NATO On Nuclear Weapons: Opportunities Missed and Next Steps Forward

By Daryl G. Kimball, Oliver Meier, and Paul Ingram

At their May 20-21 summit in Chicago, NATO leaders missed an important opportunity to change the Alliance’s outdated nuclear policy and open the way to improving European security by the removal of the remaining 180 U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe, which serve no practical military value for the defense of the Alliance.

The Alliance’s Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) was launched at NATO’s Lisbon summit in November 2010 primarily to resolve differences among allies on the future role of nuclear weapons. The result is an indecisive document that dodges the main issues separating allies around nuclear deterrence and it fails to advance President Obama’s and the Alliance’s stated goal of reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons.

Muddled Declaratory Policy

In the DDPR, NATO allies recognize that negative security assurances can have “a positive effect” in discouraging proliferation by assuring non-nuclear weapon states that they will not be subject to nuclear blackmail or attack. Yet, NATO fails to draw the right lessons from this analysis.

At the insistence of France, there is no unified policy on the basic purpose of nuclear weapons for the Alliance. Instead, the DDPR repeats the vague phrase from the 2010 Strategic Concept: “The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.”

The DDPR goes on to recognize that the three owners of nuclear weapons within NATO (the United States, the U.K., and France) will determine how and when to use or threaten to use their nuclear weapons: “Allies note that the states that have assigned nuclear weapons to NATO apply to these weapons the assurances they have each offered on a national basis, including the separate conditions each state has attached to these assurances.” It erroneously characterizes this as giving comfort to non-nuclear weapon states in conformity with their NPT obligations, as France has so far resisted giving any such guarantees.

This leaves NATO’s joint nuclear policy in a mess, with different policies governing those nuclear weapons assigned to NATO depending upon the state that owns them, and other NATO states having no say in the matter.

At Chicago, NATO leaders should have clarified that the fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons for the entire Alliance is to deter a nuclear attack by a potential adversary and that all of NATO pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that are non-nuclear-weapon states.

Such a policy would have brought NATO into alignment with the nuclear doctrine of the United Kingdom and with the results of the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report, which states that: “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and our allies and partners.”

Such a formulation, if fully embraced by NATO, would have signaled the Alliance is serious about reducing the salience of nuclear weapons and is prepared to take concrete actions to fulfill its 2010 Lisbon summit pledge to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.

Instead, the DDPR makes it clear that NATO will continue to maintain and even modernize the remaining 180 U.S. forward-deployed B-61 nuclear gravity bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. The DDPR notes that: “Allies … will ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance.”

The life extension program for the B61 and upgrades to the dual-capable aircraft that can deliver them will come at significant financial cost. And because the B61 modernization program would increase the military capabilities of weapons deployed in Europe by improving accuracy on target, Russia might use this as an excuse to continue investing in the upkeep of its own tactical nuclear arsenal.

Dubious Linkages

As was expected, the DDPR conditions further progress in reducing the role and the number of forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe to progress in discussions with Russia on transparency measures on tactical nuclear weapons.

The DDPR says: “NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia, taking into account the greater Russian stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

“Allies look forward to continuing to develop and exchange transparency and confidence-building ideas with the Russian Federation in the NATO-Russia Council, with the goal of developing detailed proposals on and increasing mutual understanding of NATO’s and Russia’s non-strategic nuclear force postures in Europe.”

It is encouraging that a process to revise the nuclear status quo has finally begun: NATO members are finally prepared to discuss tactical nuclear arms control and transparency with Russia; and the DDPR now tasks the officials in Brussels to explore options for reduced reliance on the weapons.

However, NATO’s decision to hang on to these obsolete relics will not likely provide the meaningful leverage vis-à-vis Russia, which views its tactical nuclear weapons primarily as a means to compensate for NATO’s convention military superiority and Chinese forces. Because of the divisions in NATO over its nuclear deployments in Europe, and their likely withdrawal over the long-run, there is actually a perverse incentive for the Russians to stall on any agreement on tactical nuclear arsenals.

In order to put greater pressure on Russia to reciprocate, Alliance members must provide meaningful leadership.

Following the Chicago summit, President Obama and other Alliance political leaders should send a clearer signal that they will actually begin the process of withdrawing the existing U.S. tactical weapons from Europe and halt the planned modernization of the B61 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to NATO.

By agreeing to remove these nuclear relics from Europe and beginning the process with some early withdrawals of the B61s, NATO would eliminate Russia’s long-standing and cynical excuse not to begin discussions on tactical nuclear arms control, and increase pressure on Russia to account for and to further consolidate its own larger stockpile of battlefield nuclear bombs, which may number as many as 2,000.

Vague Requirements

The DDPR concludes that the alliance’s existing nuclear force posture “currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defense posture” and it refers to an unspecified “requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance,” but fails to explain what political or military function they actually serve.

It is past time for NATO to explicitly acknowledge that these battlefield nuclear bombs no longer serve any meaningful or credible military role in the defense of NATO. They do little, if anything, to assure allies who feel threatened by Russia.

As the current U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, wrote in Arms Control Today sixteen years ago:

“…U.S. nuclear weapons can now be removed from Europe—they no longer serve the political or military function they once did.”[i]

His statement is even more valid today.

The devastating power and collateral effects of such weapons make them inappropriate tools against non-nuclear targets, while the possible loss or theft of these weapons poses additional dangers.

Top U.S. officials, including White House adviser Gary Samore, have also acknowledged that “whatever military mission they serve could of course also be accomplished through the use of systems that are not tactical systems based in Europe.”

The DDPR itself implicitly acknowledges that the Alliance’s nuclear deterrence capabilities do not require the presence of the 180 B61 nuclear gravity bombs stationed in Europe, but instead, those requirements are met by the strategic nuclear arsenals of Alliance members.

The DDPR states that:  “The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States; [and] the independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France ….”

Bottom Line

The U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe are more of a liability than an asset.

To engage Russia in a process that begins to reduce its far larger tactical nuclear arsenal, NATO must recapture that bold vision of the 1991-92 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives—which led the withdrawal and dismantlement of thousands of forward-deployed U.S. and Soviet tactical nuclear weapons.  Instead, NATO has revived an East-West mindset that makes decisions about the future of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe contingent upon Russian steps.

It is past time to complete the process that was begun two decades ago of withdrawing non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe to motivate Russia to follow suit.

[i]“Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Why Zero Is Better,” by Ivo H. Daalder, Arms Control Today, January/February 1993.

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