Brussels, Belgium – NATO nuclear strategy debates during the bipolar political system oscillated between two main themes: on the one hand, the theme of pure nuclear deterrence, to dissuade the Soviet Union from launching any attack whatsoever on NATO territory; on the other hand, the theme of a mixed conventional and nuclear deterrence, whose proponents argued that a conventional defense against minor or even medium-sized aggression was necessary as an all-out nuclear response was not credible in such circumstances.
NATO strategist increasingly doubted that the USSR would deliberately start a world war. The USSR might, however, start a war with the aim of a limited conquest, in the hope that NATO would not dare respond with nuclear escalation. NATO found a compromise between the two above strategic themes by mainly focusing on how to convince the USSR that it had miscalculated: in case of a Soviet attack, NATO planned to use sub-strategic nuclear weapons to force the Soviet Union to terminate the aggression, unless it wanted all-out world war.
The introduction of the nuclear bomb into the international arena would forever change the face of world diplomacy. Never before had anyone imagined the possibility of such widespread destruction through such an easy means of weaponry. The concept of a nuclear warhead, capable of being launched from anywhere in the world and reaching its designated target within hours, wiping out miles and miles of land and killing anything within its blasting radius was simply terrifying. Its creation almost entirely transformed the paradigm of social thought. The frightening reality that mortality could occur at any given time or place resonated deep within the minds of the US public, affecting them in their deepest thoughts where it hurt the most.
The harrowing advancement of nuclear energy throughout the second half of the 19th century that inevitably led to the advent of the nuclear warhead helped create feelings of distrust and uncertainty between nations as each country proved inexperienced at dealing with this sudden universal health risk. The United States had recently set the global precedent for employing weapons of mass destruction by concluding the second World War with the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Any action by the developing Soviet Union seemed possible and plausible. No internationally recognized rules or principles for this new form of hazard existed, leaving each country unfairly burdened with the task of both seeking protection from this devastating weapon while simultaneously attempting to acquire its capabilities in order to increase its global power.
Until the end of the bipolar political system, the United States became the central figure in the international power struggle that ensued over nuclear supremacy. This power struggle consisted of shifting networks of allied and rogue nations whose true intentions regarding the weapon were never truly known. As the most economically capable nation during this time due to its precipitous rise to financial supremacy in the Western Hemisphere after the war, the United States was in the precarious position of upholding democracy and all the freedoms that it had come to entail through monetary relief. The ominous presence of the communist Soviet Union after the inception of this devastating new type of weapon, however, presented a great concern to the United States and the democratic European nations it had come to represent. If the Soviet Union were to possess one of these damaging weapons, it could potentially confront the rest of the world and challenge them to conform within their given parameters or suffer the brutal consequences that the nuclear bomb could evoke.
The grave prospect of nuclear warfare ensuing due to an ideological difference of this magnitude ultimately caused the United States to lead a group of nations from Western Europe and the Atlantic rim to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), attempting to prevent this form of attack from ever happening while protecting their central interest of democracy. The USSR and other communist nations united under the similar Warsaw pact.
The ubiquitous presence of nuclear warheads and their development in communist countries throughout the second half of the 20th century frightened the United States and its NATO constituents, causing the members of NATO to strategically defend against the Soviet Union and its members of the Warsaw Pact while constantly reverting back to the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Averting any form of nuclear warfare was always the primary objective of NATO throughout this time period and these countries all agreed not to act or feign action with any of these warheads unless it were absolutely necessary. Although each of the main powering states of NATO embodied particular differences in their foreign policies and perception of the threat of the USSR, the overall strategy of deterrence from using these warheads ultimately proved successful in preventing any form of nuclear war from ever occurring.
NATO was officially signed into existence in 1949 as a result of the growing implications of the post-World War II development of weapons of mass destruction. The Treaty established by the NATO signing offered a strong alliance between the United States and Western European countries, particularly through any conditions of war. However, the United States did not find itself in the same exact military position that its Western European counterparts were experiencing following the signing and therefore did not always share the same opinion on how to militarily approach the encroaching Soviet Union. While the primary threat that NATO was always concerned with was possible USSR attack, the closer proximity to East Germany and Russia made the Western European states more susceptible to the a conventional ground and air war. These European countries, during the first decade of the NATO treaty, were more concerned with a formal invasion of their borders by any number of third world communist states to their east.
Alarming statistics of the decade reveal that during the 1950’s, the USSR possessed a far more powerful army that included as many as three times the number of army divisions as the aggregate number of army divisions of all of these Western European nations. Therefore, the reality of the current situation demonstrated that the European constituents of NATO were more likely, during that time period, to encounter an actual army division of the USSR from across the border of the Iron Curtain and Germany then it was for the USSR to engage in a nuclear attack. The United States also remained the only NATO country with any nuclear capabilities during that time, making them even less susceptible to an attack by the Soviets as the Soviet’s would fear a strong form of retaliation. This fundamental difference between the perception and presence that the USSR had on both the United States and Europe during this time divided the organization’s views on the importance of defending itself against the USSR in both conventional and nuclear forms of war. These countries involved in NATO were not attempting to confront the Soviet Union with the United States already present nuclear capabilities, but were instead focusing on methods of containing the USSR’s spread of communism.
The United States would be the most responsible member of NATO to defend against an attack from the USSR. This was glaring because of the United State’s nuclear capabilities that were only rivaled by the USSR if they so chose to employ them. While the United States did not want the USSR possessing nuclear warheads, the United States had yet to take an active approach in taking the necessary precautions of defending themselves against a possible nuclear attack. However, the USSR had developed a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States, finally causing US to take a more active approach in setting up their defense systems for the other NATO countries in Western Europe. The presence of the satellite Sputnik over US soil and the USSR’s subtle refernces to their own missile aresnal notified the United States of this serious danger.
In response to the Soviet Union’s apparent nuclear capabilities, US harkened back to its traditional values and simply favored a stronger conventional miliary force in Europe. US did not want to rely on a nuclear retaliation for any attack on European grounds in fear that it would cause a devastating eruption of global brutality. Instead, US whole-heartedly supported a dramatic increase in troops in the region in order to be prepared for any potential conventional attack on Western European countries. US did not want to respond in any form of nuclear capacity, not even by building any new military nuclear basis on the European continent in an admirable attempt to try and diffuse the nuclear situation. As a result, US offered more troops to boost the number of divisions present under NATO command. However, when faced with the offer, Europe recognized this notion as a sign of waning commitment to a nuclear promise to defend Western Europe to US’ greatest capacity. By not establishing more of a nuclear presence in the Soviet Union’s backyard of Western Europe, the other members of NATO felt that the United States was simply abandoning their responsibilities to the organization.
US consideration was that an added military and army emphasis in these European nations could act as a better deterrent to USSR confrontation because it physically appeared more credible. They also thought that the USSR would not believe the threat of a nuclear retaliation if the USSR launched a small-scale war. It would be highly unlikely and irrational for the United States and NATO to respond with nuclear weapons to such a small war. This theory, however, was based only on ideal conditions, not taking into account that NATO did not have the funding to develop an army powerful enough to counter the USSR forces.
The nuclear stance of the United States shifted towards a greater reliance on a nuclear defense against a conventional attack. Europe and the United States both felt that the USSR was far too powerful to defend with conventional troops. It is true that the funding necessary to create an army to rival that of the USSR greatly exceeded the budgets of the nations of NATO, however, the problem of a conventional war was simply that the USSR outnumbered NATO by as much as three soldiers to one. US considered that a nuclear defense was the cheapest and the most effective deterrent to any conventional war started by the USSR. Information also leaked out that that were only seven NATO missile sites opposed to 100 Warsaw sites in East and Central Europe.
Not surprisingly, the strategy of flexible response became popular in the United States as a compromise. This strategy offered a need for both a conventional army and nuclear weapons, proposing that small conflict deserves small armies, and nuclear weapons should be reserved for only the most desperate situations. According to this strategy, NATO needed to be prepared for any scale situation so that it could respond in kind. The problem with this theory on an international level is that the point at which Europe is in a desperate situation is decided by the United States. The United States would be more willing to face a war across the Atlantic, and would therefore be more likely to hesitate to use nuclear weapons. Europe, on the other side, greatly feared hosting another conventional war on their soil, as it was still recovering, physically and economically from the past two World Wars. The strategy was internationally flawed because it was US who had the nuclear capabilities, and ultimately it was US that could decide when to use them. The European response was one of nervousness and anxiety to what could be once again construed as a withdrawing commitment to NATO on the United States’ behalf. Their primary US objective was to spare North America the ravages of nuclear war, and they would do this by attempting to hold back a Soviet invasion by conventional means, thus inflicting on Europe the ravages of conventional war.
Europe’s greatest defense against the USSR laid in the hands of the United States. As such, Europeans questioned whether or not they could trust the United States to enter into a nuclear war with the USSR if Europe was attacked. Not everyone believed that the United States would risk being fired upon because Europe was facing a battle across the Atlantic. Because of this uncertainty, other nations in NATO began to desire their own nuclear weapons. With horizontal proliferation comes new issues, new threats, and a new political playing field. Nuclear proliferation to new nations, especially England and France, raised interesting new questions and situations, and of course much controversy within NATO.
Even within the nations of Europe, the question of nuclear proliferation opened the floor to an endless debate of policies. One reason for its controversy was that it requires a large amount of funding to develop a nuclear program, and this funding would most likely detract from the funding used to increase conventional Allied forces. Here, the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy most likely was manifested with regards to budgets and defenses. Because the conventional defenses of Europe were outnumbered by an estimated three to one, the Europeans very much supported having a nuclear retaliation to a conventional attack. For this to occur, NATO only needed an army powerful enough to hold USSR to the border for three days. This left the conventional army with very little funding and manpower. By focusing on nuclear capabilities and not the conventional army, NATO failed to realize that had more money been used towards the armies instead of nuclear development, an army could have been created that was strong enough to deter USSR forces on its own. NATO did not also recognize the potential of a conventional army as their army was weak in comparison.
Although funding was indeed an issue, many people feared the concept of horizontal nuclear proliferation altogether. It was widely accepted that the more nations that had nuclear warheads, the more likely it was that one would be used. During the bipolar political system, the nuclear weapons were in the hands of very few important leaders, but with each new nation that acquired capabilities, the danger and likelihood increased of one weapon being deployed. With the extensive Alliances that created NATO and the Warsaw Pact, if one nation was fired upon, another nation would retaliate, and this would continue causing a cataclysmic nuclear holocaust with global devastation. The threat of small, less powerful nations using nuclear weapons in local conflicts could also emerge if nations continued to proliferate. If nuclear weapons became commonplace, this threat would be entirely more likely because retaliation would be less likely and would probably not result in a chain of nuclear exchanges. Although an event like this may not cause a global nuclear war, the damage would still be massive and only grow worse as nuclear capabilities increase.
US discussed the need for proliferation and was thought that a budding nuclear program in Europe would be very dangerous and taken as a direct threat to the USSR. At this time, the United States had the only strong nuclear program in NATO and was separated from the USSR by the Pacific Ocean. Both of these factors acted as a strong deterrent to a nuclear attack from the USSR, but neither distance nor power applied to the nuclear situation in Europe. Due to the small distance from the Iron Curtain, and the vulnerability to a nuclear attack, Europe developing weapons could provoke an attack from the USSR. If the USSR recognized a developing, yet still weak nuclear program in Europe, it would be entirely possible that the USSR would launch a pre-emptive first strike, knowing that Europe would not have the capabilities to sustain the damage of a nuclear explosion and still retaliate. A situation based on the importance of the first strike would lead to a war based on rapid decisions which are themselves based on speculations about the enemy’s capabilities and tactics. This in turn could lead to a mistaken nuclear war, a result of hypothesizing incorrectly about the enemy to prepare for the worst.
These two presidential cabinets also analyzed their dependence on the United States and their nuclear capabilities. Europe throughout the bipolar political system questioned the credibility of the United States to retaliate if Europe had been invaded. However, it was ultimately the position of the cabinet that they [the United States] depended on Europe as much as Europe depended on the United States. Be it in economics, politics, sciences, or almost any other field, Europe and US had common interests to the extent that the United States would be willing and probable to attack the USSR if Europe was first attacked. If NATO’s conventional army was strengthened, the United States would be more likely to use nuclear weapons to protect Europe.
During the bipolar political system, there existed even further arguments against proliferation in Europe. A developing nuclear nation would have few weapons available to deploy. Because the nation would have so few weapons, the nation would need to harness the weapons to cause as much damage and inflict as much pain as possible. In order to do this, a weak nuclear nation could not afford to attack military sites, but would have to attack the civilian targets of large cities. The United States, on the other hand, would be able to deploy its first wave of nuclear attacks towards the military bases of the USSR, rendering them incapable of retaliating. The United States would then be able to hold the large population centers of the USSR hostage, and exploit them as a tool for deterrence. In this manner, having great nuclear capabilities can lead to a far less violent and devastating use of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear strategists in Europe offered even more rationale for Western Europe to remain free of nuclear weapons. Some people saw Europe remaining nuclear free as a sign of loyalty to the United States and NATO. At the time NATO, headed by US, strongly favored a centralized nuclear force, and not developing nuclear weapons would comply with this political system. Furthermore, by showing such a trust in the credibility of the United States’ promise for nuclear retaliation, should it be necessary, it would likely increase the United States’ desire to help Europe. By relying solely on the United States for nuclear deterrence and retaliation, it left Europe and NATO with no options but to call upon the United States for nuclear assistance, as it did repeatedly during the period of the 1960’s and 70’s through the conclusion of the bipolar political system, making the United States even more likely to offer its support. Conversely, if a nation such as the United Kingdom developed nuclear capabilities, its contribution to NATO would be small and almost inconsequential to the combined forces of NATO. Developing these weapons would not only be expensive, but the act of developing one’s own weapons would be seen as a withdrawing commitment to NATO. If a nation in NATO had its own nuclear capabilities, it would not need to rely solely on the will of NATO, and could therefore act in the interest of the nation over the interests of the alliance.
The proliferation attempts in Western Europe, the United Kingdom and France eventually yielded nuclear weapons for each of those states as they inevitably received the materials and data to construct nuclear bombs while breaking numerous NATO codes of conduct. Both nations clearly wanted nuclear capabilities for their own defense, but because of politics and nuclear strategies, it was highly controversial. Britain and France having nuclear weapons changed the role of NATO and changed the role of all of the nations that comprised NATO. Although the main reason for either nation to have nuclear weapons was to increase their own strength, both nations could not use this explanation because it would show its distrust in the credibility of NATO. These nations found themselves searching for ways to justify their actions to the other nations of the alliance and to the people of their own nation. The justifications for acquiring nuclear weapons are fewer and weaker in their arguments than the reasons for nonproliferation, which demonstrates the great need for the political and military power inherent when a nation has nuclear capabilities.
In the 1950’s, Britain explained their interest in acquiring nuclear weapons with the statistics of the United States nuclear program. Britain reasoned that the United States did not have enough nuclear weapons to deploy to all the potential targets in the USSR. Because of this, where the weapons were fired was largely determined by US’ own discretion. It was likely that US would act in the interest of itself, which may not have necessarily coincided with the interests of the European nations that comprised NATO. For Europe, relying on the United States to decide where to deploy bombs could be a potentially very dangerous situation. However, by the 1960’s the nuclear capabilities of the United States exceeded the amount of weapons needed to strike all of the potential targets within the USSR, leaving Britain to search for new justifications for national proliferation.
Britain found a justification within the psychology of the enemy. Britain inferred that the USSR would not see the United States’ nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a small- scale invasion of Europe. Britain proposed that the USSR would doubt the credibility of US’ commitment to NATO, and therefore would be willing to risk an attack. In reality, this statement could very well have been a gentler way of telling the United States that it was Britain who did not trust the commitment of US to NATO. Politically, Britain had ulterior motives for wanting nuclear weapons. Once the United States and the USSR developed their weapons, the United Kingdom was no longer in the upper echelon of the world powers. Having nuclear capabilities raises the status of a nation across a significant divide. The nations with nuclear weapons automatically enter into an elite group who will do anything to preserve peace between them so as to avoid a nuclear war in which both sides are devastated. A nuclear country will avoid war with another nuclear country at almost all costs. Also, nations that do not have nuclear capabilities will need to depend on a nuclear country for deterrence, giving nuclear nations great international political power and influence.
As it played out in history, the tenets of communism as it was constituted in this particular setting did not invariably withstand the test of time. At the time of 1987, US ordered the production of more than 13,000 warheads in 1987 alone, which had been the most produced ever in one year for the United States. Nuclear tension was still very high as it maintained through the 1980’s, but the establishment of NATO’s principles of combating the nuclear threat from the East endured in its similar matter until the bipolar political system was ultimately resolved. After the fall of the Berlin wall and the effective end of the bipolar political system , US ordered the massive reduction of nuclear warhead by 300% of production.
In 1995, 181 countries from the United Nations signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that states the understanding that non-nuclear weapons states would not develop or receive nuclear weapons and that the nuclear weapons states agree not to proved them to these non-nuclear weapons states. This treaty is strong global attempt to limit the role of nuclear weapons as instruments of international policy by dwindling their numbers and establishing an open dialogue between states about their nuclear capabilities.
The bipolar political system was a war that was based largely on strategy and deterrence rather than action. This demonstrates an accepted theory that with the arrival of nuclear weapons, military strategy has changed. It is now the goal of an army to avoid war instead of fighting one. Because of unequal strength and different global locations, Europe and the United States found themselves consistently debating which was the best way to deter the USSR from beginning any size war. The United States faced only the possibility of a nuclear war, while Europe faced a potential nuclear war or the even more likely threat of a conventional war. Due to the differences in opinion that divided NATO, the European nations grew wary of the United States’ promise to defend Europe against any type of invasion at all costs. The European nations eventually decided to proliferate, once again changing world politics forever. Despite all of the dangers and reasons against developing nuclear weapons, nations in Europe proceeded to obtain their own. The will of European nations to acquire nuclear capabilities clearly demonstrated the power of the weapon in all domains, be it political, economical, and of course destructive.
The bipolar political system is over but little has changed in respect to US nuclear weapons policy. Yet the nature of the threats to US security from nuclear weapons has shifted dramatically since the end of World War II. The United States and its NATO constituents admirably established an effective policy that witnessed them refuse to engage in any type of nuclear warfare. If the NATO members had not as been as adamant about this belief, the world could potentially be a much worse place than it is today.
NATO Allies still care about nuclear deterrence In the age of increasingly capable conventional munitions, cyber warfare and autonomous robots, are nuclear weapons not just a relic of the bipolar political system that have now ceased to be relevant. These weapons are still deployed on the territory of a peaceful Europe.
Nuclear-armed nations such as Russia and China are once again investing heavily to create more sophisticated and diverse nuclear arsenals, North Korea is continuing its nuclear expansion apace, and Iran is once again making headlines for its nuclear developments.
Nuclear weapons have been the foundation of NATO’s collective security since its inception. Since the inception of nuclear age, both the national arsenals of the NATO nuclear weapons states – the United States, the United Kingdom and France – and the US nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe have provided deterrence for the Alliance and reassurance for Allies. NATO heads of state and government have repeatedly affirmed that NATO is a nuclear alliance and will remain so as long as nuclear weapons exist. Quite simply, There are still nuclear weapons because nuclear deterrence is still necessary and its principles still work.
Post bipolar political system reductions
At the height of the bipolar political system, the United States deployed approximately 7,300 nuclear weapons in Europe providing extended deterrence and security guarantees to NATO Allies. Today, the number of US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe in support of NATO has been reduced by 90 per cent since the end of the bipolar political system. Between 1991 and 1993 alone, the United States removed around 3,000 nuclear weapons from Europe. Between 2000 and 2010, the United States continued to reduce the number of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe and consolidated them at fewer bases. That limited posture remains the same to this day.
The enactment of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, followed by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in July 1991, and the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) in 2002 provided a steady drum beat of strategic nuclear weapons reductions between the United States and Russia, locking in steadily lower and lower numbers through treaty implementation.
But the most significant reduction in nuclear weapons in Europe took place in September 1991 and was not governed by an arms control treaty at all. On 27 September 1991, US outlined sweeping changes to the US nuclear force posture in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and called on leaders in the Kremlin to reciprocate in kind. Days later, the USSR announced that the Soviet Union would take similar steps to reduce, dismantle and destroy much of its non-strategic nuclear forces.
These Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) resulted in the most significant reduction of tactical – or non-strategic – nuclear weapons in the European theatre. The United States destroyed approximately 2,000 ground-launched nuclear artillery shells and short-range ballistic missiles; removed all tactical nuclear weapons on navy surface ships, attack submarines and naval aircraft; destroyed all nuclear depth bombs; de-alerted strategic bombers; and cancelled the planned modernisation of some nuclear systems.
Soviet and subsequently Russian leaders pledged to eliminate all nuclear artillery, nuclear warheads for tactical missiles, and nuclear land mines as well as remove tactical nuclear weapons from ships, multipurpose submarines and naval aircraft. These weapons, along with nuclear warheads from air defense missiles, were to be put into central storage and a portion would be destroyed. Additionally, a third of Russia’s sea-based tactical nuclear weapons and half of its ground-to-air nuclear missile warheads were to be eliminated, along with half of the Russian airborne tactical nuclear weapons stockpile. By 2010, Russia had consolidated its tactical nuclear weapons at “central storage facilities” in Russia; removed tactical nuclear weapons from its ground forces; and dramatically cut the tactical nuclear arsenal of the air force, missile defense troops and navy, reducing the number of non-strategic nuclear weapons by around 75 per cent.
The combined reductions of the United States and Russia were the most transformative change to the nuclear posture in Europe, resulting in a significant reduction in the number of nuclear weapons deployed and the easing of military tensions.
Unfortunately, the gains made in the mid-1990s did not translate into sustained and verifiable progress in dismantling stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons. While the United States unilaterally reduced its non-strategic nuclear forces over time, there is a debate about whether or not Russia fully implemented its commitments – as these political statements and actions did not include verification or compliance mechanisms.
A renewed challenge from Russia
In recent years, Russia has chosen once again to rely on nuclear weapons deployed in the European theatre, in order to counter what it perceives as NATO’s conventional superiority. As part of its overall military transformation, Russia has modernized about 80 per cent of its strategic nuclear forces since the early 2000s. The United States is only now embarking on its own 20+ year modernization program, including extending the life of the B61 gravity bombs deployed to Europe for NATO’s nuclear sharing mission.
Because of this, Russia is better poised rapidly to add new strategic warheads on modern deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bombers, when treaty-imposed constraints from New START (2010) expire between 2021 or 2026. This is particularly significant given that there is little progress on negotiating a new arms control treaty regime for strategic systems before New START ends.
Additionally, Russia is developing new types of missile systems such as the strategic-range hypersonic glide vehicle Avangard and the theatre-range Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, which Russia is testing and fielding on a variety of delivery platforms. It is also developing an air-launched ballistic missile, the Kinzhal, which Russia claims will have a range of about 2,000km. Hypersonic weapons fly at super-high speeds, at low altitudes and have the capability to manoeuver during flight – a combination of capabilities that make hypersonic missiles difficult to track and nearly impossible to defend against. While the United States has begun to increase its own investments into hypersonic missile systems development, it is lagging behind Russia (and China).
Russia successfully test-launched its Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile from a ship for the first time, in January 2020, according to the TASS news agency.
In addition to hypersonics, Russia is in the process of developing “novel” nuclear systems such as a nuclear-powered nuclear cruise missile and an underwater unmanned nuclear torpedo – these can be used to intimidate, coerce and attack NATO Allies, with little warning or ability to respond. Russia’s rationale for these weapons is unclear. However, it is prudent for NATO to assess the ability of its own capabilities in light of the new Russian systems.
But perhaps the largest discrepancy between NATO and Russia is in the area of tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons. These include systems armed with lower-yield nuclear warheads, such as air-, sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles. Russia now has a significant arsenal of missile systems that are designed to be dual-capable for either conventional or nuclear weapons delivery. These can reach the territory of all of NATO Europe either from land, sea or air. With its comparatively large arsenal of non-strategic nuclear warheads – estimated to be between 1500 and 2000 in storage depots, compared with an estimated 150 to 200 US gravity bombs stored in vaults in Europe, according to open source information – Russia poses a renewed challenge to NATO’s regional deterrence and defense activities.
Maintaining effective nuclear deterrence
Given this changing security environment – and until our competitors and potential adversaries are ready and willing to forgo nuclear weapons themselves – NATO must be able to deter nuclear threats and respond to nuclear use by Russia in order to safeguard the security of the almost one billion people who live under the NATO umbrella.
As NATO’s heads of state and government have agreed – and often reiterate – NATO’s nuclear weapons are intended to “preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression”. This includes reassuring Allies of the strong transatlantic commitment to collective security, demonstrated by NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements in which European and North American Allies share the risks and responsibilities of nuclear deterrence. It also sends a strong signal to Russia that they will not achieve their objectives by resorting to even the limited use of nuclear weapons in a conflict by showing that NATO has the capability and resolve to impose unacceptable costs greater than any intended gain and, in short, that any nuclear attack by Russia will not succeed.
NATO Allies remain firmly committed to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and to promoting arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament. But NATO will also remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist. NATO will continue to ensure the effectiveness of our deterrence and defense capabilities and posture, including ensuring that our nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective. In short, nuclear weapons continue to play a vital role in NATO security, to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression.
Nuclear deterrence has been at the core of NATO’s mutual security guarantee and collective defense since its inception in 1949. The very first NATO Strategic Concept (1949) referenced the requirement to “ensure the ability to carry out strategic bombing promptly by all means possible with all types of weapons without exception.” The United States subsequently committed nuclear weapons to NATO in July 1953, with the first US theatre nuclear weapons arriving in Europe in September 1954. NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, which were already in place by the time negotiations for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) began in the 1960s, were codified by the United States and the Soviet Union as a precursor for the final agreed NPT text. The United Kingdom has also extended its nuclear forces, including its current single submarine-based system and Continuous At-Sea Deterrent, to the protection of NATO Allies for over 50 years.
NATO seeks its security at the lowest possible level of forces and is fully committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Since the height of the bipolar political system, it has unilaterally reduced the size of its land-based nuclear weapons stockpile by over 90 per cent, reducing the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and its reliance on nuclear weapons in strategy. This position is made clear in both the 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review.
Since progress on arms control and disarmament must take into account the prevailing international security environment, at the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO leaders recognized that conditions for achieving further disarmament were unfavorable given Russia’s aggressive actions and military build-up in recent years. During the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, Heads of State and Government once again affirmed NATO’s long-standing commitment to nuclear deterrence, stating that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”
NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and forces
Nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defense, alongside conventional and missile defense forces. NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, it will remain a nuclear alliance.
NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy highlights: Credible deterrence and defense, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities, remains a core element of NATO’s overall strategy to prevent conflict and war. The credibility of NATO’s nuclear forces is central to maintain deterrence, which is why the safety, security and effectiveness of these forces are constantly evaluated in light of technological and geo-strategic evolutions. NATO’s current nuclear policy is based on NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review, as well as guidance from Heads of State and Government at the Summits in Wales, Warsaw, and Brussels. The Nuclear Planning Group provides the forum for consultation on NATO’s nuclear deterrence.
NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy
The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression. NATO’s current nuclear policy is based on two public documents agreed by all 30 Allies:
The 2010 Strategic Concept
The 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review
The 2010 Strategic Concept, adopted by Allied Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon in November 2010, sets out the Alliance’s core tasks and principles, including deterrence. The Strategic Concept commits NATO to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, but reconfirms that, as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. It also seeks to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defense planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.
The 2010 Lisbon Summit set in train work on a Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR), which was endorsed by the Allied Heads of State and Government at the NATO Chicago Summit in May 2012. The DDPR stressed that the fundamental purpose of Alliance nuclear forces is deterrence, which is essentially a political function. While the Alliance focuses on the maintenance of effective deterrence, political control of nuclear weapons will be kept under all circumstances and nuclear planning and consultation within the Alliance will be in accordance with political guidance.
NATO continues to affirm the importance of nuclear deterrence in light of evolving challenges. Allies reiterated this principle at the 2014 Wales Summit, the 2016 Warsaw Summit, and the 2018 Brussels Summit, where Heads of State and Government declared that the goal of Allies “is to continue to bolster deterrence as a core element of our collective defense and to contribute to the indivisible security of the Alliance. Following changes in the security environment, NATO has taken steps to ensure its nuclear deterrent capabilities remain safe, secure, and effective. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”
The role of NATO’s nuclear forces
The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear forces is for deterrence. Nuclear weapons are unique and the circumstances under which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons is extremely remote. Furthermore, any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict. However, should the fundamental security of any NATO Ally be threatened, NATO has the capabilities – both nuclear and conventional – and the resolve to impose costs on the adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve.
Strategic nuclear forces
The strategic forces of the NATO Alliance, and particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies. The independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France have a deterrent role of their own and contribute significantly to the overall security of the NATO Alliance. These Allies’ separate centers of decision-making contribute to deterrence by complicating the calculations of any potential adversaries. In other words, should an adversary decide to attack NATO, they must not only contend with NATO’s decision-making, but also make a judgment about decision-making from the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, and France.
NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture relies on nuclear weapons forward-deployed by the United States in Europe, as well as on the capabilities and infrastructure provided by Allies concerned. A number of NATO member countries contribute a dual-capable aircraft (DCA) capability to the Alliance. These aircraft are central to NATO’s nuclear deterrence mission and are available for nuclear roles at various levels of readiness. In their nuclear role, the aircraft are equipped to carry nuclear bombs in a conflict and personnel are trained accordingly. The United States maintains absolute control and custody of their nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe, while Allies provide military support for the DCA mission with conventional forces and capabilities.
NATO released a new Strategic Concept in November 2010 that maintained its traditional call for continued reliance on nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of its security. If current trends continue, with no decision on its future taken by the NATO Alliance, maintaining the status quo with modest technical updates is most likely in the near term, with US withdrawal the likely mid-term result of the passage of time and neglect. At some point the United States will likely decide to end its long-standing deployment of nuclear forces in Europe, whether unilaterally, at the request of its allies in the DCA business, or as the result of current DCA partners deciding to end their role in that mission. When that point is reached, the NATO Alliance will need to select one of the options discussed above, lest it find itself inextricably drawn into the extreme position of having to discard its long-standing nuclear extended deterrent policy.
There no longer appears to be a consensus on the need for nuclear weapons in the NATO Alliance. But the end of NATO’s nuclear capabilities is not foreordained. The allies could decide that a potential threat compels them to prevent the current situation from continuing to drift toward a non-nuclear future. A nuclear Iran which threatens the NATO Alliance, for example, or a more aggressive and potentially revanchist Russia could change this thesis. All it would take is political will and the consensus of the member states that maintaining European-based non-strategic nuclear capabilities is critical to the long-term health of the NATO Alliance, and to the security of Europe and all the allies. If NATO can make that determination, we may yet see another generation of nuclear burden sharing within the NATO Alliance.
That being said, however, an analysis of current trends cannot help but lead one to assume that it is unlikely that there will be any US nuclear weapons based on European soil ten years hence. That decision cannot be seen in advance as either good or bad; it is just likely. It is time to start thinking about the NATO Alliance’s preferred alternatives. In fact, doing so may be instructive in showing the allies that there is no better option than the existing arrangement for nuclear sharing. That would be an enlightening discovery, one well worth the political challenge of thinking about NATO’s nuclear future.