Countdown to Chaos?: Timelines and Implications of Procurement Decisions for NATO’s Dual-Capable Aircraft

NATO’s nuclear sharing program is in trouble. The United States has continuously maintained nuclear weapons in Europe since March 1954 (and NATO has agreed to this policy since December of that year). Since 1991, the only U.S. nuclear weapons in NATO’s arsenal have been B61 gravity bombs, designed for delivery to target by “dual-capable” fighter-bomber aircraft (DCA). These aircraft are rapidly reaching the end of their normal service lives, however, and are the only means by which NATO shares the threat of nuclear attack on potential opponents in times of crisis among several Allied nations.

This arrangement is, according to NATO policy, necessary to reassure Allies that the pledge of mutual security under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty has real meaning in the 21st century. If this is so, the aging of the DCA fleet risks an unplanned end to those sharing arrangements: to do nothing will be to court what Professor Neil Cooper and others have called “disarmament by default”. At that point, NATO would be left to choose between two bad alternatives: reconstitute a theater nuclear force in Europe of some sort—further further antagonizing a Russian Federation already objecting to NATO’s missile defense plans for Europe—or do nothing and appear weak and rudderless, throwing doubt upon the further utility (and existence) of the North Atlantic alliance.

This paper addresses the choices facing NATO in five sections: The first examines how much longer current DCA airframes can reasonably be expected to serve before being replaced; the second notes the three options available to NATO in dealing with its aging DCA assets as well as the status of the DCA debate in each of four current DCA host nations; the third points out the problems with the F-35, at the moment the only potential replacement for current-generation DCA; the fourth notes the limitations to, and potential costs of, exploring further life extension programs for NATO’s current DCA; while the fifth and final section suggests a course of action for NATO to avoid the pitfalls noted above.

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