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Experts: NATO Should Limit Role of Nukes, Remove U.S. Warheads

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(Jul. 20) -Personnel respond to a simulated chemical strike during a 2010 counterterrorism exercise at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, one of several installations in Europe believed to house U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. A forthcoming report should recommend withdrawing U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons from Europe and curbing NATO's reliance on nuclear deterrence, experts and former government officials said in a July 12 letter (U.S. Air Force photo). (Jul. 20) -Personnel respond to a simulated chemical strike during a 2010 counterterrorism exercise at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, one of several installations in Europe believed to house U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. A forthcoming report should recommend withdrawing U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons from Europe and curbing NATO's reliance on nuclear deterrence, experts and former government officials said in a July 12 letter (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- A review of NATO's deterrence posture should suggest reducing the role nuclear weapons play in assuring the alliance's security and removing short-range U.S. warheads from Europe, according to a group of experts and former government officials (see GSN, July 15).

"Today, NATO's nuclear weapons no longer serve the deterrence or war-fighting role they were intended for during the Cold War," states a letter delivered July 12 to the 28 NATO member states and Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "Nuclear weapons are useless in dealing with the main challenges facing the alliance, including extremism beyond NATO'S borders, terrorism and cyber threats.

"The maintenance of obsolete NATO nuclear capabilities diverts resources from investments in more essential capabilities," the four-page document adds. It was signed by 25 specialists and former military and diplomatic officials from around the globe.

Signatories include former U.S. State Department Policy Planning Director Morton Halperin; former Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb; and former British Defense Secretary Malcolm Rifkind.

The alliance's Defense and Deterrence Posture Review is due to be presented at the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. It is intended to identify the appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense forces for the decades-old military alliance.

If the assessment does not alter existing atomic and military posture "it will have missed an important opportunity to strengthen the alliance and resolve difference over NATO'S current nuclear posture that will otherwise undermine alliance unity for years to come," according to the missive.

In addition, the alliance should support further, verifiable reductions of all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons; refrain from modernizing the nuclear-armed B-61 gravity bombs presently stationed throughout Europe and the aircraft that deliver them; and repeat assurances that its future missile defense plans are not "targeted" at Russia's strategic forces, the experts said.

Adoption of those policies would enable the NATO to further its Strategic Concept "under a more appropriate and pragmatic strategy for peacetime basing of nuclear forces, reducing some of the unintended negative consequences of NATO deployments for unity within the alliance for the members states' nonproliferation diplomacy," the letter concludes.

The concept essentially acts a NATO mission statement. The document devised last year put less emphasis on the alliance's nonstrategic nuclear deterrent than its 1999 predecessor.

The letter arrived around the same time Brussels and Washington are said to be discussing the withdrawal of some 200 battlefield warheads believed to be stationed in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey. Talks about the possible removal are expected to take place over the coming months and finish before the 2012 summit, according to recent reports.

The U.S. warheads were fielded during the Cold War as a hedge against Moscow's nuclear arsenal. Experts estimate that Russia maintains 2,000 deployable tactical atomic weapons within its territory.

After the February implementation of the New START agreement, which limits U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems, the Obama administration has said the next round of arms reductions should tackle each country's respective tactical stockpiles. President Obama said he would like to see talks on the subject begin early next year.

The wide-ranging NATO posture review also must address other issues, such as the nature of the threat the alliance seeks to deter; the future of dual-capable aircraft that can deliver both nuclear and conventional weapons; and the sharing of security obligations among the nuclear states within the organization, according to Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Right now NATO is on a path of "disarmament by default" with regards to nonstrategic nuclear weapons, he said during a Tuesday afternoon panel discussion at Brookings, citing the recent decision by Germany to retire its nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft sometime in the next decade.

Meanwhile, Belgium has yet to decide whether it will replace its dual-use F-16 fighters, Pifer noted. The choices "remove the rationale" for other nations to purchase such aircraft for the future, he argued.

Pifer recommended the alliance look at ways for missile defense systems and conventional weapons to make up more of the deterrence mission. That could include having the United States post small Air Force maintenance units in countries, specifically Baltic nations that might still perceive Russia as a threat, as a deterrent against any possible aggression, he said.

If the posture review does address tactical weapons, NATO should accept a recent proposal by the Kremlin that would require all nuclear weapons to be based on national territory, thus removing the U.S. warheads from Europe, he said.

Attempts by Washington to link the reduction of U.S. assets in Europe to Russian tactical weapons are "problematic" because Moscow's existing stockpile has little to do with the roughly 200 warheads spread throughout Europe but rather the country's own, longstanding, posture, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project.

"It is unclear to me why Russia necessarily would agree to cuts in return for us removing weapons from Europe," Kristensen, a signatory to the July 12 letter, said at the Brookings panel discussion. "It may be I get a surprise but I don't think there's a very strong arms control angle there."

In addition, making cuts based on envisioned Russian weapons reductions puts the onus for such efforts squarely on Moscow's shoulders, he said.

"We're essentially saying, 'Unless you do something, we're not going to do something,'" Kristensen told the audience.

He also noted that recent documents, including the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, show the United States is moving toward a nuclear posture that does not involve nonstrategic weapons.

"It seems to me we're maintaining a posture of nonstrategic weapons more for internal, psychological and cultural issues rather than because there's an urgent need," Kristensen said.

Frank Miller, a former national security staffer for the George W. Bush administration, argued that the present debate has less to do with warheads and more to do with giving ally countries security assurances.

"The issue in front of us today is not fundamentally about nuclear weapons ... [it] is about nothing less than the future of NATO," Miller, now a principal member of the Scowcroft Group, said at the Brookings event.

He labeled calls for the removal of U.S. warheads by some original alliance members as "cynical" and a "beggar thy neighbor approach to the collective good." Removal would deny newer nations the security assurance original members enjoyed and would shift the full burden of deterrence to Washington, Miller said.

Miller said it was also "outlandishly arrogant and patronizing" to tell states that joined NATO to be under the U.S. nuclear umbrella that "they really don't need to worry about Russia."

He highlighted Moscow's continued production of new nuclear weapons, as well as recent military exercises and the 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia as reasons why nations remain skeptical of the Kremlin's intentions.

Miller called any idea for the United States remove its battlefield warheads but maintain the ability to redeploy them in a crisis a "political and military nonstarter" that would deepen doubt and mistrust among member states.

Instead, countries with dual-capable aircraft, including Germany, could detail pilots, and possibly assets, to nations who want them, he said. Other countries could also purchase and train on newer dual-use aircraft, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Netherlands and Italy plan on procuring.

Ultimately, the notion of U.S. withdrawal depends on developments within Russian nuclear and conventional forces, according to Miller.

"The weapons need to be there until all members of the alliance believe they don't need to be there," he told the audience.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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