This paper is part 4 of the 6-part series, U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Core Steps, 2018–2020.
The negative political dynamic between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Russian Federation today is the frame for any discussion of NATO defense policy and posture, including NATO’s nuclear posture. Within this frame, unity within the alliance takes on a special meaning. NATO is averse to taking steps that might create controversy or suggest a lack of cohesion in the face of a newly aggressive Russia, and the United States must be resolute in its commitment to the defense of NATO. This stance especially has bearing today given the uncertainty that has engulfed the Trump administration’s relationships with NATO and with Russia.
The principle of collective defense enshrined in article 5 of the Washington Treaty is essential, and any changes to NATO’s defense policy and posture must be seen through that lens; however, the current security environment should not preclude Washington and NATO from reviewing NATO’s nuclear posture. In fact, NATO’s security requires a hard look at and new approaches to NATO deterrence and defense through the prism of reducing the risk of nuclear use. Forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe increase the risk of accidents, blunders, or catastrophic terrorism and invite pre-emption. Given these added risks, it is past time to revisit whether these forward-based weapons are essential for military deterrence and political reassurance. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy of December 2017 commits to this continued deployment without presenting the considered analysis that would emerge from a hard look.
There are strong arguments for NATO to move to a safer, more secure, and more credible nuclear posture without forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. The challenge is how to advance current thinking about the military and political dimensions of alternative nuclear postures.
Regarding the military side of the ledger, it seems clear that consolidating U.S. nuclear weapons now stored in Europe back to the United States would not diminish U.S. and NATO nuclear capabilities. Several former senior U.S. officials and military leaders have made the point that U.S. nuclear weapons based in Europe have virtually no military utility, primarily because of the extremely demanding scenario for conducting a nuclear strike mission using NATO dual-capable aircraft (DCA). In addition to the complicated procedures for decision making related to nuclear use, any attempt to use those weapons will be further complicated by the visibility of the many actions required to prepare the aircraft, weapons, and crews for such an attack—all of which undercut their survivability and plausible use. Moreover, those factors make forward-deployed nuclear weapons potential targets in the early phases of a conflict, perhaps triggering a chain of events that the United States and NATO would want to avoid: early nuclear use. In short, forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe have military liabilities, and they may, in fact, increase the risk of nuclear use in a crisis. These dangers also apply to Russia’s forward-deployed nuclear weapons. Taken together, these shorter-range weapons in western Russia and in Europe are a clear and present danger to both Russia and NATO, particularly in an era of tensions but also in an era of possible nuclear terrorism.
What remains true and credible is that the United States has a robust strategic nuclear deterrent that is capable of being used deliberately anywhere on the globe in defense of U.S. interests and U.S. allies—and it is, and should be, understood by any potential (and rational) adversary to NATO, including Russia, in exactly this way. In any crisis involving NATO, U.S. nuclear capabilities would also be on stage with the nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France. Indeed, as NATO has repeatedly stated, “The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic forces of the Alliance.” This position has been, and remains, the credible foundation for any plausible scenario for using U.S. nuclear weapons.
On the security side of the ledger, although returning forward-deployed nuclear weapons to the United States would not diminish NATO nuclear capabilities, it would unquestionably reduce the risks from a potential terrorist incident or political instability—both of which are inherent in a posture that stores nuclear weapons at multiple sites across multiple countries. It is a reality that terrorists with global reach seek nuclear capability and have operated at NATO’s border and within some NATO countries as well as Russia.
Finally, the financial side of the ledger is harder to calculate, complicated by a number of assumptions related to absolute and marginal costs for Washington and its NATO allies. Any savings that might be accrued by removing forward-deployed B61s from Europe and reducing the overall purchase of B61-12s present only modest marginal costs for the United States. For NATO allies of the United States, however, the marginal costs of procuring and maintaining DCA—and supporting U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Europe—may be relatively larger. That said, any reduction in costs associated with the nuclear mission could free up resources for NATO to focus on other urgent tasks, including conventional reassurance and cyber defense, depending on decisions made by NATO member countries about their national defense budgets.
One thing is certain: although leadership cannot come from Washington alone, U.S. leadership is the essential prerequisite to a reexamination of NATO nuclear policy, beginning with a compelling reaffirmation by the president of the principle of collective defense enshrined in article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Washington must also take steps to work with allies to sustain, adapt, and perhaps enhance NATO’s current procedures for nuclear sharing and consultations, consistent with a safer, more secure, and more credible nuclear deterrent. Such steps will not preclude the B61-12 life extension program (which also has a role in U.S.-based strategic forces) or plans by some NATO allies to purchase F-35 aircraft. Maintaining some DCAs and trained pilots in Europe, along with a residual support infrastructure for nuclear weapons, should also be part of the overall NATO nuclear deterrence review.
The implications of sustaining or removing U.S. forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe are serious. Now is the time and the opportunity to ask whether those weapons are more of a security risk than an asset to NATO and whether they increase or reduce the risk of nuclear use.