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NATO, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control

Introduction and Executive Summary:

Nuclear Questions

The United States and NATO are currently weighing what to do about non-strategic nuclear weapons in the context of a major Alliance deterrence and defense policy review and the possibility of future U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction talks. This paper examines NATO’s nuclear background, lays out a number of questions the Alliance must consider as it thinks about its future nuclear posture, and outlines the range of arms control approaches for dealing with non-strategic nuclear weapons. It concludes with policy recommendations for Washington and NATO.

In his April 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama articulated the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons while also stating that the United States would maintain an effective nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. His speech and the U.S.-Russian negotiation that culminated in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) spurred talk in Europe of the contribution NATO might make to the nuclear disarmament process. Meeting in Lisbon in November 2010, NATO leaders issued a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance and mandated a comprehensive Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) that will address, among other things, NATO’s nuclear posture. The review is taking place as the U.S. government considers how it might deal with non-strategic nuclear weapons in the context of a possible next round of U.S.-Russian arms reduction negotiations. When signing the New START Treaty, Obama stated that further negotiations should include nonstrategic (also referred to as tactical or sub-strategic) nuclear weapons, and a negotiation covering nonstrategic nuclear weapons would presumably include U.S. nuclear bombs deployed in Europe. But Russia—which has a significant numerical advantage in non-strategic weapons—so far shows little enthusiasm for new negotiations on any further nuclear cuts beyond New START.

NATO, since the mid-1950s, has attached importance to nuclear weapons in deterring—and, if necessary, defending against—an attack on the Alliance. NATO policy has evolved over 55 years and has increasingly stressed that the circumstances in which the Alliance might have to consider resorting to nuclear weapons are exceedingly remote. The number of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe has declined dramatically, from a peak of more than 7,000 in the 1970s to some 200 today. Yet, as NATO leaders stated in their 2010 Strategic Concept, “as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” The concept also commits the Alliance to “seek to create the conditions for further reductions” of the “number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe” and of the “reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO’s strategy.” What this means in practice remains to be seen; it is one of the questions being addressed in the DDPR, and allies hold differing views.

Issues for Consideration

In considering NATO’s future nuclear posture, a number of questions arise:

• Given the sweeping changes in the European region over the past 20 years, what purpose do nuclear weapons in Europe serve? What threats does NATO seek to deter?

• NATO nuclear doctrine and declaratory policy have evolved considerably over the past four decades, reflecting the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. Might NATO now further amend its declaratory policy?

• Many U.S. and NATO officials see little or no added military value to the weapons in Europe, though they have political value as symbols of the U.S. commitment to European security. How many U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons does NATO need in order to maintain an effective deterrent? Could those weapons be consolidated at fewer locations? Does NATO still require a U.S. nuclear presence in Europe?

• What is the future of “dual-capable” aircraft—capable of delivering conventional and nuclear munitions—in Europe? The German government plans that the successor to the Tornado, the Eurofighter, will not be nuclear-capable. That could affect other countries’ decisions about their dual-capable aircraft.

• How might developments in the field of missile defense and conventional forces affect NATO’s need for nuclear weapons in Europe, i.e., what is the appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense forces?

• Can NATO maintain nuclear risk- and burden-sharing if it reduces or eliminates U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe?

Answers to these and related questions will shape the conclusions in the DDPR, which is due to be completed by NATO’s 2012 summit. Those conclusions might also be affected by expectations of what could come from arms reduction negotiations with Russia.

Arms Control Options

The U.S. government has said that it would like to negotiate on non-strategic nuclear weapons, and the U.S. interagency process has begun weighing possible approaches, which will have to be linked up with a consultation process with the allies. A range of possible approaches to non-strategic nuclear weapons presents itself:

Transparency and other confidence-building measures: the United States and Russia might be more transparent regarding the numbers, types and locations of their nonstrategic nuclear weapons, as well as their doctrine regarding those weapons. They might also agree to draw weapons back from borders, consolidate them at storage locations, and/or maintain them separate from delivery systems.

Unilateral actions: the United States and Russia might adopt unilateral steps, perhaps in parallel, not to increase the number of their non-strategic weapons or to reduce them, as was done by Washington and Moscow in the early 1990s.

Arms control negotiations: the United States and Russia might negotiate limits on their non-strategic nuclear weapons, either together with deployed and non-deployed strategic nuclear weapons or under a discrete limit on non-strategic nuclear warheads. A less-likely alternative would be to address non-strategic weapons, perhaps along with conventional arms, in a NATO-Russia or broader all-European dialogue.

If there are negotiations, U.S.-Russian bilateral negotiations appear to be the most logical venue. Principles for the U.S. approach to such negotiations could include: limits on nuclear warheads rather than on delivery systems, as most delivery systems have important conventional roles; global rather than regional limits (given the transportability of non-strategic nuclear warheads); and limits that result in de jure equality. Any negotiation would require asymmetric reductions, given the large Russian numerical advantage. The Russian advantage, combined with the Russian view that such weapons offset what they perceive to be conventional force disadvantages vis-à-vis NATO and China, would complicate any negotiation, and it may prove difficult to engage Moscow in negotiations in the first place.


NATO currently is on a path of disarmament by default as regards its non-strategic nuclear weapons. If the Alliance does not handle the nuclear issue carefully, it will find that U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are reduced or eliminated while NATO gains nothing in terms of reductions of Russian non-strategic nuclear warheads or in terms of political credit for a unilateral decision to end the U.S. nuclear presence.

The default decision is driven primarily by the future of NATO’s dual-capable aircraft. The coming denuclearization of the German air force, which is probably irreversible (though it may not happen until 2020 or a bit later), will likely influence the Dutch and Belgians to give up their nuclear capabilities as well. This in turn will put political pressure on Rome and Ankara. There is a high probability that the result will be a cascade of national decisions leading to the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. It is questionable whether political leadership on either side of the Atlantic will engage to change this course. NATO may be able to kick this can down the road but at some point could well find itself facing dramatic, unavoidable and possibly irreversible changes in its nuclear posture.

Recommendations for the Alliance

As NATO examines its broader deterrence and defense posture between now and the 2012 NATO summit, it should weigh how non-nuclear elements of Alliance military forces can assume a greater share of the burden, in particular in assuring member states in the Baltic region and Central Europe. Missile defense can take on part of the burden. Budget pressures mean that NATO member states will have difficulties maintaining current conventional force capabilities, let alone adding new ones, so NATO must be smarter about how it allocates defense resources.

Assurance of allies is not just a matter of capability; it is also a matter of confidence. NATO leaders should increase their bilateral interactions with member-state leaders in the Baltic region and Central Europe in ways that would reassure them more broadly. Declining defense budgets will likely be an increasingly constraining factor, but to the extent that those members have greater confidence in the Article 5 security guarantee, it may become easier to find common ground within the Alliance on nuclear posture questions.

Finding consensus on specific DDPR conclusions will not prove simple. The most likely outcome, barring a major surprise, is some evolutionary development of current NATO policy, perhaps papering over differences and/or relegating unresolved questions to further review. But NATO should think through carefully the implications of likely future dual-capable aircraft developments, including the impact of NATO allies giving up dual-capable aircraft. For purposes of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction efforts, the DDPR should lay out a range of outcomes, in which the NATO need for nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe would decline were Russia prepared to reduce its non-strategic nuclear weapons and take other measures, such as relocating those weapons away from NATO borders. (This would link U.S. and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons, whereas U.S. weapons in Europe are intended in part to assure allies against the full range of possible threats. Hence the need, noted above, for NATO to develop other ways to assure allies.)

Recommendations for Arms Control

Arms control should focus on the U.S.-Russian bilateral channel. At the same time, European leaders should make clear to Moscow their concern about the large number of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons. While seeking negotiations, Washington should press Moscow for greater transparency regarding non-strategic nuclear weapons. It might even consider making public more information on its non-strategic nuclear forces unilaterally, as it did in 2010 when announcing the total size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The United States should explore other confidence-building measures with Russia, while recognizing that agreeing on such measures may be difficult, as they will tend to fall more heavily on the Russian side. One measure could be agreement by Washington and Moscow that they will store their non-strategic nuclear warheads away from the NATO-Russia border (but without pushing Russian weapons into Asia).

The best long-term approach to addressing non-strategic nuclear weapons is to reduce and limit them as the result of a legally-binding U.S.-Russian agreement with verification measures. Washington should seek to engage Moscow in consultations, followed shortly by full negotiations, on further reductions in their nuclear arsenals. In those negotiations, the United States should propose a single limit covering deployed strategic warheads, non-deployed strategic warheads and non-strategic nuclear warheads, i.e., all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads except for those that have been retired and are in the queue for dismantlement (these would be covered separately). In addition, the U.S. proposal should include a sublimit applied to deployed strategic warheads. A specific position could be a limit of no more than 2,500 total nuclear warheads on each side, with a sublimit of no more than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads each. Under such an agreement, Russia would likely opt to deploy a greater number of non-strategic nuclear warheads, while the United States chose a greater number of non-deployed strategic warheads. The result would be significant reductions in Russian nonstrategic nuclear warheads and in U.S. non-deployed strategic warheads. In the context of these limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, and assuming that the other provisions of the agreement were acceptable, the United States and NATO should consider accepting the likely Russian position that all nuclear weapons be based on national territory, which would require the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.

The benefit of such a treaty would be a significant reduction in the Russian nuclear arsenal, including for the first time negotiated reductions in and limits on Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons. Were Moscow prepared to reduce its nuclear weapons sufficiently—including the number of non-strategic nuclear warheads—this approach would entail acceptance of a “basing on national territory” provision that would require withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe. The Alliance would have to adjust its overall posture accordingly, look for new ways to assure those member states with continuing security concerns about Russia, and consider how it would deter non-Russian nuclear threats such as Iran. The treaty outlined above, however, offers significant advantages in terms of shrinking the nuclear threat, and it provides a much preferable outcome than NATO’s current course—non-strategic nuclear disarmament by default.

SERIES: Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Series | Number 7