Leaders attending the upcoming NATO summit at Cardiff, Wales, will face, once again, the question of what to do about the US nuclear weapons stationed at NATO bases throughout Europe. A holdover from the Cold War, when it was thought that the deployment could mute European nuclear ambitions and strengthen the threatened alliance, nearly 200 of these tactical bombs have remained in hangars in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.
Several commentators have argued that Russia’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine is evidence that the weapons are needed now more than ever. However, the evidence suggests the opposite: US tactical nuclear weapons detract from more useful defense initiatives, as is shown in several ways.
First, there is no evidence that these weapons have had any effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s transgressions in Ukraine, Georgia, or the Baltic States. Russia took each of these aggressive actions, despite the presence of tactical nuclear bombs elsewhere in Europe. Nor have those bombs reassured eastern European NATO allies about US commitments to defend them. The newer NATO members closest to Russia are more concerned than ever and look to the West's non-nuclear forces instead for support. The reason tactical nuclear weapons are irrelevant in these cases is simple: The threat to NATO territory is not nearly severe enough for nuclear weapons to play a role.
Also, leaders meeting at Cardiff should not ignore the consistent calls from NATO allies that host tactical nukes for their withdrawal. Exalting the preferences of Estonia and Latvia for assurance they will be defended against Russian attack over the preferences of Germany and Belgium to be rid of the nuclear bombs at their airfields is a dangerous gamble that overlooks the need for consensus among NATO members. Resolution of the issue requires a substantive compromise. Overlooking pleas for real assurance, some commentators continue to insist that these few bombs, deployed far from the Baltic states, actually do assure the leaders of those countries. In so doing, they miss the crucial opportunity to shift funds from the tactical nuclear mission and pay for defensive capabilities that will counter the threats these countries actually face.
The recent creation of a NATO Response Force is an example of a more useful conventional response to the conventional threats that NATO's eastern members face. At Cardiff, NATO leaders should agree to more actions in this vein, including stronger coordination to deter and defend against cyber threats, and initiatives to ensure that existing NATO forces can be deployed effectively and appropriately if needed. Because NATO countries are unlikely to significantly increase current levels of defense spending, maintaining costly tactical nuclear bombs in Europe essentially robs the alliance of resources urgently needed to buttress its non-nuclear forces.
NATO is and will remain a nuclear alliance, but as the 2010 Strategic Concept emphasized, the “supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces” of alliance members. Those who reflexively claim that the tactical bombs are necessary to demonstrate US commitment to European security confuse the pledge NATO members make for mutual defense; it is the US strategic arsenal that makes NATO a nuclear alliance. In June, when Pentagon planners decided to send a subtle nuclear signal warning against further Russian aggression, tactical weapons were useless: The United States deployed strategic bombers to Europe.
The calls to retain tactical nuclear bombs in Europe obscure the significant benefits that would flow from eliminating the weapons. To keep the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty strong, nuclear states will need to demonstrate progress toward nuclear disarmament at the upcoming NPT review conference. Withdrawing tactical nuclear weapons and focusing on non-nuclear defense in Europe would send a strong signal that NATO is serious about its promise to “[create] the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.” By eliminating this expensive and militarily irrelevant class of bombs, the United States could generate significant cost savings and avoid undercutting its disarmament pledge by deploying new nuclear capabilities in Europe; under a $10 billion-plus modernization program, the B61 tactical bombs currently deployed in Europe will be enhanced and deployed on new, stealthy F-35 fighter-bombers.
Tactical nuclear bombs in Europe are no longer useful for defense, deterrence, or assurance. Calls to retain such weapons in Europe are an echo from the past rather than a solution for the future. The bombs distract and divide the alliance, rather than bind it together. With deadlines looming on expensive decisions to modernize the bombs and the planes that carry them, the NATO Summit instead should decide to shift scarce resources to non-nuclear efforts that strengthen the alliance and actually reassure European allies.