NATO policy concerning nuclear weapons


Overview of nuclear weapons in Europe:

Background report from 2005:
This report does not contain the latest withdrawals from Lakenheath and Ramstein, but the author follows the subject very closely through his blog at FAS:

NATO policy: (updated after the seminar)

The Strategic Concept from 1999 mentions in par. 62 both the US, UK and French nuclear weapons: "The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States; the independent nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, which have a deterrent role of their own, contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies."

In other words, all these nuclear weapons have a role in NATO's defense. This does not mean they all have a role in the military planning done by NATO. Par. 63: "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."

The widespread participation by European allies in the collective defence planning in nuclear roles takes place in the Nuclear Planning Group. All countries, except France, participate in this group. In this NPG the deployment and wartime scenario's of US nuclear weapons in Europe are discussed. Possibly also the NATO role given to the UK nuclear weapons.

At the moment a review of the Strategic Concept is taking place. A new version will be decided on the summit in Portugal on 19-21 November. While it is clear that a role for nuclear weapons will remain in the Strategic Concept, like in par 62, the deployment of US nuclear weapons is under discussion.
A discussion on the nuclear weapon strategy is scheduled to take place at the next ministerial meeting in Tallinn, Estonia on 22-23 April. This discussion was demanded by Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Norway.

It seems that the withdrawal of the US nuclear weapons will be one of the proposals, although it is unclear to which conditions such withdrawal will be linked. Will it be linked to a reduction of Russian nuclear weapons? In that case nothing will change, since Russia still gives its tactical nuclear weapons a role in deterring a conventional attack by NATO.

The real discussion still has to start inside NATO. Everyone is waiting for the outcome of the US internal review of its nuclear strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review. Originally scheduled for 1 Feb 2010, it is now delayed till end March or beginning April. This delay reflects that the future nuclear weapon strategy is heavily debated in the US administration. Rumours indicate that the main discussion centers on reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the overall strategy. Does the US adopts the position that the 'sole purpose' of nuclear weapons is deterring the role of nuclear weapon use by others or do they still get another role? The outcome of this discussion will frame the NATO discussions. Since tactical nuclear weapons are meant to be used as first-use battlefield weapons against large conventional forces, this discussion is relevant for the future of NATO's nuclear policy as well. Adopting the 'sole purpose'-doctrine means tactical nuclear weapons have no role anymore in its strategy.

Who has which opinion on these nuclear weapons?

It is clear that the 5 NATO states who have put the discussion on the agenda are in favour of withdrawal. The new German government stated its position favouring withdrawal clearly in the government agreement. This statement also does not link a withdrawal anymore with Russian steps.
When the new German government stated this position, it looked for allies to make a common position in NATO.

The result is now this move to put the issue on the agenda. Unclear is if the German position is already diluted in a compromise text, or not.

A bit of a suprising ally for withdrawal of the US nuclear weapons are the US military in Europe themselves. They see this deployment as a waste of money, since these nuclear weapons have no actual military role anymore. They are in favour of a withdrawal and centralizing the bombs on one storage place in the US.

Who will work against this position and with which arguments?

The NATO bureaucracy, which in several countries develops this policy without a lot of political overview, is against change. It fears that after a withdrawal it will loose influence over the US nuclear policy and that the NPG will become an empty box. It also fears that one of the embodiments of the trans-atlantic link will disappear. This means that the deployment of nuclear weapons was seen a form of burden-sharing, which gave practical content to the solidarity inside NATO. One of the proposals floating around is to use missile defense to create a new embodiment of the NATO solidarity.

Another source of opposition were the Eastern European states, which fear Russia and which want stronger security guarantees. Although they have become a bit more flexible and would accept such guarantees in other forms. The Polish minister of Foreign Affairs Sikorski made an opening in his opinion text in the NY Times of 1 Feb 2010 ( He proposed a withdrawal of the nuclear weapons to the US, accompanied with a Russian removal of nuclear weapons from the border regions. In a later phase an arms control agreement for tactical nuclear weapons can be negotiated.

The third possible spoiler is France. France does not participate in the NPG, so it has not a lot of voice in the nuclear discussion. But it is not in favour of nuclear disarmament and questions openly the goal of a nuclear weapons free world.

In other words, the outcome of this discussion inside NATO is still unclear. But the review of NATO's Strategic Concept gives a window of opportunity to get rid of the US tactical nuclear weapons. Although this would not mean a nuclear weapon free Europe of even a NATO without nuclear weapons, it would create much more political space to work for further nuclear disarmament steps.


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