forces to respond to such an attack in Ukraine or against NATO.

Russia’s mammoth edge in tactical nuclear weapons gives Moscow significant political-military advantages, including a broader range of policy options. It may even increase the chance of additional Russian risk-taking and adventurism.

The likelihood of Moscow using its tactical nuclear weapons isn’t tremendously high, due to the possibility of uncontrolled escalation. But the risk isn’t zero, making now the time to address this issue. Security and stability in Europe and U.S. national interests are at stake.

• A former deputy assistant secretary of defense, Peter Brookes is the Heritage Foundation’s senior fellow for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation. 

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