In late 2016, US President-elect Donald Trump made known his stance on a key military program. He assailed cost overruns for the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 Lightning II fighter jet that had spiraled «out of control». The plane is to replace aging fighters used by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps. The 15-year project has been dogged by problems and costs that have escalated to an estimated $380bn. Mr. Trump vowed to save billions of dollars on military programs once he enters office on January 20.
The statement may have far-reaching consequences as the US tactical nuclear modernization plans in Europe are intertwined with the F-35 program. The B61-12 warhead will be integrated on the Lightning II. It is going through the final development phase prior to production. If Donald Trump takes the decision to suspend the F-35, the B-61-12 upgrade program – a major obstacle on the way of reaching arms control agreements with Russia and a factor to spur arms race in Europe - will probably be suspended too. It opens new prospects for tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) control in Europe.
The first days of New Year is always the time to reflect on the past. It makes spring to mind the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI) - the spectacular breakthrough achieved without binding documents. With no agreement to sign, the parties achieved tangible progress based on mutual trust.
In September and October 1991, US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced a series of policy initiatives declaring that the United States and the Soviet Union - and later Russia - would reduce their arsenals of TNW and delivery vehicles. Russian President Boris Yeltsin reaffirmed and even expanded Gorbachev's statement in the name of Russia in January 1992. At the December 21, 1991 conference in Alma-Ata, the Soviet Republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine pledged to return all Soviet tactical nuclear weapons on their territories to Russia by July 1, 1992. The three states met their commitments. The US removed the weapons from South Korea, Japan and greatly reduced their numbers in Europe.
According to experts’ estimates, Russia and the US reduced their TNW arsenals by 75% and 90% respectively in the period of 1991-2010. The reductions took into account NATO’s superiority in conventional weapons. One of the most significant results was the fact that since the PNIs became effective TNWs never went to sea.
Today the US possesses several hundred tactical nuclear warheads, of which approximately 180 are nuclear gravity bombs stored in five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey). It is estimated that Russia retains 2,000 usable nonstrategic weapons, all of which are stored on the national territory. Since 2010, the Barack Obama administration has stated many times that its goal was to seek further reductions in all types of nuclear weapons. Moscow believes Washington should first withdraw all of its TNWs to the continental USA. With US nuclear-capable aircraft in Europe aging and the F-35 plans put into doubt, the plans to upgrade the existing nuclear munitions to the B61-12 version may never come to fruition.
Once the process is to become stalled due to technical reasons, it would be only logical for Russia and the US to get the issue of TNWs back to the arms control agenda. Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush was no great friend of Russia but a huge stride was made to promote arms control. As Republican Donald Trump takes office, it’s logical to revive the spirit of those days.
It is especially important to remember the success of presidential nuclear initiatives at the time the 115th Congress appears to be adamant to continue the vigorous anti-Russia policy. A PNI needs no congressional approval and, as history showed, it may be much more fruitful in pure practical terms than the agreements approved or ratified by lawmakers. Remember the 1972 ABM Treaty?
It’s not TNW only. Those where the days when the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement (IncSea) as well as the 1989 Agreement on Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (PDMA) worked. Unlike today, no serious incidents occurred neither at sea, nor in air space above it. The IncSea was observed even in the heat of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Today, the texts of the agreements could be perfected with provisions included to make sure no plane or ship comes too close, no provocative steps are taken and safe distances are observed.
In 2016, Russia offered to take the bull by the horn and launch roundtable discussions to do away with the dangerous threat. For instance, installing transponders could be a significant contribution into the solution of the problem. NATO rejected the offer. It can be changed now. Russia and the US could make it a bilateral issue to make others follow. This is the time to start taking one step after another to reverse the dangerous trend leading Russia and the US to the revival of Cold War. Whatever can be done, should be done.
With Donald Trump as the US President, it would be logical to revive the spirit of PNIs – the atmosphere of trust created by Soviet-Russian leaders and conservative Republican commander-in-chief who was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. This is a page of history to be remembered by hawks in Congress applying vigorous efforts to spoil the bilateral relationship as much as they can. Nothing prevents Russia and the US to repeat the success story of the early 1990s. President Putin and President Trump can make statements on arms control initiatives of their own. History shows it works.