Commentary: About Those Other Nukes

By Stan Crock

When President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sit down in Moscow on May 24 to slash their strategic nuclear weapon arsenals, they'll be cashing in some of the peace dividend from the end of the Cold War. The deal on long-range strategic nukes is a diplomatic achievement of the first order. But the American and Russian leaders should not stop here.

Although the topic is not on the agenda for the Moscow summit, Bush and Putin should move rapidly on a pact to deal with a less powerful, but still deadly arsenal: the two nations' stockpiles of tactical nukes, designed for use on the battlefield. Unlike strategic weapons, tactical nukes don't cross oceans, but they can kill thousands at a stroke and still spread a radioactive pall over an area. An agreement covering tactical nukes could make sure these weapons don't fall into the wrong hands, and control the next generation of these armaments.

Right now, no arms accord governs the U.S.'s 1,350 tactical nuclear weapons, or Russia's stockpile of some 3,600 operational warheads. Yet these nukes are the most likely to end up in the hands of terrorists or rogue states like Iraq. "These weapons are stored in the least secure facilities [in Russia]," says Joseph Cirincione, an arms-control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The smallest tactical nuke is the size of a grapefruit, and the largest weighs some 550 kg. They can be attached to missiles like the Tomahawk and launched, fired from a submarine, or dropped from the air. U.S. negotiators have avoided the task of containing these nukes, figuring that verification of any deal was impossible, given the often small size of these warheads.

But with Russia inching toward an alliance with the West, verification should now be easier. "It's very important politically and even strategically that we have some common arrangement," says Fritz W. Ermarth, an ex-intelligence official and an expert in strategic issues.

That's particularly true now that both nations are reconsidering when and how to use tactical weapons, especially in situations when rogue states threaten mass destruction. The Pentagon is studying "bunker-buster" tactical nukes, which can penetrate deeply buried military sites; nuclear-tipped warheads to blast incoming ballistic missiles while still in space; and nuclear bomblets to incinerate biological weapons. On May 9, the House of Representatives passed a bill that okays research on such nukes.

When it's ready, Washington may go beyond mere research to actual testing. That's one reason the Bush Administration won't seek ratification of the 1996 nuclear test ban treaty. For its part, Russia denies that it plans new research or testing on tactical nukes. But the Pentagon believes that Russia's conventional forces are in such a shambles that Moscow would have to rely on tactical nukes in a major confrontation.

Former President Bill Clinton had hoped to freeze tactical nuclear arsenals when he and his Russian counterpart, Boris N. Yeltsin, attempted to cut strategic weapons in the failed START III accord. Bush and Putin should pick up where their predecessors left off. The world would be a safer place for their efforts.

Crock covers the Pentagon.

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