Global Risk

NATO’s Nuclear Groundhog Day?

05.18.12 | 6 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen
At the Chicago Summit NATO will once again reaffirm nuclear status quo in Europe

By Hans M. Kristensen

Does NATO have a hard time waking up from its nuclear past? It would seem so.

Similar to the movie Groundhog Day where a reporter played by Bill Murray wakes up to relive the same day over and over again, the NATO alliance is about to reaffirm – once again – nuclear status quo in Europe.

The reaffirmation will come on 20-21 May when 28 countries participating in the NATO Summit in Chicago are expected to approve a study that concludes that the alliance’s existing nuclear force posture “currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defense posture.” [Update May 20, 2011: Turns out I was right. Here is the official document.]

In other words, NATO will not order a reduction of its nuclear arsenal but reaffirm a deployment of nearly 200 U.S. non-strategic nuclear bombs in Europe that were left behind by arms reductions two decades ago.

Visions Apart?

Although no one expected NATO to simply disarm, the reaffirmation of the current nuclear posture nonetheless falls far short of the visionary and bold initiatives that U.S. and Russian presidents took twenty year ago when they ordered sweeping reductions – and eliminations – of entire classes of non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed in Europe and around the world at the time.

President George W. Bush followed up by unilaterally reducing the remaining U.S. inventory in Europe by more than 50 percent, and president Barack Obama reinvigorated arms control and disarmament aspirations around the world when he declared in Prague in 2009 that he would reduce the role of nuclear weapons to put and end to Cold War thinking. He started by ordering the unilateral retirement of the Tomahawk sea-launched land attack cruise missile – completing the elimination of all U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons from the navy, whose warships just two decades ago brought non-strategic nuclear weapons to all corners of the world.

Since then, current and former officials have been busy attaching preconditions to further reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons. The venue for these efforts was NATO’s new Strategic Concept adopted in November 2010, which broke with two decades of unilateral reductions and decided that any further reductions of NATO forces must take into account the disparity with Russia’s larger inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Why NATO suddenly needs to care so much about Russia’s aging and declining inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons makes little sense.

Yet the Strategic Concept also promised that NATO would “seek to create the conditions for further reductions in the future” and, ultimately, “create the conditions of a world without nuclear weapons….”

Creating Conditions

So how will NATO create the conditions for further reductions and a world without nuclear weapons? The seven-page Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) report to be released in Chicago (yes, the document will be made public) repeats this promise, but the short answer is: not by reducing forces but by studying it some more.

To that end, according to official sources, the DDPR will ask the North Atlantic Council (NAC) to task its committees to “develop concepts for how to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned [note: the DDPR identifies the “Allies concerned” as the members of the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) – which is everyone except France] in their nuclear sharing arrangements, including in case NATO were to decide to reduce its reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe.” (Emphasis added).

So there appears to be some intent to reduce reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons and adjust NPG procedures accordingly. But the DDPR also echoes the Strategic Concept formally making further reductions conditioned on Russian reductions:

“NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia, taking into account the greater Russian stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in the Euro-Atlantic Area.” (Emphasis added).

Creating Obstacles

But one of the problems with using words such as “disparity” and “reciprocity” is that it is unclear what they mean and NATO has yet to explain it. For example, how much disparity is acceptable? No one expects NATO to seek parity in non-strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, so at what level does continued disparity become acceptable?

And what kinds of forces are counted when NATO talks disparity? Russia’s estimated inventory of air-delivery weapons is only a little greater than that of the United States (730 versus 500), so disparity is not significant in that weapons category. And while the Russian air-delivered weapons are stored separate from their bases, nearly 200 U.S. bombs in Europe are stored at the bases, inside aircraft shelters, a few feet below the wings of operational aircraft.

Likewise, most of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons are in categories where NATO and the United States have none because they no longer needed them: naval weapons, air-defense weapons, and short-range ballistic missiles. No one expects NATO to argue that it needs such non-strategic nuclear weapons as well or that Russia must eliminate what it has in those categories. So does NATO’s concern over “disparity” not include those categories or does it?

The asymmetric composition of the non-strategic nuclear arsenals is one reason why it seems unclear (at best) why NATO would be able to “trade” an offer to reduce or withdraw U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe for Russian reductions in its non-strategic nuclear weapons. Most of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons don’t exist because of U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe but to compensate for what Russia sees as NATO’s conventional superiority. So unless NATO reduces its conventional anti-submarine warfare capability, why would it expect Russia to agree to reduce or eliminate its non-strategic nuclear anti-submarine weapons?

It is simple questions like these that indicate that NATO hasn’t thought through what it means when it says that further reductions must take disparity and reciprocity with Russia into account. The DDPR to some extent acknowledges this by ordering NAC to task its committees to “develop ideas for what NATO would expect to see in the way of reciprocal Russian actions to allow for significant reductions in the forward-based non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to NATO.” One would image that NATO had identified what it wanted from Russia before it started using “disparity” and “reciprocity” as conditions for additional reductions.

Looking Ahead

Despite the reaffirmation of nuclear status quo and other weaknesses in the DDPR, it seems that a process has been started. The Strategic Concept cleaned out most of the language that in the previous version explicitly identified the importance of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe, and the DDPR now tasks the NAC to figure out what it would look like if NATO reduced reliance on the weapons.

But while the NATO bureaucrats cautiously consider the next round of opportunities and definitions, modernization of the nuclear posture with the more accurate B61-12 bomb and stealthy F-35 aircraft is moving ahead to improve the military capabilities of NATO’s nuclear arsenal. This undercuts the pledge to create the conditions for further reductions and a world free of nuclear weapons.

To avoid that Chicago will be seen as a nuclear arms control disappointment and NATO as a military dinosaur incapable of shedding its Cold War non-strategic nuclear armor, it is essential that NATO announces new initiatives on limiting and eliminating non-strategic nuclear weapons quickly after Chicago.

The bureaucrats cannot deliver this; it requires presidential leadership. And that’s what’s missing in Chicago: the boldness that characterized earlier unilateral initiatives. The DDPR is ironically a more cautious document produced under far less threatening circumstances. Bold reductions have been reduced to a promise to develop confidence-building and transparency measures to increase mutual understanding of NATO and Russian non-strategic weapons in Europe. That’s nice and needed, but it doesn’t make the cut.

Rather than spending yet another decade thinking about how to adjust the role of nuclear weapon in Europe, NATO needs to move quickly on a next round of non-strategic nuclear arms reductions. Instead of getting lost in “disparity” and “reciprocity,” NATO should set the pace and announce its decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe and call on Russia to follow suit with its own initiatives. Doing so would create room to maneuver for moderates in Moscow and deny hardliners (in the Kremlin as well as in Brussels) the excuse to stall the process of reducing non-strategic nuclear weapons. Otherwise 2022 will be NATO Nuclear Groundhog Day all over again.

Additional Information: Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons report, May 2012 | NATO DDPR 2012

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.