New Paradigms Forum
March 30, 2011
by Christopher Ford
My participation in the most recent NATO Nuclear Policy Symposium, held in mid-March in Tirana, Albania, brought home to me the degree to which longstanding policies of NATO "nuclear sharing" have become controversial within the Atlantic Alliance. My remarks to the symposium, reprinted here on NPF on March 24, 2011, were intended to frame the scope of its discussion by offering thoughts on the future of nuclear deterrence in the 21st Century, rather than to present my own views on "nuclear sharing." Because the Alliance is now studying what its nuclear policy should be within the general framework set by the Lisbon Summit Declaration of November 2011, however – an examination being undertaken under terms of reference approved within the past few weeks – I thought I'd offer my own more specific thoughts here.
For readers unfamiliar with NATO's "nuclear sharing" policy, it refers to arrangements by which the United States today forward-deploys a relatively small number of nuclear gravity bombs at certain locations in Europe, keeping them carefully in American custody, on the understanding that these weapons may be made available for delivery by non-American NATO assets in time of war. The original idea of this approach, as I understand it, was twofold.
First and most obviously, it aimed to deter Soviet aggression in Central Europe, providing for the possibility of a nuclear response, in practice, at the hands of the very Allies who faced this invasion most directly. This was felt advantageous from a deterrence perspective by undercutting the traditional critique of "extended deterrence" which worried that it might not seem credible for Washington to endanger U.S. cities in order to forestall harm to those of its European friends. Making it clear that NATO allies actually in the line of the Warsaw Pact's advance might – in the event of World War Three, though carefully and emphatically not until such point – end up with their hands on nuclear weapons was felt to add to the ability of our Alliance to deter Soviet adventurism.
Second, and less explicitly, "nuclear sharing" was also a nonproliferation tool – designed to lessen perceived incentives, and remove excuses, for certain NATO allies such as Germany to consider developing nuclear weapons on their own. It was a way to tell hem, and for them to feel, that they would be able to use nuclear weapons if their existence were threatened, but without actually allowing them have nuclear weapons. This distinction survived into the era of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – Article I of which prohibits a nuclear weapons state from transferring possession or control of nuclear devices – because no such transfer ever actually occurred: the weapons were kept under American lock and key, and were expected to remain so in all but the most extreme circumstances. (Not unlike other aspects of nuclear deterrence, the idea seems to have been to be prepared for a crisis in part in order never to have to execute any such plans. It seems to have been understood that if Soviet tanks were rolling through the Fulda Gap and the very existence of the relevant NATO allies hung in the balance – the only sort of worst-case scenario in which it would ever be imaginable actually to execute such "sharing" arrangements – the exigencies of the moment would outweigh Article I scruples.)
In today's post-Cold War era, the assets available for "nuclear sharing" have dwindled to a fairly small number of non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW) deployed in Europe, suitable for delivery on "dual-capable" aircraft (DCAs) maintained by certain NATO allies. The continuation of this U.S. deployment and its associated "nuclear sharing" policy, however, is controversial. Some NATO allies – principally those in the East, who formerly lived under Soviet domination as members of the Warsaw Pact, and who still feel a residual threat from Russian bullying – wish to keep the nuclear status quo very much in place. Others, principally in the more westerly parts of Europe, feel NATO's nuclear policy to be obsolete and in some sense philosophically offensive, a needless Cold War relic that affronts global aspirations for nuclear disarmament, causes needless intra-Alliance friction, and deters nothing anyway.
I. The Context
It is common to hear NATO described as being, in part, "a nuclear alliance." U.S. Secretary of State Clinton declared at the informal meeting of NATO ministers in Talinn in April 2010, for example, that "as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance." When I first came across such phrasing – and it's worth noting that NATO has repeated this wording for some time – I worried that the words might be an evasion, especially when shorn of more specific details, as has indeed become customary in high-level pronouncements. As a matter of grammar and syntax, it seemed to me, such comments could conceivably have meant no more than that NATO is a "nuclear alliance" because some NATO members are nuclear weapons states likely to remain armed with nuclear weapons unless and until complete nuclear disarmament is achieved. This phrasing is clearly understood within NATO, however, to mean that the Alliance is a "nuclear alliance" not merely in that it is an alliance some of whose members happen to be nuclear weapons possessors, but instead in the fuller sense that it is "nuclear" as an alliance. The phrasing, in other words, is precisely a reference to some kind of "nuclear sharing."
The Obama Administration has professed itself not opposed to some reductions in U.S. NSNW deployments in Europe. It apparently does not, however, think it wise to remove all such weapons, at least without some kind of an arrangement with Russia – which possesses far more of such "tactical" weapons than does the United States. The U.S. 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has referred favorably to American NSNW "deployed forward in key regions," noting that such devices have long helped safeguard "U.S. allies and partners against nuclear attacks or nuclear-backed coercion by states in their region that possess or are seeking nuclear weapons." A NATO "Expert Group" report in May 2010 agreed, recommending that "the Alliance … retain a nuclear component to its deterrent strategy," including – "under current security conditions" – "the retention of some U.S. forward-deployed systems on European soil." These deployments, it declared, "reinforce the principle of extended nuclear deterrence and collective defence."
As noted, however, some NATO partners clearly want us to continue our European deployments, while others would like to end them, making this issue one on which Alliance members are troublingly divided against each other. The declaration issued by the NATO Summit last year in Lisbon to some extent sidestepped the issue. In order "to bolster deterrence as a core element of our collective defence and contribute to the indivisible security of the Alliance," it opined, NATO plans to "maintain an appropriate mix of conventional, nuclear, and missile defence forces." Lisbon thus seems to have reaffirmed at least that the alliance remains "nuclear" as an alliance, but on just what the "appropriate mix" of such capabilities is, however, members were apparently unable then to agree. Lisbon sidestepped the direct issue of whether any U.S. nuclear weapons should remain deployed in Europe. Some allies clearly wish them to be withdrawn, leaving whatever NSNW "nuclear sharing" understandings that remain dependent entirely upon weapons based elsewhere.
To an outsider like me, it is striking how contentious this question has become. No such uncertainty was evident in NATO's previous "Strategic Concept" in 1999. Then, the Alliance made clear that "[t]he presence of United States … nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America." To wit,
"A credible Alliance nuclear posture and the demonstration of Alliance solidarity and common commitment to war prevention continue to require widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements. Nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance. The Alliance will therefore maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe. These forces need to have the necessary characteristics and appropriate flexibility and survivability, to be perceived as a credible and effective element of the Allies' strategy in preventing war."
For this reason, it was then declared, NATO would "maintain, at the minimum level consistent with the prevailing security environment, adequate sub-strategic forces based in Europe which will provide an essential link with strategic nuclear forces, reinforcing the transatlantic link."
Since 1999, opposition by some governments within NATO to Europe-deployed American NSNW has clearly grown – which, in the nature of such diplomatic matters, has resulted in official pronouncements becoming more vague in order to avoid having members publicly disagree. The Bucharest Summit Declaration of April 2008, for instance, spoke frequently of "nuclear" issues, but only in the context of how well Alliance members had been doing in reducing their nuclear arsenals, and in connection with the threats presented by nuclear weapons proliferation. It did not mention NSNW. The "Declaration on Alliance Security" issued after the NATO summit in Strasbourg/Kehl in 1999 noted the issue, but only in order to sidestep it with vague and essentially noncommittal "appropriate mix" language that – as we have seen – was later emulated in Lisbon.
II. Framing the Issue
When it comes to the status quo of forward deployments and "nuclear sharing," I tend to be of the "it ain't broke, so don't worry so much about fixing it" school. But since the issue of whether to "fix" things is very much in play right now within the Alliance, let me offer, as it were, some thoughts on how I believe we should think about it.
A. Military Versus Political Utility
To begin with, I think it must be admitted that U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons as presently deployed in Europe probably have relatively little utility in a purely military sense, and certainly not much by comparison to their anticipated wartime role in years past. According to press accounts, our current deployment consists only of B-61 gravity bombs for delivery by "dual-capable" aircraft (DCAs) in the possession of NATO allies – aircraft, moreover, that are reportedly now kept on a notably leisurely readiness timetable, for nuclear missions, of "months." (It was apparently "minutes" during the Cold War, and "weeks" from about 1995 until 2002.)
In an era when NATO no longer faces the threat of a massive invasion in overwhelming numbers, such assets probably add little to NATO's military capabilities when operating from their present bases. I'm not willing to say they add nothing, however. I think it must be admitted, for example, that DCAs are pretty flexible instruments, capable of a range of visible postures and thus peculiarly useful for strategic "signaling" in a nuclear crisis.
Nor is it true – as I've sometimes heard it said in disarmament circles – that NATO's DCAs "can't hit any potentially relevant nuclear target" from their present European bases. Earlier this month, RAF Tornado tactical bombers used conventional weapons to strike targets in Libya on an eight-hour round trip from their base at RAF Marham in East Anglia, in the United Kingdom. As I figure it, that's a flight of some 1,700 miles each way – making clear that with in-air refueling, such aircraft have very long "legs" indeed. NATO officials generally refuse to refer to Russia as a potential DCA target, but since Russian threats remain very much in the mind of our NATO allies in Eastern Europe, it's useful to remember that the distance between London and Moscow is only a bit over 1,500 miles. Without getting into the precise locations from which nuclear-armed DCAs might be flying, I think it's safe to say that Russia, at least, remains within their reach. (For that matter, some NATO locations could even put the Persian Gulf within reach.) Thoughtful people disagree over whether there is any need for Europe-based NSNW at all, but the current DCAs' potential range isn't really the issue.
Even if one disputes their specifically military utility, moreover, this is far from saying that DCA-borne NSNW are unimportant to NATO. Indeed, especially in the wake of the dramatic U.S. NSNW drawdown of 1991, it is generally recognized that the most important function of our weapons in Europe is political. To some extent, and particularly for some governments, these U.S. deployments have become part of the coinage of trans-Atlantic solidarity – a graphic illustration, in symbolically evocative and historically freighted colors, of Washington's continuing commitment to stand by its NATO allies even if the very worst sort of crises should come to pass.
This was made quite clear in 1999 Strategic Concept, for example, which declared that "[t]he fundamental purpose of the nuclear forces of the Allies is political: to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war." These devices, it was said, helped form an "essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance." The U.S. deployment, in other words, underlined the point made above: that NATO was a nuclear alliance not merely in the sense that some of its members just happened to have nuclear weapons, but also in the sense that the Alliance itself approaches nuclear weapons issues and nuclear deterrence as an Alliance.
The political symbolism of the deployments seems to have been important in the eyes of NATO members who have joined since the Cold War in successive rounds of enlargement beginning the very year in which this nuclear dynamic was thus spelled out in the 1999 Strategic Concept. The politico-symbolic role of the U.S. deployments was therefore part of what those new members, and everyone else, understood the Alliance to be at the point of their accession. It still seems to mean a great deal to many of them.
I don't mean to suggest that continued NSNW deployments are essential to the survival of the Atlantic alliance, for there is, of course, far more to NATO than that. Indeed, most of the most interesting and important things our governments have been doing together as allies in recent years have had nothing to do with nuclear weaponry at all. (NATO is presently engaged, by the way, in two entirely non-nuclear wars: an ongoing one in Afghanistan and a new one in Libya.) But Alliance solidarity is the foundation upon which all of our collective endeavors rest, and we should be careful to keep this foundation as solid as possible.
If we were establishing NATO from scratch today, there might be little or no need to make nuclear weapons part of the equation. But we aren't starting from scratch. Trans-Atlantic nuclear deployments are by no means the only – or even the best – way to bolster Alliance solidarity, but they are part of how NATO has indeed done this for many years. This creates challenges as we struggle with the nuclear issue, because of the potential impact NSNW elimination could have if an adequate substitute is not found for whatever such political and symbolic function such weapons still fulfill.
The scholar Elaine Bunn has cleverly illustrated this problem with a comparison that some NPF readers have probably heard before: the wedding ring. Nothing, after all, requires a married couple to wear wedding rings to symbolize their commitment and make their devotion clear to each other and to third parties. There may be very solid relationships that do not involve that particular type of statement. If you happen to be in a good relationship that has involved wearing a wedding ring for many years, however, you need to be quite cautious about suddenly taking it off, lest your partner (or third parties) draw pernicious conclusions. In this analogy, of course, America's NSNW deployment is that ring: not necessarily inherently indispensible, but something the disappearance of which should not be taken lightly or done hastily and without proper preparation, if at all.
It must also be said, in this connection, that defense spending decisions by most NATO governments in recent years may have tended to make the specifically nuclear aspects of the Alliance seem especially important. The few American NSNW remaining in Europe might seem a smaller thing, in politico-symbolic terms, if NATO members maintained strong military establishments and demonstrated their commitment to the alliance by "voting with their pocketbook" in favor of robust defense spending. NATO governments, however, have been sending just the opposite sorts of signal in recent years, with most members unwilling to meet the defense spending targets upon which they themselves have agreed. (NATO recommends a figure of at least two percent of gross domestic product, but very few members bother to comply. Even before the recent global financial crisis, only six of 26 members met the two percent target, with Belgium, Hungary, and Luxembourg coming in at merely 1.1, 1.1, and 0.7 percent, respectively, as of 2007.) European governments' disinterest in non-nuclear defense risks making the nuclear part of the alliance relationship feel, by default, more important than ever.
B. Whither Russia?
A second point of caution obviously relates to Russia – which I did not accidentally make one focus of my aerial range calculations above. NATO's NSNW debate is clearly complicated by Russia's own "tactical" nuclear posture – which has, sad to say, not changed that much since the Cold War. Today, the Russians still retain thousands of non-strategic weapons, a stockpile dwarfing the U.S. deployments that have become so controversial inside NATO. To put it crudely, a great many Russian NSNW can reach NATO territory, while precious few, if any, American ones are in any position to return the favor.
Unfortunately, while NATO-Russian relations are today thankfully nothing like the tense rivalry that existed during the Cold War, planners in Moscow still sometimes seem to go out of their way to rattle the sub-strategic nuclear sabre in dealing with NATO. President Dmitri Medvedev, for instance, announced in late 2008 that he would be deploying ambiguously nuclear-capable SS-26 Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad in order to pressure the United States and NATO over planned missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe. A year later, a Russian military exercise reportedly included practice in actually attacking Poland with non-strategic nuclear weapons. Not surprisingly, NATO officials are said to believe that Russia remains ready to use nuclear weapons in a range of low-level or other conflicts, while some Eastern European NATO members feel distinctly uneasy.
The enormous disparity between U.S. and Russian NSNW holdings – and Putin-era Russia's penchant for nuclear muscle-flexing and regional bullying – have made the NSNW issue particularly troublesome. Nor is this just a challenge for NATO's NSNW debates.
It is hard, in fact, to imagine there being much future for U.S.-Russian strategic arms control unless the NSNW imbalance is somehow also addressed, particularly because strategic reductions are making shorter-range systems an ever greater proportion of the powers' overall arsenals. The Obama Administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, for example, urges Russia "to allay concerns in the West about its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, such as [by] further consolidating its non-strategic systems in a small number of secure facilities deep within Russia." "Non-strategic nuclear weapons," we are told "… should be included in any future reduction arrangements between the United States and Russia." Pentagon officials have described our forward-deployed NSNW as being closely tied to Russia's non-strategic holdings, and serious movement on NSNW is widely seen as a potential sine qua non for U.S. Senate ratification of any future strategic agreement with Russia. The Senate's resolution of ratification for the "New START" agreement called for negotiations with Russia on verifiably addressing the disparity between Moscow's tactical stockpile and our own.
The U.S.-Russian imbalance also creates challenges for NATO's struggle with non-strategic weapons, insofar as it raises questions about the role that America's European deployments can or should play in helping the Alliance address the issue of Russian NSNW. Before leaving the U.S. Government, I spoke frequently with foreign diplomatic counterparts about NSNW, and was struck by the degree to which even representatives of NATO governments committed to ending our deployments freely admitted, though only privately, that they didn't particularly care about our weapons. As some of them put it to me, they just publicly harped on our weapons in order to seem "even-handed" while working more privately for what they claimed really to desire: Russian reductions. (Being flamboyantly against American nuclear weapons was apparently supposed to give them "street cred" in dealing with the Russian question.) This seems to have been counterproductive, however, because the emergence of such seemingly anti-American positions within NATO has encouraged the Kremlin to insist that U.S. weapons be removed from Europe before serious talks about Russian weapons can begin. As I'll discuss below, the odds of movement on Russian NSNW might actually improve if NATO were seen more clearly to embrace American deployments. For now, however, I'll just highlight the deep entanglement of Russian and NATO NSNW issues: they seem neither analytically nor politically separable.
We should not forget, moreover, that from Russia's perspective, the NSNW question is not simply a bilateral issue with NATO. Russian officials sometimes claim to fear NATO "encirclement," and are reputed to worry that their still somewhat dysfunctional conventional forces cannot handle a conflict with such sophisticated powers; this is said to increase their reliance upon the potential early use of "tactical" nuclear weaponry. I think I am not alone, however, in suspecting that Russia's main fear in this regard is China – a country with a long border and an equally long history of troubled relations with Russia, a country with a vastly larger population and more vibrant economy than Russia, and a country that has been making notable strides in modernizing its huge military.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has claimed to be confident that Russia has nothing to fear from China, but Russian officials are said privately to be very concerned about the future in this regard. My guess is that the issue of Russian NSNW is probably much more entangled with Sino-Russian military, economic, and demographic imbalances than it is with NATO deployments. This will constrain what we can expect from any future American NSNW negotiations with Russia, at least one conducted the basis of nuclear weapons arithmetic alone.
C. The DCA Driver
As far as I know, there is no urgent technical driver for decision-making with respect to the deployment of U.S. weapons in Europe per se. The B-61 bomb has been repeatedly refurbished, and the United States is reportedly now working to give it a "full scope life extension … including enhancing safety, security, and use control" enhancements apparently not unlike those once contemplated for the "reliable replacement warhead." In the absence of NATO agreement to terminate "nuclear sharing" policies, therefore, U.S. weapons would presumably be able to rest in their European bunkers for quite a while.
The more interesting question probably relates to the state of the non-American Allies' fleet of nuclear-certified "dual-capable" aircraft (DCAs) suitable for use in either conventional or nuclear strike roles. As noted, the nuclear weapons capabilities of the Alliance – as an alliance – presently rely entirely upon bombs deployable on various Allied dual-capable tactical aircraft such as the F-16C/D, F-15E, and Tornado. These airframes, however, are ageing; it is an open question how long they will remain in service, and whether their successors will be DCA certified.
According to a 2008 report prepared for SIPRI, NATO's current generation of DCAs are getting long in the tooth, and "life extension programmes can only do so much to postpone the moment when an expensive modernization will have to be undertaken." As a result, doubts have been raised about whether European air forces will be choose or be able to maintain DCA capabilities over the longer term. A number of European governments may replace existing aircraft with variants of the F-35 – which will itself have a DCA variant in U.S. service – but how many of these aircraft end up being dual-capable is, to my knowledge, not yet known.
To be sure, it may not mean too much to be DCA certified these days. In theory, in this era of highly-sensitive modern avionics, computer systems, and fly-by-wire flight controls, aircraft allocated for potential nuclear missions should be given special radiation "hardening," to make their electronics more resistant to the electromagnetic pulse and other radiant energies associated with a nuclear explosion. (Otherwise, dropping a nuclear weapon on someone might become a suicide mission.) In my understanding, however, NATO militaries these days don't usually bother much, if at all, with "rad hardening." (Nor even do U.S. forces, except for strategic bombing missions.) In an equipment sense, it is my understanding that being a DCA now means little more than having a special "black box" installed to handle the sensitive process of arming the nuclear weapon in flight. Some bureaucratic or perhaps political problems have reportedly arisen over the idea of DCA-certifying the modern Eurofighter "Typhoon" aircraft, with some European governments being reluctant to give U.S. specialists access to its avionics for this purpose. For the most part, however, making a tactical bomber into a DCA probably isn't terribly difficult or expensive.
(Delivering nuclear weapons can also involve different aerial tactics than simply dropping conventional high explosives, including special procedures in the event of an airborne malfunction. This means that DCA-certified pilots really should have some special training, such as through the use of flight simulators with some sort of nuclear-specific software module. This does not sound to me like a terrible burden, however.)
Christopher A. Ford was formerly Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at Hudson Institute.
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