MUNICH, Germany, Feb 3 (Reuters) - The United States and Russia should start preparatory talks immediately on removing tactical nuclear weapons from combat bases in Europe as a step towards comprehensive nuclear disarmament, a group of former Western and Russian security officials said on Friday.
The group, known as the Global Zero NATO-Russia Commission, said in a statement that two decades after the end of the Cold War, U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe "have virtually no military utility, incur significant financial costs and security risks, including terrorist capture, and create political friction between NATO and Russia".
The group said the talks, once started, could be made part of broader negotiations aimed at reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,000 weapons each in total, including both strategic and tactical weapons.
"The Commission believes that U.S. and Russian reductions to such levels would create the conditions for taking the next critical step toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide: bringing China and other nuclear weapons countries into the first multilateral nuclear arms negotiations in history."
The commission comprises 15 U.S., European and Russian former security officials and experts including Richard Burt, who was once U.S. chief negotiator in arms reduction talks and Viktor Yesin, the former chief of staff of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces.
It is part of the Global Zero campaigning group, which seeks a comprehensive global elimination of nuclear weapons.
Releasing a report explaining its proposal on tactical weapons, the commission argued that progress on nuclear arms reductions has stalled and should be revived.
ARMS CONTROL PUSH
Burt said: "Removing tactical nuclear weapons from European combat bases is something that the United States and Russia could start working on right away. It would get arms negotiations back on track and open the door to a next round of U.S.-Russian reductions."
Yesin said the commission's report was aimed at helping policymakers move from "rhetoric" to practical steps in seeking nuclear elimination and he strongly supported its proposal.
The commission said its members would aim to garner support for their plan from officials of NATO member countries and Russia meeting this weekend at a security conference in Munich.
On Jan. 12, the top U.S. negotiator, Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control, said U.S. and Russian teams would hold talks this year on issues from missile defence to cyber security, hoping to set the stage for a renewed arms control push once elections are over in both countries.
Speaking a year after the ratification of the New START treaty between Moscow and Washington on reducing nuclear warheads, she said the United States was still committed to returning to the negotiating table to discuss cuts in strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
But with Europeans working on a nuclear deterrence review, presidential elections in Russia and the United States, and Moscow largely satisfied with nuclear stockpile levels following New START, Tauscher said the time was not right for new nuclear talks.
The New START treaty commits both sides to reduce their deployed nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 within seven years. (Reporting by William Maclean)