See a video of the event at: https://youtu.be/UQ7SuXPxt7Y Opening Statement for CSIS PONI Debate on Tactical Nuclear WeaponsMay 19, 2014Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued threats to eastern Ukraine are unequivocal violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international agreements that have been the backbone of stability in Europe. Russia should face (and is facing) political and economic consequences for its actions until it ceases its aggression.
In addition, the United States and Europe should take steps to support the new Ukrainian government and reassure allied governments in the states of the easternmost NATO members. Regarding central and eastern Europe NATO should reinforce defensive capabilities in the region and strengthen deterrence to ensure that no NATO member suffers the same fate as Ukraine.
Peter and I are in violent agreement on these larger objectives.
The question is what means are likely to be most effective in securing these ends.
And we strongly and fundamentally disagree on the wisdom of deploying tactical nuclear warheads and their associated dual capable aircraft on the territory of the NATO members that border Russia.
In my view, such a radical step would be ineffective, provocative, divisive, expensive, and counterproductive.
For starters, the main Russian threat to central and eastern Europe is not nuclear.
It’s no accident that the approximately 2,100 deployed strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons possessed by the United States did not deter Russian land grabbing. As Peter and his colleague wrote in their March 25 CEPA analysis, which I commend to everyone here, “Article 5 and the U.S./UK nuclear umbrella are ill-suited to dealing with Crimea-style tactics, which are localized, low-intensity and quick”. These tactics fall below the threshold that makes threatening or using nuclear weapons rational or credible.
Despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea, there is no indication that there is an imminent Russian threat against NATO territory. In the unlikely event Russia were to make a large-scale conventional move against NATO, U.S. and NATO conventional forces are capable of responding.
More specifically, moving tactical nuclear weapons eastward would be ineffective because the roughly 180 non-strategic B61s already deployed in Europe are militarily useless and don’t strengthen deterrence.
When asked in 2010 if there is a military mission performed by US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that cannot be performed by either US strategic or conventional forces, Gen. James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly said: “No.”
One senior official with European Command told a task force created by the defense secretary that “We pay a king’s ransom for these things and…they have no military value.”
A significant shortcoming of these weapons is that the aging NATO dual capable aircraft would likely be shot down by advanced Russia air defense systems before making it to their target, thereby undermining their credibility as a deterrent. And if there were an increased Russian imminent threat against NATO territory, the last place NATO military planners would want to move U.S. nuclear weapons would probably be closer to that threat.
Our nuclear forces do provide assurance to our allies by extending deterrence, but the heavy lifting of extended deterrence is done by our central strategic forces based in the United States and under the oceans, not forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Even then, nuclear weapons are just one piece of the assurance puzzle.
Our resolve to protect our central European NATO allies against potential Russian aggression is demonstrated first and foremost through our political commitments under NATO. If allies question our resolve, more nuclear capabilities won’t reverse the perception that our commitment is weak.
In the current crisis over Ukraine, the calls from eastern European allies for reassurance has been for non-nuclear measures, such as increased air-patrols, naval deployments and exercises, airlift deployment of paratrooper regiments, and development of new contingency plans. The allies are interested in visible signs of the Article 5 commitment, particularly boots on the ground, which would act as a trip-wire against any incursion.
Most importantly, using tactical nuclear weapons to reassure eastern European allies is dubious for the simple reason that they are the least likely weapons to be used against any of the realistic security threats that eastern European allies face today. It would serve those allies and NATO better if they focused on providing non-nuclear assurances that are symmetrical and credible.
Some argue that tactical nuclear weapons have special reassurance value because they provide a lower-yield strike option that can destroy targets with less damage, thereby providing a means of “escalation control”.
But I have yet to hear a convincing explanation for how the use of low-yield weapons against Russia would not lead to a more devastating counter. Low yield weapons don’t offer an escape from the reality that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. In addition, whether high or low yield, use of a nuclear weapon would have to cross a highly controversial threshold that most NATO countries would be very reluctant to approve. In any event, the President has low-yield options as part of the nuclear forces based in the United States.
Examining an eastward move for U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe would also be divisive, threatening alliance cohesion at a time when cohesion is vitally important.
The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act stated that NATO had “no intention, no plan and no reason” to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states and that the Alliance will carry out its collective defense and other missions without additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.
Despite Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in additional countries in Europe is almost certainly a political bridge too far, especially for the countries in the western part of the alliance. Such a conversation would also divert attention away from more realistic and effective steps to counter Russia and support allies.
Indeed, NATO’s existing nuclear posture is divisive, as I’ll discuss in more detail later in my statement.
Deploying tactical nuclear weapons eastward would also be divisive because it would be extremely provocative. In response, Russia might remove some of its offensive non-strategic warheads from central storage and mate them with delivery systems closer to NATO borders – for example in the Kaliningrad region bordering Poland.
How would triggering such a counter-action help reassure eastern NATO allies?
In addition, building the sites necessary to house, store, and secure B61s and dual capable aircraft wouldn’t be cheap. At a time when U.S. and NATO defense spending is at a premium, every dollar spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar that can’t be spent to provide central and eastern NATO allies with the additional conventional military support that is more relevant to their predicament.
For all these reasons, deploying tactical nuclear weapons eastward would be counterproductive and is the wrong response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. There is no benefit in trying to increase the relevance of nuclear weapons to this crisis. Our goal should be to try to de-escalate the crisis, not escalate it further via nuclear competition.
The current security environment in Europe does however raise an interesting question about the future of the existing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Some observers, including advocates of unilaterally removing U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe, are now saying that the debate over withdrawal is over for the time being.
Let me make four observations about this.
First, despite the current tensions, the current NATO nuclear status quo remains untenable. The complete withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe over the next decade by political and financial default is still a distinct possibility. It is far from clear that the five NATO host nations will take the necessary steps to upgrade their aging dual capable aircraft. For many of the reasons I’ve already highlighted, moving DCAs and weapons eastward is not a realistic solution to this problem.
Second, NATO’s nuclear posture remains divisive within the alliance. The recent reaffirmations of the continued forward deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons reflects the lowest common denominator, not consensus.
Third, nuclear burden sharing is increasingly a misnomer.
One of the main justifications for keeping tactical weapons in Europe is that transatlantic ties are strengthened when the risks and costs of deploying and securing nuclear weapons are shared between the US and the respective host nations.
However, the 2008 final report of the Air Force Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures concluded that host nation security at “most sites” in Europe where US nuclear weapons are deployed do not meet the Defense Department’s security requirements. An alarming illustration of these shortcomings occurred in 2010, when a group of Belgian peace activists penetrated the air base believed to house 20 U.S. B61 nuclear weapons.
Although some European military officials still strongly support the retention of tactical nuclear weapons, political leaders in the host nations do not place a high priority on the nuclear mission, and thus do not make a strong public case for the resources necessary to sustain the mission.
Fourth, beyond security and political considerations, the financial costs of continuing the European nuclear deployment are growing, just as budget austerity is putting pressure on defense spending in Washington and continues to put pressure on NATO military expenditures. The B61 life extension program, which could end up costing $12 billion, is leeching resources from higher priority defense and national security programs. Last year, Congressional appropriators zeroed out the Pentagon’s request to make the F-35A nuclear-capable, raising the possibility that the refurbished B61s slated to be deployed in Europe may not have aircraft to deliver them after the existing European dual capable aircraft are retired over the next decade. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently argued that the Pentagon should forego making the F-35A nuclear capable and instead prioritize a nuclear capability for the Long-Range Strike bomber program.
Might the current Ukraine crisis change these dynamics? Perhaps. But in my view the clock is ticking, and the sooner we stop relying on the forward deployed weapons as a crutch and begin the difficult conversation about security and reassurance in the absence of these weapons, the better off we and our allies will be.