NATO deterrence and defense, and divisions over tactical nuclear weapons, June 8-9 Brussels

Officials have increasingly become concerned that disagreements over U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe could seriously harm Alliance unity, as NATO defense ministers prepare to meet this week. Although not the main issue for discussion at the meeting in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, tactical nuclear weapons are up for consideration as part of NATO’s ongoing Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR). The DDPR is a legacy of the inability of member states to agree on key issues surrounding NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture during last year’s rewriting of the Alliance’s main doctrine, the Strategic Concept. The review will seek to establish the appropriate mix of conventional, nuclear and missile defense forces for the Alliance.  Heads of state expect to receive the DDPR report at their next summit in 2012.

The disagreements have centered around the utility of continuing to base the remaining U.S. B-61 bombs in Europe. These bombs were once tied to a more clear military scenario of conflict escalation with Russia. But since then, NATO expansion eastward has changed this geography and the bombs no longer support Article 5 commitments in an evident way. The Alliance’s new Strategic Concept reaffirmed that the “strategic nuclear forces” of members “contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies,” and made no mention of the tactical nuclear forces in this context. Several of the countries that host the B-61s have experienced pressure domestically to give up nuclear basing, and would face divisive parliamentary debates over whether they want to continue supporting the bomb assignments by purchasing new dual capable aircraft should they chose to continue the practice.  Moreover, global expectations remain for NATO to take more concerted efforts on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, especially because it is history’s most powerful and successful military alliance.

Yet the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, issued ahead of the Strategic Concept last year, said that the weapons still contribute to “Alliance cohesion,” and give non-nuclear countries a role in Alliance burden-sharing. The new Strategic Concept itself talks of the need for nuclear burden-sharing arrangements to continue, though left the details unspecified. Proponents of keeping the remaining 180 bombs in Europe also contend that further reductions would look like a concession to Russia, which has a much larger tactical nuclear arsenal of over 2,000 deployed on its own soil, and still leave some NATO allies feeling exposed.

Thus allies will need to work out how they can engage in useful burden-sharing, and address Russia’s tactical arsenal. The former will surely come up during the DDPR as the Alliance may have new requirements and opportunities for various kinds of useful burden-sharing, but taking on the problem of Russia’s tactical arsenal will be far more difficult.

Russia sees is own tactical nuclear stockpile as offering some strategic padding for a depleted conventional arsenal, and as compensation for lower strategic numbers when compared to the United States. Russia does not see the U.S. tactical bombs as threats to its own territory, and thus has no real incentive to address its own tactical arsenal in a trade-off based solely upon a nuclear drawdown in Europe.  Furthermore, given the disappointing lack of progress over missile defense in recent months, and with Presidential elections on the horizon in both Russia and the United States, Russia will be unlikely to agree to any new nuclear arms control deals for some time yet. In an effort to allow more flexibility and control over what happens with its own arsenal, allies should be careful not to equate reciprocal progress with immediate and direct trade-offs over Russia’s tactical arsenal. Instead, NATO will need to engage with Russia by broadening the reciprocity agenda to include other security issues.

As for intra-Alliance relations, many Europeans worry that “unilateral” decisions on the U.S. bombs would show a lack of loyalty to the Alliance, even though they acknowledge that the status quo is untenable. Some European countries are still looking for quiet signals from the United States that include providing options and scenarios for further reducing U.S. bombs in Europe while strengthening Alliance cohesion.  U.S. officials could work on providing these signals at the ministerial in Brussels and in the months to come.

These are the personal views of the author.

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