Center intern Emma Lecavalier and I took to the pages of the Bulletin last week to opine on the future of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
The piece uses former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent speech in Brussels criticizing NATO members for not bearing a greater share of the Alliance defense burden as a pivot to question the logic and feasibility of continuing the European deployment.
You can read the full piece at the Bulletin’s website. Here’s a teaser:
US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe provide a capability for a threat that no longer exists at a financial and opportunity cost that can no longer be justified.
The original rationale for deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Europe was to deter a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. This threat disappeared when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s. In fact, the continued storage of tactical nuclear weapons at multiple bases in Europe increases the risk that they could be targeted for theft or sabotage by terrorists. The presence of these weapons also provides Russia with a convenient excuse to refuse to talk about its enormous non-strategic arsenal.
The longer NATO puts off a collective decision about removing tactical nuclear weapons, the greater the odds that financial and political realities in Europe could force changes to alliance nuclear policy under circumstances not of its own choosing. For example, if the German parliament decides not to fund a nuclear capability for the Eurofighter — a distinct possibility given the current economic climate — the other host nations will find it difficult to pursue their own modernization programs. This could lead to a situation where the weapons are removed in a disorganized fashion, undermining alliance cohesion and effectiveness.
As is often the case with op-eds/articles a few things got left on the cutting room floor. Expect two areas in particular to receive future attention on the blog…
The Baltic States. A colleague recently pointed out to me that while the new members of NATO (in particular the Baltic states) are the strongest defenders of NATO’s nuclear status quo and claim to feel the most threatened by the Russians, they all spend less than the Alliance’s recommended level of 2% of GDP spending on defense. These states are some of the worst examples of the phenomenon Gates was railing against, as the Economist recently highlighted. Talk about burden sharing being out of whack.
This isn’t to say the concerns raised by new members are all unfounded. As one senior Alliance official put it last year to Malcolm Chalmers and Simon Lunn:
It is not that we think the Baltic concerns are unreasonable. It’s that we think there are better ways of dealing with them than the deployment of gravity bombs on short range aircraft – ways that will leave us all feeling more secure.
Russian Reciprocity. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept document states:
In any future reductions, our aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members. Any further steps must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons.
Whether one views this as a recipe for inaction or a potential blueprint for the ultimate removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe depends in large part on how one defines “our aim” and “take into account”. I tend to view it as a recipe for inaction. I hope I’m wrong.
Including Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons in the next round of arms control negotiations with Moscow is a good goal, but the U.S. weapons deployed in Europe are a useless bargaining chip, since Russia retains tactical nuclear weapons primarily to make up for its conventional weakness.
In other words, when it comes to tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. and NATO shouldn’t make changes to Alliance nuclear posture contingent on reciprocity from Moscow, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.
Doing so would legitimize Russian concerns about NATO and give Russia undue influence over NATO’s decisionmaking. Instead the Alliance should make a collective decision based on its own security needs, as was the case in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush unilaterally reduced the number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which led the Soviet Union to take similar steps, dramatically increasing U.S. security.
And as Emma and I write, this would also ensure that the host nations for U.S. nuclear weapons will not have to make costly and politically divisive decisions about upgrading their dual-capable nuclear aircraft, which could force the weapons out of Europe in a manner that undermines alliance cohesion and unity.