NATO's Incredible Nuclear Strategy: Why U.S. Weapons in Europe Deter No One

By Seay, Edmond | Arms Control Today, November 2011 | Go to article overview

NATO's Incredible Nuclear Strategy: Why U.S. Weapons in Europe Deter No One


Seay, Edmond, Arms Control Today


At its November 2010 summit in Lisbon, NATO proclaimed itself a nuclear alliance, declaring that any change in the status of the 200-odd U.S. B61 gravity bombs stored in various sites around Europe would have to be made by consensus among all 28 allies.

Indeed, paragraph 17 of the Strategic Concept approved at the Lisbon summit made clear the intended duration of this policy:

Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy. The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.

This reaffirmation of the status quo disappointed many observers whose hopes had been raised by President Barack Obama's Prague speech in April 2009. Several NATO members also were not pleased with the Lisbon declaration. Allies who wanted more thought given to changing NATO's nuclear posture worked out a compromise by which the alliance would determine the right combination of conventional, nuclear, and missile defense forces ahead of the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. This Deterrence and Defense Posture Review has now completed an initial consultation phase and has begun the negotiating phase, which presumably will result in an agreed text by the May summit.

NATO, however, has a big problem. The confluence of several serious challenges has placed in doubt the safety, security, and effectiveness of the alliance's nuclear deterrent: The weapons and their means of delivery are old, the weapons systems are vulnerable to sabotage and pre-emption; and these systems lack credibility, both operationally and politically.

This last point is crucial. Nuclear weapons that are not obviously useful in crisis situations are "incredible" in the strictest sense: they lack the credibility necessary to deter potential aggressors. NATO's B61 bombs are not credible in an operational sense because there is no scenario in which NATO could believably load a B61 onto one of its "dual-capable" fighter-bomber aircraft and fly it in harm's way, as that would amount to a suicide mission for NATO pilots. These weapons are "incredible" politically as well because there is no conceivable scenario under which all 28 NATO allies would grant consensus to use such weapons, especially in a time of crisis.

As NATO attempts to find its "appropriate mix" of deterrence and defense forces through the posturereview process, important questions about the alliance's nuclear forces, and especially about the continued presence in Europe of U.S. theater nuclear weapons, can and should be raised by the publics and governments of all 28 member countries, especially those that host the weapons.

Dubious Justification

The justification for continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe rests on four main arguments: deterrence, reassurance, signaling, and burden sharing. A realistic examination of these arguments reveals that each of them is unconvincing at best.

Deterrence. According to the common argument, theater nuclear weapons in Europe prevent attacks by potential adversaries by threatening unacceptable damage in return. This is known as "extended deterrence," a raising of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Europe.

A fundamental prerequisite for deterrence is credibility: an adversary is deterred when it believes that a retaliatory threat is credible and unacceptably harsh. NATO's nuclear deterrent, however, is short on credibility.

Operationally, it defies belief that any of the four countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands) with B61 bombs and fleets of the needed planes would agree to send its pilots on what amounts to a suicide mission, no matter how grave the crisis of the day. (Turkey stores B61s on its territory, but has no dual-capable aircraft.)

Modern air-defense systems in states that could conceivably be the target of a NATO nuclear strike-Russia, Iran, or even Syria-are so formidable that a NATO nuclear mission would have to be preceded by an air defense suppression effort. …

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NATO's Incredible Nuclear Strategy: Why U.S. Weapons in Europe Deter No One
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