Observations on arms control and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe

Oct. 2, 2012
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Jeff McCausland Photo by Jacqueline McBride/LLNL (Download Image)

Observations on arms control and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe

Lauren Y Devore, devore1@llnl.gov, 925-422-0855

Most people are probably unaware of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and this agreement is nowhere near the top of the priority list for Congress, but CFE is regarded by many in the arms-control community as a cornerstone of European stability.

As explained by Jeff McCausland, distinguished visiting professor of research and Minerva chairholder at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, at a seminar sponsored by the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) last week, the CFE treaty is vitally important even two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Unless we address conventional forces in Europe, we will not be able to make any progress with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons."

CFE eliminated the Soviet Union's vast advantage in conventional weapons in Europe by setting equal limits on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters that NATO and the Warsaw Pact could deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. The goal of the treaty was to prevent either side from amassing forces along the inter-Germanic border for a blitzkrieg-type attack, which could have led to the use of nuclear weapons in response.

In negotiating arms-control treaties, McCausland noted that treaties are tools of policy. "They are not policy, they are a means to an end. And the key to success ful negotiations is to figure out at the outset what the goal is -- what's the treaty's mandate?" In McCausland's view, the CFE treaty has been extremely effective. Signed in November 1990 (after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November 1989, and before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in December 1991), the treaty facilitated the peaceful withdrawal of huge numbers of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe and the verified destruction of nearly 70,000 pieces of treaty-limited equipment. It also facilitated the German reunification treaty. Later, the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War included an arms agreement that was modeled after the CFE treaty.  Verification inspections were conducted of American forces deployed to Bosnia in the aftermath of that conflict and during the Kosovo Crisis. "Bottom line, with the CFE, extraordinary transparency became routine."

A CFE adaptation agreement was signed in 1999 updating the treaty to reflect the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the expanding NATO alliance. The revised agreement replaced the bloc-to-bloc and zone limits of the original treaty with national and territorial ceilings. However, because of disputes with Russia over the withdrawal of its treaty-limited weapons and military forces from Georgia and Moldova, the U.S. and NATO partners have not ratified the adapted treaty and it has not yet entered into force.

According to McCausland, the current administration has worked quietly but steadily to get the treaty back on track. These efforts have made it clear that negotiations with Russia must take a holistic approach to the overall security situation. Issues related to conventional armed forces, tactical nuclear weapons and missile defense are inextricably intertwined.

Unlike during the Cold War, when Western Europe felt threatened by the Soviet Union's overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons, the situation is reversed today. Russia has greatly reduced its conventional forces in Europe (in large part for budgetary reasons) and feels threatened by the expansion of NATO to include more than half a dozen former Warsaw Pact countries and the three former-Soviet Baltic republics. As a result, Russia has increased its reliance on tactical or "non-strategic" nuclear weapons.

McCausland presented three options for going forward. One option is to include non-strategic nuclear weapons in the next START agreement, addressing warheads instead of delivery vehicles. "The Russians don't appear to like this approach, and verification measures would be very difficult."

 A second option is to strike a "grand bargain" that covers both conventional and nuclear arms. "This may not be the solution, but progress with conventional weapons could set the conditions to find a solution."

A third option is to focus on cooperative security and confidence-building measures, such as de-mating warheads from delivery vehicles, relocating weapons and forces east and away from Europe ("which could cause Russia problems with China and some of America's Asian allies"), and discussions of military doctrine to better understand each side's views on the use of conventional and nuclear forces.

As worrisome as tactical nuclear weapons are to arms-control negotiators on both sides, McCausland noted that, in his view, the greater threat is the possibility of such weapons in the hands of a third party or terrorists. "We should work together to safeguard these weapons."

Even though the NATO-Russia negotiations on CFE are currently at a standstill, the geopolitical landscape continues to shift and evolve. "Inter-state and regional dynamics are fascinating. There is so much history that colors everything associated with these negotiations, and we must keep this in mind going forward."

In an aside, McCausland explained the shortened acronym for the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty. "The negotiations were being held in Vienna. Someone somewhere in the upper echelons decreed that we would not be meeting for CAFE in Vienna."

For more information on the CFE, see the Arms Control Association Factsheet.

Tags: Weapons