Center for Arms Control

NATO: Still Fighting the Last (Cold) War

By Lesley McNiesh

At the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, the alliance had the chance to make changes to NATO’s nuclear posture that would align it with 21st century security challenges. Instead, it chose to remain mired in Cold War thinking.

At the 2010 Lisbon summit, NATO mandated a review to accomplish the key task of updating the alliance’s deterrence and defense posture given a changed and still evolving security environment. The result of this effort was released two years later during the Chicago summit. The review calls nuclear weapons a “core component” of NATO capabilities and advocates no changes to current posture, even though the status quo includes antiquated non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe that are irrelevant to the current security environment. It also missed an opportunity to clarify and harmonize policies on when nuclear weapons might be used.

Cold War Legacy #1:

To be fair, the news isn’t all bad: the document says NATO seeks to “create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons” and calls for further studies that could pave the way for future changes. Of course, considering that the 2010 Lisbon Summit Declaration already set these goals, it’s hard not to ask when NATO is going to move from declaring its intentions to achieving them.

The review conditions removal of NATO’s estimated 200 remaining forward deployed U.S. B-61 bombs, which are undergoing an unfocused Life-Extension Program (LEP) with escalating costs, on cuts in Russian forces:

NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia, taking into account the greater Russian stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in the Euro-Atlantic area.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it implies these weapons provide meaningful capabilities—which they do not. General James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, unequivocally answered “no” when asked whether there is “a military mission performed by these aircraft-delivered weapons that cannot be performed by either U.S. strategic forces or U.S. conventional forces?” Even if the argument is that their removal provides a bargaining chip with which to convince Russia to begin reducing its much larger arsenal of non-strategic weapons, they won’t buy much if the bombs don’t provide any real strategic value.

Some eastern European governments argue that non-strategic nuclear weapons are a core element of NATO because they ensure alliance cohesion, distribute responsibility for nuclear deterrence beyond nuclear-armed states, and demonstrate the commitment of more powerful members like the United States to members that are more vulnerable to attack. However, the idea that non-strategic nuclear weapons provide the solution to these problems is as antiquated as the warheads themselves; their deployment in Europe does nothing to serve 21st century security priorities such as counterterrorism, cyber-security, and interventions like the one that helped overthrow the Qaddafi regime. Allowing the fears of a small group within NATO to control the agenda will ultimately weaken the alliance because it distracts from developing capabilities that will keep NATO relevant in the future.

NATO’s insistence on retaining non-strategic nuclear weapons contradicts its declared commitment to pursue the conditions for a nuclear free world and current deployment leaves them more vulnerable to theft. In addition to the challenges and costs of keeping these aging weapons operable, it’s not clear there will be planes to carry them for much longer. Germany is planning to replace its Tornado PA-200 fighter with one that isn’t nuclear capable, shifting the burden of maintaining the B-61 as a deliverable option to other allies (if they accept it). The F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey plan to procure for this purpose face ballooning costs and ongoing delays. In an era of tightening budgets, there’s a chance the air force could jettison the costly task of making the F-35s nuclear capable. Coupled with the escalating costs of the B61 life extension program, NATO could soon price itself out of the nuclear deterrence market, at least as far as non-strategic weapons are concerned.

The U.S. has already withdrawn the vast majority of its nuclear weapons deployed in Europe because their diplomatic, security, and financial costs outweigh any possible benefit. It’s time for NATO to finish the job.

The other major missed opportunity in the review is that it only pays lip service to the benefit of negative security assurances, whereby nuclear –armed states promise not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with their Non Proliferation Treaty obligations:

Cold War Legacy #2: Unilateral and ambiguous declaratory policies

Allies acknowledge the importance of the independent and unilateral negative security assurances offered by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Those assurances guarantee, without prejudice to the separate conditions each State has attached to those assurances, including the inherent right to self-defence as recognised under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, that nuclear weapons will not be used or threatened to be used against Non-Nuclear Weapon States that are party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Negative security assurances are supposed to give states that do not have nuclear weapons confidence that they will not be threatened by nuclear-armed states, but assurance only works if it is firm and clearly articulated. Instead, the review darts from a clear endorsement of negative security assurances to a muddled practice that lets the United States, the United Kingdom and France pursue their own understanding of what constitutes an appropriate declaratory policy. The three governments are not currently on the same page about committing to strong assurances.

Independent, unilateral assurances create ambiguity instead of sending a clear message to non-nuclear weapons states. If NATO endorses this important concept, then its members should be willing to make a unified commitment. Non-nuclear-armed states shouldn’t be punished for adhering to their nonproliferation commitments.

Lesley McNiesh is an intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

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