U.S. Disclosure of Warhead Numbers Sets NPT Example -- and Presses Russia to Accounting of its Tactical Nuclear Arms     Print Email

In a drive to prove how serious it is about nuclear disarmament, the Obama administration last week made public the size of the American nuclear arsenal – 5, 113 weapons. This number attests a drastic cut back from cold war levels and is intended to show that the U.S. is complying with its responsibility under the forty-year-old nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by its own moves toward nuclear disarmament and wants other signatory nations such as Iran to adhere to their commitments to refrain from seeking nuclear weapons.

The U.S. move will also increase the diplomatic pressure on Moscow to make a similar disclosure about its own store of nuclear weapons. In particular, Washington wants to lay the baseline for any discussion about the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Germany and some other European members of NATO want the U.S. to remove all its tactical nuclear weapons from their soil.

In response, the Obama administration has rejected any such unilateral move. Instead, it might be willing to pursue talks with Russia about reductions in both countries’ tactical nuclear weapons. But for the moment it is unknown how many such weapons there are – and whether Moscow know how many it has and where they are.

Explaining the unilateral U.S. disclosure, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told a special UN meeting to review the NPT that the announcement was a clear demonstration of the administration’s commitment to nuclear transparency. “For those who doubt that the U.S. will do its part; this is our record – these are our commitments – and they send a clear message,” Clinton said. The “message” is partly the 85 percent reduction in the U.S. stockpile since its peak in 1967. It testifies to U.S. efforts to comply with its NPT disarmament obligations, countering long-standing accusations that Washington, by alleged non-compliance on its part, has lent more justification to non-nuclear weapons’ claim to be able to ignore their treaty obligation and join the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The “message” also seeks to prompt reciprocation from other nuclear-weapons countries to provide an accounting about their arsenals. No other country has divulged an exact number for their nuclear stockpiles but estimates say give these rough numbers: Russia (12,000), Britain (185), France (300), China (240), Israel (200), Pakistan (80) and India (80). (Israel, Pakistan and India have not signed the NPT.)

The two European members of NATO, while supporting the Obama administration’s efforts at global nuclear disarmament, have pointedly refrained from divulging any exact figures about their own much smaller arsenals of nuclear weapons. Britain is in the center of a quiet debate among political leaders about whether it can afford to sustain its nuclear deterrent. France is determined to maintain its independent nuclear strike force and to find political support for the validity of nuclear deterrence as a doctrine.

The other three nuclear powers – the U.S., Russia and China – all agree that nuclear deterrence contributes to global stability.

But some European political parties, notably in Germany, have called for the elimination of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on their soil in Europe as “relics of the Cold War.” While welcoming the release of U.S. data, these countries – including Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg – have no similar information about Russian tactical nuclear weapons that could reach their territory in a nuclear exchange confined to Europe.

The Obama administration has rejected such calls for unilateral U.S. abandonment of such weapons, apparently as part of a policy that calls for Russia to make concessions about its own arsenal as part of an overall disarmament step.

Sarah Geraghty