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Relocating Tactical Nuclear Weapons? A View from Japan

Tags: NATO , Nuclear Weapons , Russia , National Security

Tsuruoka, Michito

May 30, 2011


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Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization met in Lisbon, Portugal, in November 2010 and adopted a new Strategic Concept that will lay the course of the alliance in the years to come. There is one specific section of the document that has caused concern among experts and policymakers in Japan. In the context of discussions of decreased reliance on nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament, paragraph 26 of the Strategic Concept makes it clear that NATO wants Russia to “relocate” the tactical nuclear weapons in Europe “away from the territory of NATO members.”

This brief essay will examine this issue from various angles to draw as many aspects of the relocation issue into the light as possible. While NATO’s statement may appear quite troubling from one vantage point, it can seem innocuous from another. Following a brief background of this issue, reasons for concern and reasons suggesting that fears may be misplaced will be examined in turn.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe

There are at least two different aspects to the problem of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe today. The first concerns those weapons on NATO’s side, which consists of US weapons believed to be deployed in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey. The number and variety of such nuclear weapons have greatly decreased since the end of the Cold War, and they now consists exclusively of B61 gravity bombs (air-to surface). Though the total number of those weapons deployed in Europe has not been made public, estimates typically put the number of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe at around 200.

These weapons are maintained by the US military, but in emergency circumstances they can also be loaded into host country aircraft (dual-capable aircraft) and used by the host country. This mechanism, unique to NATO, is known as “nuclear sharing.” There is now a hot debate going on in NATO about whether the benefits of this mechanism outweigh the associated costs and risks today. The view that nuclear sharing is nothing more than an outmoded legacy of the Cold War and no longer serves a valid purpose is gaining traction within the alliance. As the scheduled retirement of the current dual-capability aircraft draws near, each of the countries concerned must soon decide whether to replace those aircraft with new ones. The November 2010 Strategic Concept postponed any decision on the future of nuclear sharing. There was simply no consensus among the allies on this issue.

A second aspect of the issue of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe concerns Russia. Estimates put the size of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal in excess of 2,000 weapons, either currently deployed or stored. At more than 10 times the size of NATO’s arsenal, the imbalance is stark. Accordingly, NATO has often claimed that the removal of NATO’s (US) nuclear weapons deployed in Europe is contingent upon Russia’s agreement to tactical nuclear weapon disarmament. Paragraph 26 of the new Strategic Concept states that NATO “must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons” when considering any further reductions in NATO’s arsenal. This implies, firstly, that NATO has no interest in unilateral nuclear disarmament and, secondly, that NATO considers its nuclear arsenal an important bargaining chip in negotiations to reduce Russia’s lead in tactical nuclear weapons.

Given that Russia needs to rely on nuclear weapons to compensate for its deficiency in conventional weapons, it is nearly unthinkable that the country would easily agree to reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons. Although the United States has identified tactical nuclear weapons as the next step in nuclear disarmament following New START, it does not have a clear blueprint on how it can proceed. Besides Russia’s reluctance to relinquish its nuclear advantage, there are numerous technical and political issues, including the difficulty of verifying the disarmament process. Tactical nuclear weapons are, unlike ICBMs, ill-suited to standard inspections and verifications, as it is difficult to compile reliable information on their numbers and locations.

In this context, NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept remained modest, saying only that it “will seek to create the conditions for further [nuclear weapons] reductions in the future.” Simultaneously, however, as a short-term goal, it mentions that NATO’s “aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members.” Japan and other countries neighboring Russia on non-European borders have naturally wondered whether this proposal solves or even alleviates the problem. They see the proposal as pushing the risk and threat of tactical nuclear weapons onto other regions. Some fear that Russia could redeploy those weapons in the Asian part of the country.

These issues bring to mind the debate in the 1980s on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF). One of the key issues during INF negotiations was whether the US (or the West as a whole) should seek global abolition (Global Zero) or whether it would be more realistic to settle for the abandonment of these weapons in the European theater (Europe Zero). The idea of removing Soviet SS-20s from the European theater based on the Europe Zero option left open the possibility of their redeployment in Far Eastern Russia, which was greatly troubling for Japan and other East Asian nations.

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone thus urged the United States to stick to the goal of Global Zero. Many in Europe, though, believed that the Europe Zero option should be pursued as a first step forward in case Global Zero negotiations broke down or became drawn out. In the end, INF negotiations concluded in December 1987 with an agreement on global abandonment, and the specter of Soviet missiles being redeployed in East Asia was avoided. The outcome of these negotiations stood as a validation that the security of Europe and Japan were “indivisible.”

Reasons to Be Concerned

Based on the above background, there are five reasons why Japan needs to be concerned about the idea of relocating Russian tactical nuclear weapons.

First and foremost, if those weapons are actually relocated away from European borders, this poses a potential military concern for Japan. Geographically speaking, the European regions of Russia are the farthest from Japan, so if these weapons are moved, they will most likely come nearer to Japan. In light of the fact that Russia has lately strengthened its military presence in the disputed Northern Territories, and its military doctrine labels territorial claims against Russia as one of major “military dangers,” any Russian nuclear weaponry located nearer to Japan may thus be construed as a point of military concern.

A second point of concern, connected to the first and to Russia’s position on the Northern Territories, is the sharp increase in Russia’s political maneuverability vis-à-vis Japan should the nuclear weapons be relocated in Japan’s vicinity—even if this does not constitute a direct military threat. Given that the threshold for using tactical nuclear weapons is considered lower than that of strategic nuclear weapons, their presence could become a tacit means of exerting pressure on Japan. (Of course, simply saying no to relocation would mean neglecting the existing threat that Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons poses to NATO countries, particularly those that border Russia. For Japan to insist that the status quo in Europe be maintained just to prevent increased dangers in Asia would thus be an irresponsible attitude.)

Third, Japan has reason to be concerned not only about Russia but also about NATO. The wording of the Strategic Concept suggests a narrow, Eurocentric view. That alone is troubling for Japan, regardless of whether any weapons are actually relocated. That is to say, NATO does not appear to be thinking about the interests of countries outside the region and is acting as an organization concerned only with the security of its member states. If this is the case, it would be a cause for disappointment for Japan.

A fourth point of concern is the US position on this issue. It appears that the idea of demanding that Russia relocate its weapons came originally from Washington. If this is the case—and further examination is required regarding the process of how this idea came about—then Japan would be right to be even more concerned. If the proposal originated with the United States, it cannot be discounted as an example of “narrow Eurocentrism.” In fact, the first public reference to the relocation idea was made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the April 2010 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia. Clinton’s “five principles” concerning nuclear weapons, outlined in Tallinn, included the proposed relocation of Russian tactical nuclear weapons away from the territory of NATO members.

Prior to the November 2010 NATO Leaders Summit, a number of high-ranking officials in the Obama administration, including Under Secretary of State (for Arms Control and International Security Affairs) Ellen Tauscher and Under Secretary of Defense (for Policy) Michèle Flournoy, echoed nearly the identical phrasing of the relocation proposal. This suggests there was a unified US government position in support of the idea of relocating Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons in the run-up to the Lisbon Summit.

Washington’s fundamental stance in the previously mentioned INF negotiations was Global Zero, which Japan also supported. Japan could thus rely on the United States to win over those European states that were inclined to settle for a Europe Zero solution. But this time, the structure of the problem seems to have changed. Given Tokyo’s tendency to rely on the United States to apply pressure on Europe on its behalf, this should be a cause for concern..

A fifth and final worry is that relocation is a makeshift solution that does not advance the goal of nuclear disarmament, since it does not lead to a reduction in the total number of tactical nuclear weapons. Even worse, it could lead to the fixing of the current number of tactical weapons, especially for Russia.

Reasons Not to Be Concerned

The five points outlined above are all real and legitimate concerns for Japan. But when the issue is considered from other angles, there are also reasons why fears of the relocation proposal’s possible implications may be overblown. There are four sets of reasons.

First, the likelihood of Russia actually relocating its tactical nuclear weapons is quite low. In fact, it is probably unrealistic to expect Russia to make military decisions simply at NATO’s behest. As such, the relocation proposal in NATO’s new Strategic Concept can be understood as a mere formality. If the proposal is not followed by real pressure on Russia, Japan need not worry too greatly about the consequences of the proposal. Even if the United States and other NATO countries press strongly for relocation, how Russia reacts is up to Russia. The redeployment of nuclear weapons, moreover, incurs costs and risks and is no simple matter for Russia.

Second, Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal consists of air-launched missiles, gravity bombs, short-range missiles, naval torpedoes, and defensive interceptor missiles. In order for these weapons to threaten Japan, they would have to be deployed at facilities near Japan. Options for doings so are limited. On this point, these tactical weapons systems are fundamentally different from the INF, which had longer ranges and could reach Japan from many different locations east of the Ural Mountains.

The third reason is related to the fact that Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are aimed at counterbalancing not only NATO’s arsenal but also China’s. Japan is not considered one of Russia’s primary targets, and so perhaps there is no need to overreact. Over the long term, at least as a brainstorming exercise, though, Japan will ultimately need to consider which poses the greater risk, Russia’s nuclear weapons or China’s. Both naturally represent risks, but if Japan were to conclude that China is of greater concern, Russia’s nuclear arsenal could function as a deterrent to China. Such a counterbalancing effect would primarily be between Russia and China, though, and there is no way of quickly discerning the possible impact for Japan. The question eventually needs to be addressed: Which better benefits Japan, allowing China to maintain its extreme military advantage in Asia, or having Russia and China more balanced? It goes without saying, though, that China is highly unlikely to lose its advantage in conventional forces owing to the sheer population differential.

Last but not least, there is the important question of exactly what “relocation,” as mentioned in the new Strategic Concept, means. Some NATO experts contend that the intent is not for Russia to redeploy its tactical nuclear arsenal in another location but to move the currently deployed weapons into storage, away from any of Russia’s external borders. If this interpretation is correct, then Russia’s non-European neighbors have less reason to be concerned. However, it is not clear whether this understanding is shared throughout NATO, and there is no guarantee that Russia will interpret the proposal this way. (As mentioned above, assuming that Russia is unlikely to heed NATO’s requests in the first place, though, how it interprets such requests may not matter.)

Why Japan Should Speak Out

Arguments on both sides, as discussed above, make strategic sense, so drawing a clear-cut conclusion on how Japan should respond is not easy. The issue is indeed complex and multifaceted. Regardless of how real the concerns raised by the idea of relocation turn out to be, though, it is clear that Japan must clarify and convey its position to NATO (and to Russia). There are two basic reasons for doing so.

First, expressing interest in the Strategic Concept and engaging with NATO in other ways would serve not only to highlight Japan’s role as a stakeholder in this process but to encourage NATO to have greater awareness of the security situation in East Asia as well. Through such a process, Japan and NATO (and its member countries) would come to a better understanding of their respective mutual interests.

Second, although the degree to which Japan should be troubled by the proposed relocation is an open question, expressing concerns over various aspects of the proposal would enhance the sense of urgency of and give greater substance to the ongoing dialogue between Japan and NATO (and member states). A similar situation was observed in the mid-2000s between Japan and the European Union. Japan expressed strong opposition to the EU’s move to lift its arms embargo on China. This became the impetus for the 2005 start of strategic dialogue between Japan and the EU on the East Asian security environment.

Talking about issues that are important for both sides—even if the parties do not see eye to eye on them—will engender a more substantial dialogue. The launch of Japan-EU strategic dialogue can be said to be one positive byproduct of the controversy over the issue of lifting the arms embargo on China. Dialogue between Japan and Europe was also enhanced during the INF negotiations in the 1980s owing to the critical importance of this issue for both sides. Despite the lack of concrete results, these discussions led to attempts to strengthen ties between Japan and NATO. These cases have all served as important lessons for Japan.

This is why the issue of relocating tactical nuclear weapon should be seen as an opportunity. It would be unwise for Japan to simply convey its anxiety or criticism to NATO. Instead, both would benefit from this occasion if it is used to highlight the fact that Japan and NATO member states face common international security threats and challenges and to enhance shared perceptions on nuclear and other important issues. For Japan, such a process would also represent a valuable learning opportunity.

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Note: The term “tactical” nuclear weapons has been used throughout this article. The November 2010 Strategic Concept uses the term “short-range” nuclear weapons. In the past, NATO usually used the term “sub-strategic” nuclear weapons, while the United States used “non-strategic.” All four terms refer to the same class of weapons. NATO’s decision not to use “sub-strategic” this time is understood to be related to the fact that Britain has stopped using the term and also because the pervasive view that all nuclear weapons have a “strategic” impact, regardless of their destructive power. (Britain’s nuclear arsenal consists only of submarine-launched Trident ballistic missiles, which are long-range missiles, but in the past some of these missiles were described as having a “sub-strategic” role.)

In addition, it may not be logical to classify nuclear weapons that are carried aboard planes or boats by range. For these reasons, I have used “tactical nuclear weapons,” which is the term currently used most often in the media and among experts. The use of this term is not intended to deny that the weapons in question have “strategic” implications and consequences.

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