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NATO Chief Anticipates Diminished Reliance on Nuclear Arsenal

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Sep. 8) -NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, speaking yesterday with U.S. President Barack Obama. Rasmussen told reporters the military alliance would announce at a November summit a decrease in its dependence on nuclear arms for deterrence (Roger Wollenberg/Getty Images). (Sep. 8) -NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, speaking yesterday with U.S. President Barack Obama. Rasmussen told reporters the military alliance would announce at a November summit a decrease in its dependence on nuclear arms for deterrence (Roger Wollenberg/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The head of NATO yesterday said the military alliance will use a major summit in November to signal a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons for deterring attacks against European member nations (see GSN, Aug. 17).

"I would expect allies to endorse the grand vision of a world without nuclear weapons," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters at a breakfast event. "But, at the same time, [they will] state that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the alliance will remain a nuclear alliance, while gradually reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons."

His statement closely mirrored the Obama administration approach to nuclear weapons, laid out in the U.S. president's April 2009 speech in Prague and this year's Nuclear Posture Review.

Alliance member states are negotiating a consensus position on the status of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe in the lead-up to a NATO summit of heads of state, to be held Nov. 19 to 20 in Lisbon, according to the former Danish prime minister.

"I don't think it's a secret that there are different positions when it comes to our nuclear posture," Rasmussen said. "My task will be to find the right balance and platform on which we can trace consensus."

Some West European leaders have proposed the removal of the roughly 200 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs deployed at six air bases in five NATO nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. It is unclear whether Washington would destroy such weapons or maintain them in active stockpiles in the United States.

Anxiety that these relatively small arms might be vulnerable to terrorist theft has been on the rise, particularly after an incident this year in which peace activists succeeded in sneaking onto a Belgian base housing nuclear weapons and evaded detection for more than an hour (see GSN, Feb. 17).

Though NATO's tactical atomic weapons were widely seen as necessary to counter a Warsaw Pact conventional armament advantage during the Cold War, German State Minister Werner Hoyer said in May that today they "no longer serve a military purpose and do not create security."

A Belgian arms control envoy, Werner Bauwens, similarly called on Moscow and Washington to begin talks on withdrawing their deployed tactical nuclear weapons "as soon as possible" (see GSN, May 7). Russia maintains an estimated arsenal of 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Despite the growing calls for withdrawal, Turkey is believed unlikely to accept a pullback of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons fielded on its soil, particularly if Iran develops an atomic bomb.

At the same time, Russia has been pressing the United States and NATO for new negotiations aimed at reducing heavy conventional armaments deployed in Europe, where the Western allies now hold numerical superiority. Moscow could make its call for new Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty talks a prerequisite for further reductions in nuclear weapons, following ratification of the New START agreement (see GSN, July 21).

Any change in NATO nuclear or conventional forces deployed in Europe can be expected to have some effect on deterring would-be adversaries, Rasmussen said at the Defense Writers Group breakfast.

"Obviously all disarmament efforts and steps will have an impact on our deterrence policy," said the NATO leader. "But I don't think we should distinguish between conventional and nuclear deterrence policies. It will still be a mix."

He said NATO would continue to rely on both types of arms to prevent war.

"We will not give up nuclear capabilities as an essential part of our deterrence policies," Rasmussen said. "But we will certainly address a broader spectrum of new security threats and challenges."

Despite the anticipated changes, nuclear weapons policy is not expected to headline the upcoming summit in Portugal. Rather, NATO plans for withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and transitioning increased responsibility to Kabul's security forces are expected to take center stage.

Nonetheless, Rasmussen called the role of nuclear weapons "a very central question" in NATO's newly updated strategic concept, which is to be unveiled at the November conference. A May draft version of the mission statement said the alliance should maintain deployed nuclear weapons "at the minimum level required by the prevailing security environment" (see GSN, May 17).

The strategic concept will also discuss contingency plans for addressing emerging threats, such as cyber attacks, missile strikes and terrorism, the NATO leader said.

Rasmussen said he anticipates that the alliance statement regarding the disposition of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe will not offer many details about where or how many arms will remain.

"I would not expect the NATO summit in this context to produce concrete numbers regarding nuclear or conventional disarmament. That's not the purpose of the summit," Rasmussen said. "We will adopt a new strategic concept which, in broad terms, will give direction. And then, of course, it is for follow-up negotiations to produce more concrete facts and figures."

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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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