NATO’s Nuclear Weapons: Here to Stay

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A warm first greeting to Battleland readers. Here in London, where I am based, I’ve written for TIME on several occasions about a strange arrangement that means that Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands are de facto nuclear weapons states. The U.S. stores  200 B-61 thermonuclear gravity bombs in those five European countries, and under a NATO agreement struck during the Cold War, the bombs can be transferred to the control of a host nation’s air force in time of conflict. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, European pilots fly training sorties in which they rehearse the detonation of nuclear bombs whose sole “tactical” purpose is to fend off the Russian army if it chooses to sweep across Central Europe in a kamikaze invasion. Absurd, I know.

Anyway, in recent years, several NATO countries–most notably Germany–have advocated the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nukes, which polls show are unpopular among the populations of their host countries and which have proven to be an irritant at review conferences of the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty. So when I saw that the Federation of American Scientists had obtained an internal NATO document about the weapons, prepared by Germany, Norway, Poland and the Netherlands, I assumed that the effort to have these antiquated nukes removed from the continent had become concrete.

Boy was I wrong.

It turns out that the letter to NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen, which can be found here and which was co-signed by Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Iceland, Luxemburg and Slovenia, falls well short of calling for the removal of tactical nukes. Instead, it proposes a series of steps that NATO and Russia should take to increase transparency of U.S. and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons. “Our emphasis is first and foremost on transparency and confidence building,” the Non-paper states, “which we consider crucial to paving the way for concrete reductions.” In other words, the weapons aren’t going anywhere until bilateral negotiations with Russia can take place. And those take a long time. A very long time.

What happened? Since when did the measuring-post for success for the reduction of tactical weapons in Europe switch from  withdrawal to simply “confidence building”? Between  2000 and 2010, NATO unilaterally reduced U.S. weapons by more than half, according to Hans Kristensen of FAS. Then last November, NATO outlined a new strategic concept in which it claimed that any further reductions in the U.S. deployment must be matched by Russia. Last October, in the run-up to the publication of the strategic concept, NATO spokesman James Appathurai provided the justification in an interview with me: “While NATO has cut its tactical weapons to the low hundreds, Russia still has thousands of these things. That’s of concern to allies. There is an imbalance there.”

So here we get into the absurd calculus of deterrence theory. Yes, technically there is an imbalance. But this imbalance is academic and meaningless given that the United States’ long-range nuclear forces–plus the strategic weapons of Britain and France–provide more than enough firepower to deter Russian aggression.  What’s more, there are good security reasons for leaving Cold War thinking behind.  Tactical weapons are a prime target for nuke-seeking terrorists. B-61s are small enough to be transported on a pickup truck. In 2009, a U.S. Air Force report found that the European and U.S. bases storing the bombs were failing to meet security requirements to safeguard them, although one hopes that security has been tightened since then. And does NATO really want thousands of tactical weapons scattered around Russia? That’s an urgent and scary thought, and surely the quickest remedy is to unilaterally remove the 200 U.S. weapons remaining from Europe; doing so would remove any excuse or obstacle for Russia to start scaling back its own non-strategic forces.

Then, of course, there is the issue of that poor, tattered little document called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The 1968 agreement, which provides an increasingly strained lynch pin for global security by providing  a legal restraint to the nuclear ambitions of rogue states, forbids the transfer of nuclear weapons between countries. But the U.S. has B-61s stored on bases owned by other NATO countries, and the weapons are fitted to be used by other countries’ warplanes if needed. The hypocrisy has not been missed by the Non-Aligned Movement countries, who have used such NATO “burden sharing” to block U.S. nonproliferation and nuclear safety initiatives in the past.

Covering arms control and nonproliferation issues, I’ve long been struck about how statesmen who once saw nuclear weapons as an extension of their own power often come to call for their abolition after  retirement. In the remove of time, they see the absurdity of the logic that they once saw as the guarantee of their country’s safety.  Think of the Gang of Four’s (Former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, one-time Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn) brave editorials calling for the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons.

Last autumn, 36 former high-level European officials released a statement calling for NATO to “review its entire nuclear policy” — a clear nod to the tactical stockpile — while reminding decisionmakers that “NATO should make disarmament a core element of its approach to providing security” and that “this alliance has always combined deterrence with détente.” The statement’s signatories included former British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, former British Defense Secretary Des Browne, former European Commission President Jacques Delors, former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Unfortunately for them, and for all European citizens, it seems NATO wasn’t listening.