NATO Seen Likely to Delay Nuke Pullback Decision

(Oct. 28) -NATO foreign ministers and officials in April hold talks in Tallinn, Estonia. The military alliance at its November summit is not expected to make any major decision on removing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, experts said (Raijo Pajula/Getty Images).
(Oct. 28) -NATO foreign ministers and officials in April hold talks in Tallinn, Estonia. The military alliance at its November summit is not expected to make any major decision on removing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, experts said (Raijo Pajula/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- NATO is widely expected to defer any major decision on the potential pullback of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe until well after alliance heads of state meet in Portugal next month (see GSN, Oct. 12).

"There already seems to be an agreement not to allow this to disturb and upset Lisbon," where leaders on Nov. 19 and 20 are expected to focus mainly on the Afghanistan conflict, former U.S. diplomat Robert Hunter said at a recent panel discussion.

"But the price of that is going to be serious review at NATO of the nuclear issue," said Hunter, who served as Washington's ambassador to the alliance during the Clinton administration.

Expectations are that NATO will launch a wide-ranging review of its deterrence strategy, assessing how its conventional, nuclear and missile-defense postures must combine to assure security in the coming years.

Though details remain sketchy, the post-summit review is also likely to address increased NATO security cooperation with Russia, according to Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

German leaders earlier this year pressed for NATO's new "strategic concept" -- a roughly 12-page mission statement expected for release at the upcoming meeting -- to include a nuclear disarmament commitment.

Senior Belgian and German officials last spring called for prompt withdrawal of the U.S. atomic arms -- potentially alongside negotiated pullbacks by Russia -- saying that the Cold War deployments had outlived their military or political value (see GSN, May 7).

While the alliance does not confirm specifics, an estimated 200 nuclear-armed B-61 gravity bombs are stored at six bases in five nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Russia has roughly 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons at bases inside its own borders, according to experts Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen.

"The presence of United States conventional and nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America," according to the alliance's 1999 strategic concept.

"To protect peace and to prevent war or any kind of coercion, the alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe," the existing concept states. "The alliance's conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence. Nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression against the alliance incalculable and unacceptable. Thus, they remain essential to preserve peace."

In the run-up to Lisbon, French leaders rebuffed the idea of any significant NATO move to reduce or eliminate its nuclear arms, fearing it could heighten pressure on Paris to relinquish its own arsenal. Estimates are that the French forces number roughly 300 weapons, while the continent's other nuclear power, the United Kingdom, has its own stockpile of 225 warheads.

"There are only two nuclear powers in Europe, and neither Britain nor France are going to give them up at this present [time]," Julian Lindley-French, a scholar at the Netherlands Defense Academy, said at the Sept. 29 panel discussion, sponsored by the Atlantic Council.

Some of NATO's Central European member nations also have voiced concern about any major changes in the alliance's declared nuclear posture or operational deployments. Worries about potential Russian military incursions or threats from Iran are reportedly fueling the reticence.

The Obama administration backed the idea of stalling any move to redeploy its Europe-based atomic arms, according to insiders.

The president pledged in an April 2009 speech in Prague to "take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons," but "like the rest of Obama's policies, it's more vision than operational substance," Ian Brzezinski, a Defense Department policy official in the Bush administration, contended last week.

"Washington successfully argued that nuclear weapons stationed in Germany and other NATO nations were an alliance asset that could only be removed on the basis of an alliance-wide decision," said Jeffrey Lewis, who heads the East Asia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "In other words, 'Sure, we'll take the nuclear weapons out of Germany, just as soon as you convince our Polish friends to agree.'"

"In order to maintain alliance cohesion, NATO is agreeing to a strategic concept that essentially punts on the issue of tactical nuclear weapons," Pomper told Global Security Newswire.

The strategic concept is now expected to include "little direction or [a recommended] pace on NATO nuclear policy," beyond traditional security guarantees articulated in general terms during the alliance's April ministerial meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, said Steven Andreasen, a National Security Council staffer during the Clinton administration.

The published statement is expected to echo President Obama's domestic commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and work toward their ultimate elimination, but stop short of announcing any significant moves like concrete reductions, according to experts.

A more brief "declaration" might also emerge from the Lisbon summit, but it is expected to echo the themes in the strategic concept and similarly dispense with nuclear-weapon matters in a somewhat cursory way, Andreasen said.

Hunter said that until nations like Turkey and Poland are reassured that NATO's commitment to their security would not be diminished by the withdrawal of tactical nuclear arms, the alliance should largely remain mum on the matter.

"I think this is an issue that the less you say about it, the better," he said. "Frankly, the nuclear weapons are of zero value in Europe. ... If you rock that boat now by raising it, all you do is create panic in some of the Central European countries who are not yet confident of their independence. In particular, they are not yet confident that the United States will continue to be there."

He recommended that Washington set the groundwork for increased confidence by declaring next month that U.S. conventional force deployments in Europe would remain unchanged, at least for now. Washington has roughly 100,000 troops based in Europe, including four Army brigade combat teams.

Hunter said domestic pressure to redeploy these personnel would probably preclude any such announcement.

"One of the critical things I wish we would do in Lisbon is to say, 'The United States will not, for the foreseeable future, take one more soldier, sailor or airman out of Europe,'" said Hunter, a senior advisor at the RAND Corp. "The fact that we are probably going to do that is sending a terrible signal."

However, Pomper called for swifter action in pulling back U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons, which pose serious risks of unauthorized use or terrorist theft, he and colleagues argued last year. Recent incidents in which peace activists have slipped onto an air base in Belgium in which U.S. nuclear bombs are stored have reinforced such concerns (see GSN, Oct. 22).

"The question will be the degree to which the [upcoming] review will be empowered and prepared to make long overdue changes in the nuclear posture in Europe that provide only symbolic reassurance to a small set of countries, not deterrence," Pomper said.

One early indication about how NATO will resolve the matter could be who it assigns to conduct the strategic review, the analyst said.

If NATO's Nuclear Planning Group is assigned the lead in formulating the review, the outcome is likely to reflect the European military preference for maintaining traditional nuclear deterrence, according to Pomper. On the other hand, if NATO's political body -- the North Atlantic Council -- leads the effort, the review might be more likely to result in significant change, he said.

To at least some degree, the assessment can be expected to reflect the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review, completed in April, which signaled that advanced conventional capabilities and missile defenses could decrease the role that nuclear weapons play in deterring war, Pomper said.

However, he noted, other factors could affect the review's outcome. If Republicans take control of the Senate after Election Day, prospects might fade for a new round of U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations that address potential reductions in European-based tactical nuclear weapons, he said.

Andreasen questioned whether either the strategic concept or the declaration emerging from the Lisbon summit would shed light on the anticipated review, or if instead such indications would be delayed.

Still "unclear is whether either document ... will include a tasking for a follow-on NATO nuclear posture review, and what the parameters of that review will be, or where it will be conducted and under whose direction," he told GSN this week.

A rush to resolve differences between the 28 alliance member nations over how to proceed could be a mistake, Hunter said last month.

"The question, in my judgment, is how do you do that in a way so you don't get a lot of rabbits started that leave you at the end with weapons staying for some countries and wanting to be withdrawn for other countries?" he said. "And all we do is look like we haven't been able to do this effectively."

Lewis said that sooner or later NATO must grapple with eliminating the U.S. weapons.

The anticipated review "only defers the debate until events force NATO's collective hand," he told GSN. Examples might be debates over replacing aging dual-capable aircraft that can deliver either nuclear or conventional armaments, or a breach of base security that develops "political traction," Lewis said.

"This issue's coming. It's going to be forced," said Damon Wilson, who directs the Atlantic Council's International Security Program. "While many in the United States and in France, in particular, are resisting it, there's some strong momentum there. And it'll be one of the tricky issues to navigate in Lisbon."

Andreasen, now a consultant with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said the draft Lisbon documents thus far remain silent on the question of NATO's nuclear declaratory posture, despite its presence in past strategic concepts.

In its own posture review, the Obama administration this year declared it would reserve the option of responding with nuclear weapons to a serious non-nuclear attack, particularly in the face of a serious biological strike against the United States or its allies. The review stated, though, that Washington would "work to establish conditions" under which the nation could safely state in the future that the "sole purpose" of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack.

"Silence on declaratory policy would be a curious omission for NATO, given [that] the U.S. featured a new declaratory policy earlier this year in its Nuclear Posture Review, and the British just announced a similar change a week ago," Andreasen said.

In general, "I don't expect the nuclear weapons issue to make a stir [in Lisbon] -- but you never know," Hunter told GSN this week. "As of now, it is fairly quiet."

With three weeks to go before the NATO summit, "the nuclear policy issue is apparently still under discussion, and may require engagement by leaders before it's over," Andreasen said.

Nations with strong but opposing views on the matter, like Germany and France, have pushed the matter to a near-term stalemate that makes a new policy consensus at the November gathering seem unlikely, and Washington appears ready to accept such an outcome, according to Andreasen.

"What has been absent up to this point is leadership to overcome the inherent lethargy embedded in NATO nuclear policy," he said.

[Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]

October 28, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- NATO is widely expected to defer any major decision on the potential pullback of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe until well after alliance heads of state meet in Portugal next month (see GSN, Oct. 12).