NATO Sets Basis for Tactical Nuclear Cutbacks, But Path Remains Uncertain

(Nov. 24) -NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, shakes hands Saturday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the alliance summit in Portugal. NATO states at the meeting put off a decision on further pullbacks of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Getty Images).
(Nov. 24) -NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, shakes hands Saturday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the alliance summit in Portugal. NATO states at the meeting put off a decision on further pullbacks of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- At a summit meeting in Portugal late last week, NATO laid the groundwork for reducing the number of U.S. short-range nuclear weapons based in Europe, but deferred into the future any decision to do so (see GSN, Nov. 22).

Following significant post-Cold War cutbacks in deployed forces and a reduced reliance on nuclear arms in NATO's defense strategy, "we will seek to create the conditions for further reductions in the future," the alliance said in a new "Strategic Concept" released in Lisbon.

"This is a very bland consensus document that manages to straddle both moving toward a world without nuclear weapons and retaining NATO as a nuclear alliance," said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The North Atlantic Council -- NATO's political arm -- plans to study the matter as part of an upcoming review of the organization's deterrence posture, though the allies did not announce a due date for the assessment (see GSN, Oct. 28).

"Essential elements of the review would include the range of NATO's strategic capabilities required, including NATO's nuclear posture, and missile defense and other means of strategic deterrence and defense," heads of state said in a summit declaration as the meeting concluded Saturday.

The United States today maintains roughly 200 nuclear-armed B-61 gravity bombs at six bases in five nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Russia has an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons at bases within its own borders, according to experts Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen.

German and Belgian officials have pushed for an alliance agreement to remove U.S. tactical nuclear arms from the continent, but Central European nations including Poland -- which joined NATO in 1999 -- have voiced serious qualms about such a shift (see GSN, May 7).

Particularly following the 2008 Russian military action in Georgia, NATO's newest members are concerned that any pullback of Washington's nuclear arms could be interpreted as an indication of reduced U.S. commitment to defending all its allies.

In addition, faced with a potentially growing threat from nearby Iran, Ankara reportedly has little interest in the United States pulling its nuclear arms off of Turkish territory.

The 28-nation alliance agreed in its new mission statement to a "goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons," but went on to declare that "as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance."

"When it comes to nuclear weapons, our Strategic Concept reflects both today's realities as well as our future aspirations," President Obama said at a Nov. 20 press conference in the Portuguese capital.

The two-part NATO statement for the first time offered an official NATO vision for nuclear disarmament, but also dampened hopes in some quarters that the alliance would renounce a need for such arms anytime soon.

The internal schism could have an effect on Russian relations with the Western alliance, said Nikolai Sokov, also a CNS senior research associate.

"The tone of the debates within NATO in the last weeks will probably reinforce [a] Russian perception that the central problem for them [is] new members, the Baltic states in particular," he said, referring to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which became NATO members in 2004. "They are seen as the main source of anti-Russian sentiment within the alliance."

The net effect could be a "worsening of Russian attitude toward these states and also hardening of Russian attitude toward any further [NATO] enlargement," he said.

At the same time, Russia agreed to cooperate with NATO on an integrated missile defense system that ultimately could help safeguard the United States and all of Europe.

NATO members in Lisbon stopped short of announcing any alliance actions that might be seen as concretely reducing the role of atomic weapons in its strategy, even though the United States and United Kingdom have recently taken such steps in moving to cut their strategic nuclear stockpiles and limit the circumstances in which the arms might be used (see GSN, Oct. 20 and Aug. 17).

In the lead-up to last week's summit, the virtual stalemate over the tactical nuclear redeployment issue actually involved tussles between longtime NATO member nations Germany and France more than the objections of Central European allies, according to several issue analysts.

Berlin would like to have seen in the Lisbon communiques a more substantial announcement indicating that NATO would take cuts in its deployed tactical nuclear arms but, lacking consensus, was forced to accept putting the issue onto the back burner, experts said.

France -- concerned that calls for alliance-wide nuclear reductions would increase pressure on Paris to cut its own national arsenal of 300 nuclear arms -- succeeded in limiting the scope of the upcoming deterrence review to "nuclear weapons assigned to NATO," or, in other words, U.S. nuclear arms.

"Much like President Obama's April 2009 Prague speech, the new Strategic Concept embraces the vision of global zero, but with a sober dose of geopolitical reality," said Damon Wilson, vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council. "Allies agreed that NATO should maintain an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, but that's where the consensus ends."

Pomper was pleased that NATO selected its political body, the North Atlantic Council, instead of its military-dominated Nuclear Planning Group, to undertake the deterrence posture review. The council is more likely to offer fresh thinking, in his view.

"That will ensure political people in capitals, rather than NATO bureaucracy, are in [the] driver's seat," Pomper said.

In a move that could further divide the allies down the road, though, NATO linked reductions in U.S. nuclear deployments in Europe to Russian actions to diminish its own short-range nuclear footprint in the region.

"In any future reductions, our aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members," the Strategic Concept reads. "Any further steps should take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons."

"This is the right linkage in my view," Wilson said.

However, given that the Obama administration is facing Republican opposition in the Senate to ratifying the U.S.-Russian New START agreement on bilateral reductions in strategic nuclear weapons, it could be a long while before Moscow is ready to discuss cuts to its tactical arsenal, Wilson and other policy analysts noted.

Robert Hunter, a U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, called the reductions linkage "a concession to the Central Europeans."

Some experts think that conditioning NATO nuclear cutbacks on similar Russian initiatives is unwise.

"While it would be a worthy goal to increase transparency on Russian [tactical nuclear weapons] and move them away from the border, making NATO's actions contingent on Russian action is a recipe for the status quo," said Pomper, who joined Sokov and another colleague last year in warning that these nonstrategic weapons carry a risk of possible terrorist theft or unauthorized use.

In the past, "NATO has repeatedly made unilateral reductions without demanding Russian reductions," Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in a Nov. 19 blog post. "Indeed, the new Strategic Concept declares that 'NATO poses no threat to Russia,' and that the alliance 'does not consider any country to be its adversary.'

"So to begin now to argue that the size of the U.S. arsenal in Europe is linked to Russia, after all, resembles the Cold War policy" of sizing Western forces against those of Moscow and its partners, he said.

Pomper called the Russian tactical nuclear deployments "irrelevant" to the role of U.S. atomic arms based in Europe. He and others have noted that Russia increasingly views its tactical nuclear weapons as necessary to offset technological and numerical advantages in NATO's conventional military posture.

"U.S. holdings have everything to do with reassurance of a few allies in the Baltics and Turkey, who would actually prefer other means of reassurance and nothing to do with Russian [tactical nuclear weapons]," Pomper said.

There might yet be ways for Washington and its allies to collaborate on the matter with Moscow, short of negotiating a formal treaty, according to some experts.

"The goal should be to engage Russia in a dialogue leading to further consolidation, reduction and elimination of tactical nuclear weapons," said Steven Andreasen, a former National Security Council staffer who is now associated with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. "They represent a security liability, not a military asset."

One silver lining for those seeking a reduction in the profile of nuclear arms is what the new documents did not say.

Last week's Strategic Concept omits language in NATO's prior mission statement -- issued in 1999 -- that said U.S. tactical nuclear arms based in Europe represented a crucial political and military link between Washington and its allies, Kristensen said. Instead, the new document characterizes U.S. strategic forces, and to a lesser extent the British and French stockpiles, as "the supreme guarantee of the security of the allies."

"These significant changes could be seen as hints of an attempt to lessen the importance the alliance attributes to having U.S. tactical nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe," Kristensen said.

The hints, though, appear to fall short of action to remove U.S. nuclear arms from Europe in the foreseeable future, which could be of great solace to Central Europeans but less tangible progress for some of Washington's longtime allies.

"If I were a German, I wouldn't see much in here to reassure me in terms of what I have been trying to do," said Hunter, referring to the new Strategic Concept. "But if I were a Pole or some of the others, I would be reassured."

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

November 24, 2010

WASHINGTON -- At a summit meeting in Portugal late last week, NATO laid the groundwork for reducing the number of U.S. short-range nuclear weapons based in Europe, but deferred into the future any decision to do so (see GSN, Nov. 22).