The Little Nukes That Got Away

What Obama's new weapons treaty left out.

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.

Today, the Davy Crockett system has long since been retired, and is now a neat museum piece. You can see a casing of the warhead at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque.

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.

Fortunately, there are far fewer warheads on both sides today. And Russian storage facilities are probably more secure than in 1991. But those weapons that remain seem to stubbornly elude arms control.

Why? They are essentially political weapons for political ends. The argument for keeping U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is that they hold the alliance together -- a joint manifestation of the U.S. commitment to protect its allies. And the dual-key approach to managing them has meant that the Europeans would have to be involved in actually using them in the event. But lately, fresh demands have been made in Europe to take another look at the need for these weapons and possibly remove them. In February, the foreign ministers of Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Norway called on NATO to re-examine the need for them, and the issue is expected to be raised as the alliance writes a new "strategic concept" this year.

The United States and others have been reluctant to unilaterally withdraw the weapons, which are believed to be based in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. Before any arms-control negotiation could get underway, NATO would have to come up with a common position. And others have pointed out that the concept of extended deterrence -- the U.S. nuclear umbrella -- can be achieved with longer-range weapons and does not rely on the tactical nukes.

An even bigger question mark is whether Russia would be willing to reduce its pile of small nuclear weapons. Probably not any time soon. The expansion of NATO to its borders has left Russia wary, while its conventional or non-nuclear military forces are weaker than in the past. And Russian leaders are alarmed at the long-range precision-guided conventional weapons under development by the United States. Russia has demanded that the United States pull back all the tactical weapons in Europe to its national territory -- as Russia has already done -- before considering any negotiations.

Pavel Podvig, a physicist and research associate at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, points out that the new Russian military doctrine doesn't include any specific mission for tactical nuclear weapons. "Of course, nobody in Russia is ready to get rid of them just yet, but it does indicate that the Russians realize that the utility of these weapons is highly questionable, even if they aren't ready to publicly admit it," he wrote recently. Podvig made a practical suggestion for moving in phases: Both the United States and Russia would first move all tactical nukes to a central storage facility deep within their national territory, then later deal with verification, transparency, and ultimately elimination.

Podvig's plan would be a good first step. Without something like this, there may well be years of further impasse over weapons that lack a military purpose, deployed during a Cold War that ended two decades ago. So before anyone cracks open the champagne for Obama's vision of a nuclear free world, don't take your eye off the little guys.

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Google Isn't China's Problem. Press Freedom Is.

Sure, Google's retreat from China is a big story. But we may be missing the bigger one.

Last week, Google finally made good on its vow to pull its search business out of China. The company announced that, henceforth, queries to its famed search engine made from mainland Chinese IP addresses would be routed through Google's Hong Kong site. It was a decision made after the company went public with complaints about surveillance and censorship in the People's Republic.

Is this a big story about the freedom of information in China? Sure. Chinese Web fans worry that Google's decision to leave the field to its homegrown rivals -- such as Baidu -- bodes ill for the future of the Chinese Internet. Without Google, the reasoning goes, Chinese cyberspace could well become more isolated and less competitive, a poor prospect for Chinese businesses and citizens.

But David Bandurski -- a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project -- is worried about something else entirely. He says life is becoming harder for China's journalists, the ones who fill the Web with those stories in the first place. "The real issue isn't about a particular website or search engine," he says. "It is about the broader principle of public access to information."

Put bluntly: The climate for China's journalists is worsening, and it doesn't have anything to do with Google, or with the Chinese Communist Party's pretense to absolute ideological control of information. The problem is not that the party is scrubbing the Internet to remove stories it deems negative. The problem is the corrupt network between business and government, which places unwarranted pressure on journalists and editors. "It's no longer about abstract propaganda discipline," Bandurski says. "These days it's about specific money and power interests."

Case in point: In 2008, a newspaper called the China Business Post published a story that exposed malfeasance at the regional branch of one of China's biggest state banks. The bankers protested -- to powerful effect. One of their allies turned out to be a well-placed party chief who was tied to the businessmen through personal relationships. The next thing the journalists knew, the government had suspended the paper.

"The network of agencies devoted to media control in China, including the propaganda department, are now, more than ever before, mediators and players in a vast web of power and profit," Bandurski wrote in an analysis of the incident published in March 2009 in the Far Eastern Economic Review. "They no longer dish out just propaganda dictates; they dish out personal and professional favors too."

In some ways, these new party-backed capitalists are proving even more controlling of coverage than the old party communists were. Chinese journalists now complain of ever-tightening restrictions imposed by businesspeople supported by local political muscle. This cronyism even has a name in China -- guan shang gou jie, or, roughly, "business and government hooked together." In the old days, government officials called newspaper editors to complain about violations of the party line; now, they're calling to crack down on unflattering coverage of local companies. "Over the last five or 10 years these networks [of influence] have hardened," Bandurski says. As soon as someone at a company gets wind that someone is writing a story on them, they will tip off friends in the local government: "And they'll intervene and block it while it's still in the works." Many Chinese journalists are deeply demoralized as a result. The word they use to describe the current atmosphere is "winter."

To be sure, some journalists are still getting scoops -- like Wang Keqin, a dogged investigative reporter who broke a big story earlier this month about a private company that used its cozy connections to local notables to gain a monopoly on vaccine distribution in Shanxi province (population: 33 million). As Wang reported, negligent handling of the vaccines has led to the deaths of four children and permanent injury for at least 74 more. The story is threatening to mushroom into yet another scandal of major proportions -- though the party and its affiliates have been working hard to contain it. As Bandurski hastens to point out, stories like this get broken not because of some policy of calculated tolerance, but as a result of "chaos": The alliance between government and business does not always function seamlessly; the authorities sometimes work at cross-purposes. What meager room for genuine critical reporting exists in today's China is almost entirely the random product of such lapses, Bandurski says. It's certainly not the result of official tolerance.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that the Chinese Communist Party, entirely aware of the Web's transformative possibilities, does not allow Internet organizations to hire their own journalists. If you want a journalist to break some vital story in the public interest, more often than not you'll still need to open a good old-fashioned newspaper or a magazine. The great virtue of the Chinese Web, Bandurski says, is its ability to take these local stories and turn them into national ones -- like the 2008 tainted-milk scandal that ultimately affected some 30,000 babies. Regional newspapers played a key role in publicizing the scandal, which went viral as soon as Chinese websites picked it up.

But the Internet can only do that if reporters keep producing stories -- and that is getting harder all the time. Chinese journalists rely on the Web to publicize their scoops, but the government uses the Web to control public opinion. (It is worth pointing out that the government in Beijing has long assured its own people that the Internet is censor-free. One of the important ramifications of Google's retreat is that it has exposed the fraudulence of this claim.) Some -- most notably the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof in 2005 -- have argued that the steady expansion of broadband in China will ultimately pose a fundamental challenge to one-party rule.

Bandurski, by contrast, derides this view as "cyber-utopianism." For Bandurski, the litmus test is not whether netizens can run effective searches. It is whether reporters are allowed to report. That is a story that is bigger than the fate of a single company.

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