Time to slay another anachronism?

This week has already witnessed a great deal of jubilation around the world for the rooting out and killing of Osama bin Laden, with the usual army of armchair commentators giving divergent opinions as the importance this has to the global threat, the project that used to operate under the name ‘War on Terror’, and ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To date, according to the media, Al Qaeda has represented perhaps the biggest threat of nuclear terrorism, a possibility actively encouraged by bin Laden himself a decade ago when he was reported to have described the search for a nuclear capability as a religious duty. Whatever its size, the threat of nuclear terrorism has not disappeared with bin Laden’s death, and attempts to lock down nuclear materials, ‘loose’ nuclear weapons, and to strengthen security around active or stored arsenals ought to remain a priority, even as budgets are slashed. Terrorism is one of several dangers that arise from nuclear weapons which must be accounted for in decisions to deploy them, particularly tactical nuclear weapons as they are more dispersed and portable.

NATO is currently considering its deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the deterrence and defense posture review (DDPR), due to report to the next summit in April 2012. The number of meetings to discuss these issues have proliferated in recent weeks, in part thanks to BASIC (the last one we co-hosted was in Helsinki last week). Several more are planned before NATO Defense Ministers meet in June. These meetings have been exploring NATO’s ongoing relationship with Russia, the relevance to NATO deployments in Europe and alternatives, and the variety of perspectives in Europe around the future for nuclear weapons. Most participants conclude that there are few if any realistic scenarios in which NATO’s theatre nuclear weapons would play a deterrent role in Europe, but many worry about the political signaling that would be sent from a unilateral withdrawal of these warheads.

IKV/Pax Christi will be presenting their latest report on the issue tomorrow in Washington DC. They suggest that NATO allies are generally far more open to the principle of withdrawing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe than is often assumed – most are not dead set against but rather are looking for alternative means to be reassured of continued US commitment to Europe’s security and the relevance of NATO’s ultimate guarantees, and stress the importance of moving together as a unified alliance.

There is little concern expressed by those interviewed for the report about the security of tactical nuclear weapons, and thus their relevance to terrorism. Blue Ribbon reviews and break-ins by peace protesters ought to give pause for thought for those confident that current arrangements are adequate. Whilst it would undoubtedly be beyond the ability of a terrorist organization to set off a nuclear weapon should they steal one, the repercussions even of a theft would be considerable. Just one more reason, alongside the continued annual expense of maintaining a system that clearly serves no useful deterrence purpose, for NATO to take this opportunity to more radically review its force structure.

The ACA/BASIC/IFSH Report: “Reducing the Role of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Perspectives and Proposals on the NATO Policy Debate” is due out next week, and will be available on our website.


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