Post-Warsaw analysis: What NATO said (or didn’t say) about Nuclear Weapons

NATO leaders met in Warsaw on July 8-9 for the 2016 Summit. The meeting took place just after the vote by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union -- which many experts perceive as a serious blow to the future of the UK and to NATO -- and when the relationship with Russia has increased the perceived, if not potential, threat of nuclear weapons to European security. 

In the lead up to Warsaw, we began to hear that some allies might seek to include language in the alliance communiqué that would place a greater emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons in NATO security policy. This could have included a push to selectively highlight language from the 2010 Strategic Concept or the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR). For example, adding back the reference in the 2010 Strategic Concept to “peacetime basing” (of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons) that was dropped from the 2012 DDPR and avoiding mention of the possibility of further cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, as endorsed in both the Strategic Concept and the DDPR. Some allies were also thought to be looking to increase the readiness of alliance nuclear forces, coincident with increasing the readiness of conventional forces. 

So what happened in Warsaw?  The communique clearly demonstrated how firmly the "deterrence first" narrative -- coupled with “no business as usual” with Moscow -- is now established within NATO and supersedes concerns about any possible consequences. Given likely Russian reactions this could add to ratcheting up near-term tensions between NATO and Russia and be difficult to dislodge in the longer term. Taken in its totality, the nuclear language in the 2016 Summit Communiqué is a significant step back from the 2010 Strategic Concept and 2012 DDPR:

Peacetime Basing. It explicitly underscores that NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture “relies, in part” on U.S. nuclear weapons “forward deployed in Europe.” (The other part being alliance strategic forces). So while the 2012 DDPR had dropped the reference to “peacetime basing of nuclear forces,” the 2016 Communique now explicitly reintroduces the need for forward based nuclear weapons in Europe.

Dual-Capable Aircraft. Perhaps due to basing country sensitivities, there is no explicit reference to NATO dual capable aircraft (DCA) — the rest of the “relies” sentence refers to “capabilities and infrastructure provided by Allies concerned.” Perhaps for the same reason, the language relating to nuclear burden-sharing is also somewhat vague (and closer to the 2012 DDPR language): "The Alliance will ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned in their agreed nuclear burden-sharing arrangements.”

Readiness of NATO’s nuclear forces. There is nothing explicit in the 2016 Summit Communiqué on readiness. The requirement for "planning guidance aligned with 21st century requirements” is the same phrase used in the 2012 DDPR. The explanation at that time was that this language referred to the need to develop and agree on the principles and parameters that would guide a decision to "use," i.e. a necessary review and possible revision to the considerations developed for that purpose during the Cold War. It is unclear where this currently stands within NATO, but in today’s context, it could foreshadow an increase in DCA readiness levels and at face value represents a further step in the direction of those who look for more credible deterrence through usability.

Strategic nuclear forces. The language relating to the U.S., UK and France is consistent with the 2010 / 2012 NATO documents, with an interesting addition: "These Allies’ separate centers of decision-making contribute to deterrence by complicating the calculations of potential adversaries.”

Role or importance of nuclear weapons (or nuclear use). Here too, there would appear to be a ratcheting up. The 2010 Strategic Concept noted that "the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.” In the 2016 Summit Communiqué, after noting that any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, the statement removes contemplation from the equation, more directly stating that: “the circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote." Moreover, in what could be read as an underlining of the possibility of nuclear use, the statement then reads: "If the fundamental security of any of its members were to be threatened however, NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that an adversary could hope to achieve.”

Arms control. The Summit Communiqué gives the distinct impression that NATO isn’t putting much stock in — or doing much work on — the arms control account. The statement reaffirms NATO’s “resolve” to seek to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, and states NATO is committed to “contribute to creating the conditions for further reductions in the future" (in tactical nuclear weapons) "on the basis of reciprocity." However, the statement then notes: "We regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favorable today.”

All in all, Warsaw has provided further momentum to a cycle of “action-reaction” between NATO and Russia, which in light of current conditions and attitudes will be difficult to turn around anytime in the near future. The Communiqué does contain several mentions of the need for engagement with Russia but this will become increasingly difficult as NATO proceeds with implementing and enhancing its forward presence and Russia responds. Moreover, it is clear that there are some allies who continue to question the advisability of engagement with Putin’s Russia in the first place. 

In the absence of a serious review of alternatives to NATO’s current nuclear posture -- one that could be sustained without the peacetime basing of forward deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe -- discussions within NATO will almost inevitably have to return to the issue of DCA sustainment and modernization in NATO basing countries.  

The issue of nuclear modernization will not be a welcome topic in most basing countries who are likely to face serious opposition from their parliaments and publics; indeed, this is already happening in some countries. Ironically, the prospect of a debate over DCA modernization -- and the continuing need to fund conventional reassurance initiatives -- could provide the impetus for NATO to do what it has failed to do for years: think seriously about establishing a safer, more credible nuclear posture with updated nuclear sharing arrangements with allies -- and without the need for U.S. nuclear bombs stored in Europe.    

Finally, even with arms control on the back burner, any discussion within NATO of the role of tactical nuclear weapons will inevitably bring back the question of reciprocity with Russia -- and the impasse on alliance tactics that was reached when members attempted to develop an agreed approach on nuclear confidence building measures during 2013.

Looking ahead, a re-examination by the next U.S. administration and NATO allies of how best to provide for a safer, more secure, and more credible extended nuclear deterrence for NATO members is necessary -- one which challenges some of the assumptions underpinning current policy. This should include a thorough examination of the range of threats facing the alliance, the tools and resources available to NATO to address these challenges, the ongoing priority for conventional reassurance, and a balanced assessment of what Russian doctrine, statements and activities say about their attitudes to the role of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Excerpts from Warsaw Summit Statement

Copied below the three most relevant nuclear-related paragraphs (Paragraphs 52, 53 and 54) — along with the relevant paragraphs on arms control (Paragraphs 64 and 65) — from the Warsaw Summit Communique.

52.         As a means to prevent conflict and war, credible deterrence and defense is essential.  Therefore, deterrence and defense, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy.  A robust deterrence and defense posture strengthens Alliance cohesion, including the transatlantic link, through an equitable and sustainable distribution of roles, responsibilities, and burdens.  NATO must continue to adapt its strategy in line with trends in the security environment – including with respect to capabilities and other measures required – to ensure that NATO's overall deterrence and defense posture is capable of addressing potential adversaries’ doctrine and capabilities, and that it remains credible, flexible, resilient, and adaptable.

53.         Allies’ goal is to bolster deterrence as a core element of our collective defense and to contribute to the indivisible security of the Alliance.  As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.  The strategic forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies.  The independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France have a deterrent role of their own and contribute to the overall security of the Alliance.  These Allies’ separate centers of decision-making contribute to deterrence by complicating the calculations of potential adversaries. NATO's nuclear deterrence posture also relies, in part, on United States’ nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and on capabilities and infrastructure provided by Allies concerned.  These Allies will ensure that all components of NATO's nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective.  That requires sustained leadership focus and institutional excellence for the nuclear deterrence mission and planning guidance aligned with 21st century requirements.  The Alliance will ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned in their agreed nuclear burden-sharing arrangements.

54.         The fundamental purpose of NATO's nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression.  Nuclear weapons are unique.  Any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict.  The circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote.  If the fundamental security of any of its members were to be threatened however, NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that an adversary could hope to achieve.

64.         Allies emphasize their strong commitment to full implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  The Alliance reaffirms its resolve to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in full accordance with all provisions of the NPT, including Article VI, in a step-by-step and verifiable way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all. Allies reiterate their commitment to progress towards the goals and objectives of the NPT in its mutually reinforcing three pillars: nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

65.         After the end of the Cold War, NATO dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and its reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO strategy.  We remain committed to contribute to creating the conditions for further reductions in the future on the basis of reciprocity, recognizing that progress on arms control and disarmament must take into account the prevailing international security environment.  We regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favorable today.


July 19, 2016
About

Taken in its totality, the nuclear language in the 2016 Summit Communiqué is a significant step back from the 2010 Strategic Concept and 2012 DDPR.

Authors
Steve Andreasen
Steve Andreasen

National Security Consultant

Simon Lunn

Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies

Isabelle Williams
Isabelle Williams

Senior Advisor, Global Nuclear Policy Program