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Report to Congress on Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons

The following is the Jan. 17, 2019 Congressional Research Service report, Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons.

From the report

Recent debates about U.S. nuclear weapons have questioned what role weapons with shorter ranges and lower yields can play in addressing emerging threats in Europe and Asia. These weapons, often referred to as nonstrategic nuclear weapons, have not been limited by past U.S.-Russian arms control agreements, although some analysts argue such limits would be of value, particularly in addressing Russia’s greater numbers of these types of weapons. Others have argued that the United States should expand its deployments of these weapons, in both Europe and Asia, to address new risks of war conducted under a nuclear shadow. The Trump Administration addressed these questions in the Nuclear Posture Review released in February 2018, and determined that the United States should acquire two new types of nonstrategic nuclear weapons: a new low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a new sea-launched cruise missile.

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union both deployed nonstrategic nuclear weapons for use in the field during a conflict. While there are several ways to distinguish between strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons, most analysts consider nonstrategic weapons to be shorter-range delivery systems with lower-yield warheads that might be used to attack troops or facilities on the battlefield. They have included nuclear mines; artillery; short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles; cruise missiles; and gravity bombs. In contrast with the longer-range “strategic” nuclear weapons, these weapons had a lower profile in policy debates and arms control negotiations, possibly because they did not pose a direct threat to the continental United States. At the end of the 1980s, each nation still had thousands of these weapons deployed with their troops in the field, aboard naval vessels, and on aircraft.

In 1991, the United States and Soviet Union both withdrew from deployment most and eliminated from their arsenals many of their nonstrategic nuclear weapons. The United States now has approximately 500 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, with around 200 deployed with aircraft in Europe and the remaining stored in the United States. Estimates vary, but experts believe Russia still has between 1,000 and 6,000 warheads for nonstrategic nuclear weapons in its arsenal. The Bush Administration quietly redeployed some U.S. weapons deployed in Europe, while the Obama Administration retired older sea-launched cruise missiles. Russia, however seems to have increased its reliance on nuclear weapons in its national security concept.

Analysts have identified a number of issues with the continued deployment of U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons. These include questions about the safety and security of Russia’s weapons and the possibility that some might be lost, stolen, or sold to another nation or group; questions about the role of these weapons in U.S. and Russian security policy; questions about the role that these weapons play in NATO policy and whether there is a continuing need for the United States to deploy them at bases overseas; questions about the implications of the disparity in numbers between U.S. and Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons; and questions about the relationship between nonstrategic nuclear weapons and U.S. nonproliferation policy.

Some argue that these weapons do not create any problems and the United States should not alter its policy. Others argue that the United States should expand its deployments of these weapons in response to challenges from Russia, China, and North Korea. Some believe the United States should reduce its reliance on these weapons and encourage Russia to do the same. Many have suggested that the United States and Russia expand efforts to cooperate on ensuring the safe and secure storage and elimination of these weapons; others have suggested that they negotiate an arms control treaty that would limit these weapons and allow for increased transparency in monitoring their deployment and elimination. The 115th Congress may review some of these proposals.

Download report here.

  • Ser Arthur Dayne

    What we need to do is bring back the Iowa-class battleships and arm them with 16″ nuclear artillery shells. Then we could MESS BADGUYS UP big time…. Perhaps even load up the Armored Box Launchers with some TLAM-Ns and change out the propulsion plants to nuclear. Nuclear powered battleships with nuclear guns and nuclear Tomahawks…. pretty much the best thing since sliced whole-wheat multigrain bread, amirite??!

    • Ed L

      I remember those Armored Box Launchers All the Nuclear power cruisers had them too

  • Ed L

    Non-strategic nuclear weapons? is that the same as tactical nuclear weapons?

    • NavySubNuke

      Sort of — it means any US nuclear weapon that is not a strategic nuclear weapon. Strategic nuclear weapons are those that are limited by the New START treaty.

      • Ed L

        I though the little ones were cute

  • Duane

    This issue is often painted as “either/or”, i.e., we build a bunch more tactical nukes of varying designs, or we don’t. That’s too simplistic.

    Having a tactical nuke cruise missile deployable from submarines (which could also be deployed from other warships too) makes sense. China has its so-called carrier killer medium or intermediate range ballistic missiles that can be either conventional or nuclear (we must assume they’ll be nukes), so it makes sense for us to have a missile with similar effects (albeit a cruise missile vs. ballistic missile) so that we can take out Chinese carrier strike groups or amphibious invasion forces in the Straits of Taiwan or the Sea of Japan. That would be a very valuable deterrent to Chinese aggression.

    On the other hand, I really don’t get the rationale behind putting a very low yield warhead on a SLBM. We eventually only have 16 SLBM tubes per SSBN (the new Colombia class), and to waste even one of those 16 on a very low yield weapon is just a head scratcher. Far better to mount such a warhead on a stealthy cruise missile, or perhaps one of those newfangled hypervelocity glide vehicles we’re now developing to keep up with the Russians and Chinese. Such a weapon could be launched from one of the vertical launch tubes on a SSGN or a Virginia class SSN, and not detract from our strategic deterrent on the SSBNs.

    Of course, anything nuke is highly political. Democrats tend to oppose nukes, especially tacticals, and
    Republicans tend to support them. Given that we now have divided government, it seems likely that the current nuke plan by the Trump administration is going to get some form of haircut to get it funded by Congress.

  • NavySubNuke

    I hope the Navy is figuring out how to make the F-35C capable of employing the B51 and even LRSO if it can fit on the wing pylon. The Air Force is making the F-35A nuclear capable so we should be able to reap some savings.
    Having the plane ready to go nuclear if needed will vastly shorten the timeline to deploy nuclear weapons on our carriers again (should the President direct such a move).

    • Duane

      Whatever weapons that have been and will be integrated into the F-35A will also be integrated into the F-35C. That will include the B-61-12 which is just finishing up development now and will go IOC sometime this fiscal year. Then integration will begin on the F-35 shortly thereafter. Last I heard that integration is expected to be completed sometime in 2022.

      • NavySubNuke

        There is no plan or funding for that right now. Only -35A, and not even all of the -35As, are slated to be nuke capable because of the extra equipment and modifications required.
        AF is projecting nuke capable IOC in Feb 2024 as of March 2018. Navy has no plan or program, at the unclassified level anyway, to do this work.

        • Duane

          There will always be a limited number of nuclear certified aircraft, with all the required nuclear safeguards, regardless of which model deploys the bomb. True of USAF aircraft as well as USN aircraft.

          • NavySubNuke

            There are no nuclear certified USN aircraft, nor any plans to make or certify any. Nor are any Navy pilots trained on how to drop nuclear weapons.
            I actually had dinner with one of the last F-18 pilots to go through “nuke (bomb)” school befoee they shut it down a few months ago – he graduated over a 20 years ago and is now retired.

          • Duane

            Things change. I would be surprised if we did not eventually certify at least a few F-35Cs and their flight and ground crews to deploy the B-61-12 from a CVN. The C model is several years behind the A model in development and integration of weapons.

            We don’t deploy any tactical nukes on submarines now, but we used to (SubRoc, and TLAM-N), and now DOD wants to do so again. Things changed.

          • NavySubNuke

            Agreed, but it will take money and time and none of it is in the plan or the budget right now.
            NPR called for a SLCM-N to be put back in the fleet but a DCA certified -35C would be a great option, especially if it can carry an LRSO or two.
            Good luck getting any of it by Smith on the HASC though – he is off ignoring that the world has changed and giving speeches to Ploughshares.

      • NavySubNuke

        Just found this:

        “Detailed risk reduction activities have been completed ensuring the F-35A is fully compatible with the B61-12 weapon. Planning for Block 4 nuclear certification efforts have begun in anticipation of initial B61-12 integration on the F-35A this year,” Maj. Emily Grabowski, Air Force Spokeswoman, told Warrior Maven.
        The Block 4 F-35, to fully emerge in the next decade, contains more than 50 technical adjustments to the aircraft designed as software and hardware builds — to be added in six-month increments between April 2019 to October 2024, she added.
        ******
        Dated May 2018. No link obviously but title is “Air Force F-35 Integrates Precision-Guided B61 Mod 12 Nuclear Weapon”

        • waveshaper1

          I wonder when or if Turkey will get a small portion of their batch of F-35A’s upgraded to carry these newly minted – Nuke Shared B-61-12’s. Eventually the mod 12’s will be replacing the B61-3’s and 4’s in our Nuke Sharing Stockpile. IMHO, Turkey doesn’t rate any higher then BDU-38’s when it comes to this Nuke Sharing stuff.

          • Duane

            Turkey is not a nuclear power, and we do not provide nuclear weapons to any of our allies. We keep some B-61s, or at least we did, at Incirlik, but only for our use not Turkey’s.

          • waveshaper1

            LoL, I spent way to much of my time in those WSA’s with Nuke Shared Weapons/been there done that, etc, etc, etc. Anyway, you’re partially correct but somewhat misinformed/This Nuke sharing stuff goes “way back when” and you would be surprised on who had what/when/where/etc. Enough said.

          • NavySubNuke

            Not true – NATO nuclear burden sharing means we will have US b-61s on non-US fighters should a nuclear war start.
            NATO stated in May 2018: “A number of NATO member countries contribute a dual-capable aircraft (DCA) capability to the Alliance. These aircraft are available for nuclear roles at various levels of readiness – the highest level of readiness is measured in weeks. In their nuclear role, the aircraft are equipped to carry nuclear bombs and personnel are trained accordingly.” Source: “NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and forces”
            I have not seen an unclassified list of those countries but the statement specifically says “a number” and only the US and France maintain both DCA and bombs for them, ergo there are other countries with only DCA who will use the US bombs.

          • Duane

            If a NATO member is already nuclear armed, yes, we can share nuke weaps technology with them, but we don’t give them the weaps. And we don’t proliferate nukes to non-members of the nuke club, like Turkey. Turkey is allowed to “use” nukes in a NATO action, but that is kind of a fig leaf because the US still fully controls their release .. Turkey cannot deploy a nuke on their own recognizance.

          • NavySubNuke

            You seem to imply that the US can only share DCA tech with UK and France. This is not the position of the US or NATO with regard to NATO nuclear burden sharing technology that enables non nuclear states to possess DCA equipped planes.
            It is true we don’t “give” anyone a nuclear warhead but the US does make those weapons available for use by the alliance IAW alliance policies and procedures.
            I can neither confirm nor deny the list of NATO countries with DCA aircraft however the unofficial Nuclear Threat Initiative claims that the list includes Germany, Netherlands, and Italy.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    They have smaller yields, so do they leave behind less radiation?

    • Duane

      Radioactive contamination or “fallout” is mostly a function of where the bomb bursts. A high altitude burst yields relatively little contamination, a low altitude burst (as used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks) yields much more, and a penetrating “bunker buster” burst yields relatively little fallout.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        So all things being equal, the answer to my question is “yes”. Got it..

  • b2

    Hard to understand what needs to be done unless one knows what came before. Here’s some K.I.S.S. :

    I can remember that the US Navy had four different CVW aircraft that used non-strategic (tactical?) nuclear weapons. They included the A-6E, A-7E (F-18?), the S-3A/B and the SH-3. The attack birds carried nuclear gravity bombs and the ASW birds carried the same weapon with a depth charge setting..In 1989-1991 these capabilites were readily shed by the jubilant Navy leadership in order to save billions on training and logistics for this capability and of course to provide Bill Clinton his peace dividend that he went on to squander. The wicked witch was dead ( the USSR) and we could back off.. Ahhh peace. Does anyone remember “chopsticks”…I sure do.

    Now the wheel has turned. Do we need this stuff back in the Navy?

  • old guy

    I am really apalled. This report is VERY dangerous. Their is no reason to highlight thinking about the unthinkable. Tac nuc is a great step to world destruction. If we considerate at all it should be highly classified.

    • Duane

      Russia has tacticals, as does China, and both are prepared to use them. Count on it, in fact, if there is a real shooting war. If we go bare, we just invite them to whip us. Not intelligent.

      The Chinese “carrier killer” BMs, the DF-21 and DF-26, are both nuclear capable. Expect the Chinese to lob nukes at our CSGs. A single successful detonation above a CSG would wipe it out, in a single flash.

      The only way to deter the use of such weapons is to have the same capability ourselves … and if it does not deter the enemy, then use them.

  • joe m

    Go back to pre-1991 mentality and do it now. The world has rapidly transcended back to the way things were back then, so it only makes sense to operate under the same doctrine. Prepare for a long, sustained world war on multiple fronts with nation states that possess nuclear weapons. Rearm the CBGs and subs with B-61s and maybe modernized TLAM-Ns. And then stop talking about all of this stuff. Classify all of this nuclear stuff like it used to be. Then when the next generation of weapons are introduced, we aren’t doing the intelligence work for them.