The Davy Crockett was one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever made by the United States. Built in the late 1950s, and designed for the battlefields of Europe to stop a possible Warsaw Pact invasion, the warhead looked like a watermelon, being only 30 inches long and weighing about 76 pounds. From a portable tripod launcher, it could be fired at the enemy as close as 1,000 feet or up to 13,000 feet away. It was a weapon for nuclear war at close range.
But the little nuclear watermelon is a reminder of the big work still to be done in arms control. The just-completed strategic weapons treaty that U.S. President Barack Obama will sign in Prague next week with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev does not cover smaller nuclear warheads in both arsenals that are a legacy of the Cold War -- the so-called battlefield, or tactical weapons.
The United States is believed to have about 200 tactical nukes in Europe, all of them B61 free-fall gravity bombs to be used with U.S. and allied tactical aircraft, out of 500 total tactical nukes in the active U.S. arsenal. The Russians are estimated to have about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, several hundred in the European part of the country and the remainder in central storage sites.
These smaller warheads have never been covered by a specific treaty, nor are they subject to the kind of verification that is used to prevent cheating in the agreements covering the long-range or strategic weapons, including the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. What's more, they are relics of a bygone era, with no military usefulness. There is no longer a Warsaw Pact or a Soviet Union threatening a massive invasion across the Fulda Gap that would have to be stopped with a last-ditch decision to fire off the battlefield nukes.
Obama may dream of a world without nuclear arms, but it is with weapons systems like these, which remain in place years after the Cold War, that his goals meet the unpleasant reality and the unfinished business of the past.
White House officials want everyone to rest assured: They'll make an effort to deal with tactical nuclear weapons in the next treaty. In fact, they mistakenly thought, a year ago, that the new START agreement would be a snap and they'd be moving on to the bigger challenges by now. But a closer look suggests that tactical nukes are going to be very, very hard to negotiate. That's why they are still around -- it is a tough one.
For years, experts have been warning about the dangers of tactical nukes. They could be a temptation for a terrorist diversion, small enough to be driven away in a truck. While it would be difficult to actually explode one, there was serious concern at the end of the Cold War about the thousands of Soviet-era tactical nuclear weapons. The warheads were vulnerable as Moscow hastily hauled them back into Russia in old train cars which lacked sophisticated alarms or armored blankets to protect the warheads from bullets or shrapnel. Although the warheads were deactivated, the headaches were immense, including a shortage of secure storage space to hold them once they got back into Russia. Eventually, the United States carried out a secret operation in which one of the Soviet model cars was shipped to Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, which designed an upgrade.
Both Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H. W. Bush realized the urgency in late 1991 and unilaterally withdrew many of these weapons in the final months before the Soviet collapse. But they never sealed these pullbacks in a mutual arms control treaty, and there is no verification to this day.