Looking Beyond the Chicago Summit: Nuclear Weapons in Europe and the Future of NATO

Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will meet for a summit in Chicago this May to conclude their Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR), which was intended to be a vehicle for resolving key questions about the future role of nuclear weapons in NATO policy. However, NATO is unlikely to resolve the question of what to do about its forward deployed nuclear weapons before the summit.

The Alliance’s 28 member states fall along a diverse spectrum of views on these nuclear weapons, with some advocating complete disarmament and other, more vulnerable states seeking to retain these weapons indefinitely for reassurance purposes. Currently, five European countries—Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey—base U.S. B61 bombs on their territory and some have dual-capable aircraft that can deliver these weapons. But it is possible that some NATO allies may choose to abandon their nuclear role as they make decisions regarding successor aircraft for their own air forces. While NATO can extend the status quo for now, it cannot put off resolving its defense and deterrence dilemmas without undermining Alliance confidence and cohesion. The Alliance would be wise to establish at the Chicago Summit a process to continue work on two key issues:

  1. What alternative forms of nuclear sharing and basing might be available that could simultaneously ensure wide participation in the nuclear mission, reassure those states that are seen as most vulnerable to external threat, and make a significant contribution to global disarmament efforts?
  2. What means, if any, can be deployed to bolster non-nuclear reassurance of those NATO allies that feel most exposed to external threats? Who will provide these means and when?

We explore a range of options available to the Alliance in addressing these questions. Any policy package will need to include an agreement on alternative nuclear-sharing options (“smart sharing”) that allow for deterrence and burden sharing, while adding momentum to nuclear disarmament. A number of approaches can be envisaged for maintaining a NATO dual-capable aircraft posture in Europe, the most plausible of which provide a possible “middle way” that strikes a balance between the status quo and complete withdrawal of dualcapable aircraft.

In one scenario, some European air forces would give up the nuclear delivery capability while others retain it. Alternatively, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands could eliminate their dual-capable aircraft and ask that B61 bombs on their territory be withdrawn, while the United States could continue to store its bombs in Turkey and its own dual-capable aircraft and bombs in Italy. Or the United States could maintain bombs in Turkey and Italy and its dual-capable aircraft in Italy (or another European location) but assign to that unit exchange pilots from allied air forces.

In addition, the Alliance should consider measures that could compensate for the reassurance these weapons currently provide to NATO’s more vulnerable states, both to prepare for a possible withdrawal of U.S. nuclear basing in Europe and to bolster the Alliance’s overall confidence and cohesion. The more encouraging the background political-security conditions are, the less need for strong additional reassurance measures. To improve the Alliance’s security conditions, a transformation in NATO-Russia relations through transparency and confidence-building measures would have significant implications for reassurance in the Alliance, although NATO alone cannot determine this outcome. Strengthening NATO’s cohesion and refocusing on its basic collective security function would also contribute to the reassurance of the Alliance’s more vulnerable states.

We explore a variety of creative intra-Alliance measures that could bolster reassurance. These include declaratory statements by the United States and other Alliance members specifically emphasizing their commitment to the most vulnerable NATO allies and the deployment of visible reassurance measures involving some military capability in more exposed allied states. Others entail enhancing NATO’s conventional deterrence through specialized, alliance- wide improvements in capabilities; preparatory planning; infrastructure development; and exercises to enable the fulfillment of Article V obligations. NATO will continue to be a nuclear alliance as long as potential adversaries possess nuclear weapons. But the role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance’s deterrence and defense posture will continue to evolve. Following the Chicago Summit, NATO should not pause in conducting discreet and forward-looking internal consultations and studies to determine how to meet the realistic deterrence and reassurance requirements of the future strategic environment. Careful NATO management of this issue will be crucial to avoiding an entirely predictable crisis among the allies.

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