America should welcome a discussion about NATO’s nuclear strategy

By Jon B. Wolfsthal, June 29, 2020

A test version of the new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb to be deployed in Europe as part of a modernization program. Photo from a video by Air Force Staff Sgt. Cody Griffith. A test version of the new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb to be deployed in Europe as part of a modernization program. Photo from a video by Air Force Staff Sgt. Cody Griffith.

In a recent article in Der Spiegel, a leading German newsmagazine, Michele Flournoy and Jim Townsend argued against a German political figure’s suggestion that American nuclear weapons should be removed from Germany, contending such a move would weaken NATO and Germany. No one should lightly take issue with Flournoy or Townsend on nuclear policy or European security. Both are thoughtful experts and former officials with decades of experience and proven track records of enhancing American and allied security.

So my response to the article, “Striking at the Heart of the Trans-Atlantic Bargain,” begins with important areas of agreement:

  • NATO members should not unilaterally reinterpret or adjust alliance obligations, and discussions about such policy changes are better had in private among member states. Being in an effective and enduring alliance means that all countries must be part of a decision-making process and sometimes make compromises in the interests of collective security.
  • Russian actions continue to challenge the NATO alliance, and all allies must contribute to the defense of the alliance with the goal of deterring Russian destabilization efforts and preserving stability.
  • It is critical that America’s commitment to Europe be enhanced and that European and North American allies have a robust multi-spectrum approach to defend against and deter efforts by Russia to splinter or threaten the alliance.

The otherwise valuable Spiegel piece has one major omission, however: It lacks explicit consideration about the real security and opportunity costs of maintaining the nuclear status quo in Europe, both overall and as it directly relates to the areas of agreement listed above. There is little confidence in any NATO capital that forward-deployed NATO nuclear capabilities can be depended upon in a military conflict with Russia. It is for this reason that NATO continually cites the strategic nuclear capabilities of member states as the ultimate guarantee of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Given the military realities, there is real reason for NATO members in general and the United States in particular to be open to a NATO discussion about the future of nuclear sharing and the possibility of withdrawing US nuclear assets from Europe.

Nuclear risks. The continued deployment of US nuclear weapons in Europe poses security risks. Over the past few years, protesters and even elements of state security have compromised the security of bases where US nuclear weapons are reportedly stationed in multiple NATO countries. While risks to forward deployed nuclear weapons can be mitigated, they cannot be eliminated unless the weapons themselves are eliminated. And perhaps when NATO faced what the alliance was convinced was massive conventional inferiority, these security risks outweighed by the benefits forward-based nuclear weapons provided. This is not the case today; the alliance has options for countering Russian aggression—including nuclear options—that do not require forward-based nuclear weapons, and the nature of the threat to NATO is much different now. That’s to say, there is no overriding military requirement for US nuclear weapons in Europe—they are political symbols. They are important symbols, but not irreplaceable, and the risks of maintaining forward-deployed assets and nuclear sharing need to be considered in terms of their physical security and their role in providing or reducing stability in the region, and in regard to the signal those nuclear weapons send about our own confidence in NATO’s conventional capabilities.

Opportunity costs. Nuclear-sharing arrangements in NATO are not easy to maintain, and they are not cheap. If, for example, NATO determined that its nuclear deterrence and reassurance commitments could be met through other means, there would be less pressure on NATO members to purchase as many F-35 next-generation nuclear-capable aircraft.  While technologically advanced and highly capable, these planes are expensive and may not be priority items for countries or an alliance facing challenges like cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and little green men. The savings from smaller F-35 purchases could go a long way toward enhancing other more glaring shortcomings in the NATO defense portfolio. I would not pretend to advise the Der Spiegel authors where freed-up money should be placed first. But it is clear that deterrence and reassurance can be credibly and perhaps more cheaply obtained through other investments.

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The rigid commitment to nuclear sharing and forward deployment, and the equally rigid aversion to discussing alternatives, has been in place for over 20 years.  These make it all but impossible for the alliance to have a serious discussion about risks, costs, and alternatives to the current nuclear arrangements. Such cost/benefit analysis will be all the more important in the coming years. NATO states were facing real budget pressures even before the global economic downturn associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and those pressures can be expected to get worse both in individual countries and for the alliance as a whole. Every Euro spent on F-35s is one not spent on other pressing military and security requirements. Stating that we have to maintain the status quo without a comparative analysis of other options is not the best approach to setting alliance priorities.

Alliance risks. NATO countries worry about America’s commitment to their security. This was true when the alliance was at its strongest, and it is even truer today because of the Russian effort to divide the West and after several years of abuse and denigration of the alliance by President Trump.

Now, the accelerating bilateral nuclear arms race between Moscow and Washington—for which both Washington and Moscow bear responsibility—increases concern within the alliance about nuclear risks. Having backed the US in withdrawing from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), largely to maintain alliance unity, the European allies feel powerless to address the growing nuclear dangers they face together. The looming expiration of New START (given President Trump’s clear intent not to extend the deal) only enhances that concern.

While the United States rightly points a finger at Russia for its violation of INF and for other provocations (see: Ukraine), that does not mean it is reasonable to ignore the real concerns among allies over US nuclear policy. It is not just one European politician or party or country that worries about the growing nuclear risks, and despite the underlying goal of deterring conflict, the United States must face reality: US nuclear and defense policy are part of an action-reaction dynamic with Russia that increasingly risks conflict and even war.

In many NATO countries, important political constituencies for both nuclear restraint and disarmament exist. If America does not acknowledge European perceptions of its role in the new nuclear arms race—from the abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to the rejection of nuclear restraint, and on to an openly hostile posture toward mass public efforts to re-energize the nuclear disarmament process—it will make internal NATO divisions more, rather than less likely and possibly make it easier for Russia or other adversaries to create friction.

Nuclear policy risks. By maintaining the current NATO nuclear policy and enhancing nuclear sharing, the United States continues to signal that the alliance needs to rely on nuclear weapons for more than nuclear deterrence. NATO and the United States maintain a policy option of using nuclear weapons in response to purely conventional attacks (or other admittedly extreme non-nuclear scenarios). This locks America out of adopting policies that could enhance nuclear stability and open the door to both nuclear arsenal reductions and major cost savings associated with adopting and fully implementing a policy of using nuclear weapons only in response to nuclear attack or even of no first nuclear use.

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There is a strong case to be made that the United States and NATO can effectively deter Russian conventional aggression and efforts to destabilize Europe without forward-deployed nuclear weapons. Removing such weapons from Europe would not require NATO to eliminate either nuclear first use or response options. The key to enhancing conventional and nuclear deterrence is credibility. Improving the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe and NATO’s commitment to deter and defend itself may actually be more achievable without the political and economic burdens included in nuclear force modernization in Europe. It is less than fully evident that Russia considers America’s forward-deployed nuclear assets to be a credible threat, especially in the face of their considerable and growing air defense and area denial capabilities.

It seems at least worth discussing as an alliance whether it would be effective to put Russia on the political defensive for maintaining large and threatening stocks of non-strategic nuclear weapons in and around Europe while NATO captures the politically-united high ground by doing away with nuclear weapons that have no credible military role. Such an effort could include an alliance decision to end the practice of forward deployment and challenge Russia to return its stocks of non-strategic nuclear weapons to storage under effective verification.

Of course, an end to forward deployment is only possible if the alliance is confident it can deter Russia through other means. But given the considerable strategic nuclear assets in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France and the NATO-wide conventional superiority over Russia, deterrence can remain effective, even if the forward-based nuclear bombs are removed from Europe. And even in those areas where NATO has to improve its capabilities, including in areas where it may be at a short-term conventional inferiority to Russia, investments would best be made in non-nuclear capabilities.

A proposal to step back from nuclear competition in Europe could also be part of new and long overdue strategic stability and arms control discussions with Russia. These talks might include other issues that undermine stability in Europe, among them intermediate-range missiles, increasingly capable conventional precise munitions, and missile defenses. Of course, steps would need to be taken to reassure the more insecure of the NATO allies. But the money saved via reduced nuclear deployments and dual-capable aircraft purchases could be directly applied both to current shortfalls in the European Deterrence Initiative and to enhancements in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and other force enhancers.

In the end, any determination on forward-based nuclear weapons in Europe must be a NATO-wide decision—come to through open discussions that determine NATO policy in the years ahead. Foreclosing a nuclear discussion within NATO will not make European worries about forward-based nukes go away. NATO members, including particularly Germany, have been trying to have this discussion in the post-Cold War context since at least 1999.

There has to be an alternative to lowest-common-denominator decision making when it comes to nuclear dangers. The United States and European NATO members should have a full discussion of deterrence policy as allies, as partners—sensitive to but not beholden to any domestic political agenda in the United States or in European countries. And in the end, the shared goal of peace and stability must be the magnetic north for the outcome. Many options for reaching that goal are available; none should be closed off.


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Ian Davis
Ian Davis

There is much within this article with which I agree. My main concern is with the transparency and accountability of any NATO-wide discussion going forward. In particular, if “discussions about such policy changes are better had in private among member states” can they also be determined “through open discussions that determine NATO policy in the years ahead”. Either the discussions are open or closed, they can’t be both. At the moment, the discussions in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group are very much closed. At the recent NATO Defence Ministers meeting, for example, there was no public disclosure of the scope and… Read more »

Julius Mazzarella
Julius Mazzarella

Well written. The author has done a nice job explaining to the lay person some of the intricate details. My guess is that it will be up to Biden to forge any new policies with NATO. Our current leadership seems to take a low profile on most issues. Thus far I get the feeling it has been to withdraw from NATO. The same for Global Climate initiative. I think also for Nuclear arms control . And wasn’t our administration the one who cut funding for the State Department too? Just a side note and off topic but doesn’t the state… Read more »

Tom Sauer

I completely agree (see my own piece in Arms Control Today: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2016-05/features/just-leave-nato%E2%80%99s-nuclear-weapons-policy-warsaw-summit). To get something done in NATO, the US should be behind it. I would therefore recommend Jon first to convince his former colleagues Michele Flournoy and Jim Townsend, and if that works out, presidential candidate Joe Biden (the other way around would even be better). If the US withdraws these Cold War pieces, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and nowadays also Turkey will not resist. The next nuclear disarmament fight will then to prevent the Europeanization of the French nuclear weapons (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/25751654.2020.1764260).

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