Last Friday, the United States published its Nuclear Posture Review. If enacted this would undermine attempts to reduce nuclear tensions in Europe since the end of the Cold War. While most Europeans would consider nuclear weapons to be a last resort, President Trump intends to increase the US’ reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons and develop a range of new nuclear weapons for new missions across Europe.
According to the review, President Trump will go beyond Obama’s modernisation of the US strategic and non-strategic arsenal, including upgrading the 150 ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons deployed throughout Europe. Despite the destructive force of these low yield B-61 gravity bombs – each more than ten times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima –President Trump plans to develop new low-yield sea-launched ballistic missiles and sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles to respond to the threat of Russia.
Smaller yield nuclear weapons with increased accuracy are destabilising. They make nuclear weapons more usable, as they would theoretically cause fewer indiscriminate civilian casualties. This gives opportunities and incentives to use nuclear weapons in wider set of conflict scenarios.
The Review argues that these developments do not enable ‘nuclear warfighting’ or ‘lower the nuclear threshold,’ but rather increase it ‘by convincing the adversary that even limited use of nuclear weapons will be more costly.’ But it is difficult to see how preparing to use nuclear weapons to control a conflict is not preparing to use nuclear weapons in a war. Indeed, the NPR vaguely expands the remit of nuclear weapons to deter against new scenarios such as ‘non-nuclear strategic attacks,’ and ‘new forms of aggression.’
By developing a range of low-yield options, the United States is beginning to mimic the Russian policy they frequently criticise. Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons to try and halt a conflict it fears it is losing: a policy known as ‘escalate to de-escalate.’ Conflict between the United States and Russia, if it happens, will likely play out in Europe; the prospect of both states believing they can use nuclear weapons to manage escalation drastically raises the possibility of nuclear use on the Continent.
Additionally, many of the plans may be unworkable in Europe. The United States intends to modernise the B-61 gravity bomb and deploy these on the new F-35 fighter jets by 2024. Yet, the Parliaments of many European host countries remain apprehensive of the ongoing economic, political, diplomatic and security implications of hosting these weapons. Five NATO states, including three host states, previously advocated for their removal, and in 2014, the Netherlands passed a resolution preventing the purchase of nuclear capable versions of the new fighter jet.
Until now, NATO has been unable to deliver the majority of these nuclear weapons, but the new F-35’s stealth capability may allow them to penetrate deep into Russian airspace in the future. Russia has consistently warned that they would have to respond to this. In December 2017, Mikhail Ulyanov, the Director of the Russian Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control warned that the B-61s ‘are ceasing to be “political weapons” and turning into “battlefield weapons,”’ and cautioned against nuclear weapons in Europe.
This week, Germany officially opposed the NPR’s proposal to develop new tactical nuclear weapons. Sigmar Gabriel, the German Foreign Minister stated the solution to tension with Russia, ‘must not be to simply join the nuclear arms race.’ This is a clear break in NATO unity on nuclear deterrence, and comes on top of existing strains between transatlantic allies over the Trump Administration’s decertification of the JCPoA and uncertainties around the future of the INF Treaty.
It is also unclear how developing a new low-yield sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) fills ‘an exploitable “gap” in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,’ as the NPR claims. If anything, these new missiles would bring new risks for Europeans. If a low-yield SLBM was used to respond to a Russian attack, the launching submarine would have to surface, inviting a response to prevent further launches. But ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are primarily strategic platforms and considered the most survivable leg of the US nuclear triad, so an attack on an SSBN could be (mis)interpreted as a preventive strategic strike, rather than a tactical response, which could easily escalate a nuclear exchange.
Neither does the NPR give an adequate justification for the new sea-launched cruise missile in military terms. The NPR states explicitly that the missile is ‘an INF Treaty compliant response to Russia’s continuing Treaty Violation,’ meaning it aims to put pressure on Russia to demonstrate compliance with the INF Treaty, which bans the ground-launched missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. This implies that its purpose is inherently political.
The Administration may be hoping that it can open negotiations with Russia on this Treaty in a manner akin to Reagan, when he started deploying Pershing missiles throughout Europe in the 1980s. Yet, this forgets that the tension surrounding the deployment of Pershing missiles and NATO’s military exercises at the time raised nuclear tensions to levels not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The US’ pursuit of new nuclear weapons is likely to worsen tensions with Russia. As a strategy, it does little to deal with Russia’s underlying security concerns, could entrench Russian protestations over US military deployments in Europe, and could further divide European allies.
If President Trump delivers on the NPR – and it is possible he won’t, given congressional opposition – Europe could be caught between a new nuclear arms race. Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has worked productively alongside the United States and Russia to decrease the saliency of nuclear weapons on the continent, through arms control, dialogue and confidence-building measures. It is incumbent on Europeans to defend this vision and assert that with new nuclear weapons come new insecurities.