European Parliament, Brussels
June 5th, 2012

NATO’s New Strategic Concept and Nuclear Weapons

Presentation by Otfried Nassauer


Thank you for inviting me here to share my thoughts on NATO’s New Strategic Concept, NATO’s nuclear posture and NATO’s position on nuclear arms control and non-proliferation.

Svein  Efjstad was the Norwegian representative to NATO’s High Level Group in 2009. The group is the Alliance’s main decision making body on nuclear issues jointly with the Nuclear Planning Group. On August 26th 2009 he had a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder. During this conversation Efjstad observed two important points according to a diplomatic cable published by wikileaks:

  1. First he said “that after more than 15 years with hardly any HLG debate on the [nuclear] issue the September meeting might be best used to get agreement to “look at the issue further”. If his observation was correct, and I assume it was, remarkably the last major NATO debate on nuclear issues took place back in 1993 or 1994.
  2. He also observed that the “reluctance of many NATO allies to debate nuclear weapons issues in Europe openly is due to the myriad NATO viewpoints on the issue. New members don’t want a debate, as they believe in NATO maintaining sub-strategic weapons while basing countries ironically want neither to open the debate nor to openly maintain sub-strategic weapons in Europe, given the delicate public opinion in their countries towards nuclear weapons. The U.S. position, meanwhile has seemed ambivalent, as the U.S. would like NATO’s posture to reflect the needs of other allies.”
    This second observation was correct, too. However, Efjstad’s description was a very polite one. He also could have said: We are deeply split on the nuclear issue and therefore everyone plays “Mikado”. NATO members believe, the one who moves first has lost.

Since 2009 the situation has changed. NATO members had to get a new debate going since NATO is approaching a crossroad. Before talking more about the decisions to be made let me quickly run through NATO’s current nuclear posture.

The Alliance has three nuclear members, the U.S., the UK and France. While the U.S. and the UK assign nuclear weapons to NATO, France keeps it’s weapons under national control. The weapons assigned to NATO in peacetime, crisis or war include

  1. U.S. and UK submarines carrying Trident sea launched ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. These weapons are of strategic range. However Britain claims, some of its Trident missiles have a sub-strategic or non-strategic function. They are carrying single rather than multiple warheads and are believed to have a much lower yield, because they have been modified to explode only their nuclear primary.
  2. There are about 180 U.S. sub-strategic or tactical nuclear bombs of two different versions deployed in Europe. A larger yield version, called B61-Mod 3 and a smaller yield version called the B61-Mod 4. These weapons are deployed at six airbases in five countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. They are to be used with dual capable aircraft belonging to both the U.S. Air Force in Europe and host nations. Germany for example is still providing  up to 46 Tornado aircraft at Büchel Airbase for some 10-20 B61 bombs deployed in Germany. This arrangement is part of the technical implementation of NATOs nuclear sharing. It’s legality under article 1 and 2 of the NPT is controversial. The U.S. arsenal includes some 200 U.S.-based additional B61s of these two modifications that could be deployed in Europe or elsewhere during a crisis.
  3. A third element of NATO’s nuclear posture is currently being retired: Sea-launched nuclear tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles (SLCMs/TLAM/N), which have been part of the U.S. arsenal since the 1980ies.

When NATO discusses about its nuclear weapons, the debate focuses on the B61 bombs deployed in Europe. It seems the existence of the other elements of the Alliance’s nuclear posture is neglected, even though the strategic weapons are more numerous, more destructive and of much larger military usefulness than the tactical nuclear weapons. E.g it takes just two U.S. submarines to deploy a higher number of nuclear weapons than the entire current sub-strategic posture in Europe. This said, the rest of my presentation will concentrate on the tactical weapons, since they are at the center of the crossroad NATO is approaching.

The military value of the current bombs is poor, since there are no targets within the range of the aircraft that would carry them. NATO’s nuclear airbases are too distant from likely targets. The only airbase hosting nuclear weapons that is within un-refuelled fighter-bomber range of possible targets, Incirlik in Southeastern Turkey, does not host nuclear capable fighter-bombers. [In addition, it may still be U.S. policy to task USEUCOM, the European Command, to support CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command responsible for the Middle East, during nuclear operations, since CENTCOM has no sub-strategic nuclear infrastructure of its own. However, it is unclear whether NATO and/or Turkey, the host country of the Incirlik weapons, would agree to be dragged into nuclear operations in the Middle East.]

Within the next few years NATO must decide, whether to modernize or withdraw its non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. These weapons, their aircraft and their storage systems are said to approach the end of their technical lifetime from 2017 onwards. The Obama administration has traded the ratification of the New START treaty in the U.S. Senate for a promise to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. To keep that promise it has launched a program to replace the current B61-bombs by a new version. At the center of this program is the European deployed B61 Mod 4.

U.S. plans to modernize the family of B61 bombs affect the B61 Mod 3, Mod 4, Mod 7 and Mod 10. These four versions are to be replaced by single new one: the B-61-12. This version is scheduled to enter phase 6.3. i.e. technical development, during this year. The B61-12 is the largest nuclear weapons development program since more than 30 years according to the former head of the program. It will by 2019 result in a mostly new weapon that includes both, a wide range of modernized conventional and nuclear components. The program will be based on core nuclear components contained in the B61-4, one of the two family members deployed in Europe. As of today, roundabout seven billion Dollars are scheduled by DoD and DoE to pay for the costs. Three critical aims are to be achieved by the program:

  1. During the modernization a tail-kit assembly will be added to the bomb and thus turn the current dumb bomb into a precision guided munition. Thus the new version will be militarily much more effective and also more flexible to use. Most targets will require less yield to be effectively destroyed, if the weapons CEP drops from about 180meters to less than 10 meters. Thus with the B61-12 NATO runs the risk to increase rather than to reduce the role of these weapons.
  2. The lowest yield option of the B61-4 is 0,3 kilotons, the second lowest 1,5KT. Both yield options would be retained with the B61-12. Therefore the modernisation effort will allow the laboratories to restart work on what has been dubbed “mini-nukes”. The maximum yield will be 50KT, still four times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. A new generation of nuclear weapons engineers will be trained to work on both low and higher yield weapons, while working on a single model.
  3. Finally one major goal was said to be increasing the safety of these weapons. Astonishingly, the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Council when giving the go ahead for technical development in late last year decided to eliminate some of the planned major new safety features for cost reasons.

On the other side of the crossroads, Germany launched a political initiative to discuss ending the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. In autumn 2009, the conservative-liberal coalition government agreed to seek their withdrawal during the upcoming discussions about NATO’s new strategic concept. In 2010 the German parliament agreed a resolution encouraging the government to do so by overwhelming majority. [Those not supporting the resolution did not oppose a withdrawal. They wanted the government to do even more on nuclear disarmament.] In the run up to the April 2010 NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Tallinn, Germany and four other NATO members urged NATO to discuss steps by which the Alliance could support President Obamas goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

At Tallinn however, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested five principles that should guide NATO’s future debate’s about nuclear weapons:

  1. The acceptance that NATO would remain a nuclear Alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist,
  2. Its members sharing the nuclear risks, roles and responsibilities,
  3. a willingness to discuss further reductions of the role and numbers of NATO nuclear weapons,
  4. the integration of missiles defense into NATO’s deterrent posture and
  5. a shared aim to convince Russia to increase transparency and change her non-strategic nuclear posture as well as to include non-strategic nuclear weapons in the next round of bilateral U.S.-Russian talks about nuclear disarmament – the next New-START-Treaty.

Clinton’s points were closely coordinated with the contents of two other documents, the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review of April 2010 and the report of NATO’s Group of experts on the Alliance future Strategic Concept.

Most of Clinton’s points made it into NATO’ s Lisbon new Strategic Concept. Most prominently the general statement that NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist, was used to balance President Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. The declaration that NATO is willing to consider further reductions to the role and numbers of nuclear weapons was linked to preparing such reductions on the condition of progress being made with Russia on the issue of Russian non-strategic nuclear forces.

NATO’s Lisbon strategy did no longer contain a description of the specific role attached to non-strategic weapons. It avoided saying anything about these weapons and thus could avoid reflecting the differences among the Alliance members on this issue as well. The Lisbon summit agreed to discuss this and other controversial issues in the context of an Alliance Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) to be prepared for a future 2012 NATO Summit. However during  the U.S. Congressional debates about financing the development of the B61-12, both the necessity and the urgency of the program were justified by U.S. administration officials heavily recurring to the continued need to meet the U.S. nuclear commitments to NATO.

Where does NATO stand today? The Deterrence and Defense Posture Review has been published during the Chicago Summit in May 2012. The document has a very wide scope, but at the same time is very short and very general. It copes with the role of nuclear weapons, missile defense, conventional capabilities and arms control and non-proliferation.

Does it answer the questions left over in Lisbon? Does it take the debate any further, any nearer to a consensus on the future role and numbers of NATO’s sub-strategic nuclear weapons? No, it does not. It features compromise language well known from either the 2010 NPR and NATO meetings held since 2009.

Let me sum it up for you: On nuclear forces, the document says inter alia that they are “a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defense alongside conventional and missile defense forces”. “The review has shown that the Alliance’s nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defense posture.” “The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.” “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” Strategic weapons are the supreme guarantee, particularly those of the U.S. “Independent” British and French forces have a deterrent role of their own and contribute to NATO’s deterrent. This reflects the Lisbon language. Again, there’s no specific role attributed to non-strategic nuclear weapons. Existing nuclear modernizations plans are not mentioned.

On missile defense it says it “will be an important addition to the Alliance’s capabilities for deterrence and defense” and “will strengthen our collective defense commitment against 21st century threats”. “Missile defense can complement the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence, it cannot substitute for them.”

The section on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation commits NATO vaguely “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the Non-Proliferations Treaty”. “NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic 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.” The North Atlantic Council will task appropriate committees to develop ideas “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”.

NATO is also ”seeking to create the conditions and considering options for further reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to NATO.” The “Allies concerned”, i.e. the NPG members, will ensure “that all components of NATOs nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance.” The NAC will take care of tasking appropriate committees “to develop concepts for how to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned in their nuclear sharing arrangements, including in case NATO were to decide to reduce its reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe.”

In a concluding section NATO cites a need for “an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missiles defense capabilities” and the commitment to provide the resources “needed to ensure that NATO’s overall deterrence and defense posture remains credible, flexible, resilient, and adaptable and to implement the forward looking package of defense capabilities which will also be agreed in Chicago.”

Let me share my main observations.

  1. There is very little new. The debate on the future of NATO’s non-strategic nuclear weapons has not been taken any further. There’s no consensus in sight on reducing either the role or the number of sub-strategic nuclear weapons in NATO. The internal split among the Allies continues to exist and it is blocking the way towards a new consensus.
  2. The DDPR mentions the possibility to further reduce the role and numbers of the Alliance’s sub-strategic weapons. However it does neither mention the option to eliminate these weapons nor does it mention the possibility to end NATO technical nuclear sharing. To the contrary, NATO will explore its options to safeguard nuclear sharing, even if the number of sub-strategic nuclear weapons should be further reduced.
  3. The German idea to argue that building a NATO missile defense might reduce the requirement for NATO’s nuclear posture has been rejected. NATO argues the opposite: The requirement is for both, missile defenses and nuclear weapons. The Alliance can agree on building a new controversial capability, but it can not agree on giving up an old controversial one.
  4. Future reductions in the role or numbers of NATO’s non-strategic nuclear weapons are declared to be possible in principle, but on the condition of reciprocal Russian actions. Most interestingly, NATO still needs to discuss which steps it would expect Moscow to make. This means NATO is playing the ball into Moscow’s half of the field, because the Alliance is unable to develop a consensus among it’s members.

Most interestingly, the Review also does not mention the U.S. plans to modernize the family of B61 nuclear bombs within the next few years.

I’d like to raise three major questions resulting from this project:

  1. Will modernizing NATO’s non-strategic weapons or deploying the modernized weapons require a consensus among all Alliance members in the same way as withdrawal does? Can a single member prohibit modernization? As of today the impression created is that modernization does not require consensus while a withdrawal does.
  2. Is NATO heading towards a decision similar to the controversial double-track decision of 1979? The current logic indicates that the Alliance might argue in future that it needs to modernize non-strategic weapons if Russia fails to act on her own ones.
  3. President Obama’s 2010 NPR states: „The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension  Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” Is there any reason, why the B61-12 could meet these requirements?

Let me add two final comments on the DDPR. First: There’s one more interesting new paragraph in the DDPR. It is devoted to “negative security assurances”, which play a significant role in the NPT context, since they could help to discourage proliferation. The review mentions that the Negative Security Assurances of NATO’s Nuclear Weapons States will be applicable to the nuclear weapons assigned to NATO. Ir says “that nuclear weapons will not be used or threatened to be used against Non-Nuclear Weapon States that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations”. This formula stems from the 2010 U.S.-NPR. The review mentions that each NATO nuclear weapons state has attached “separate conditions” to these assurances, which will apply to their nuclear weapons assigned to NATO.

This declaration can become a double-edged sword: While it might help to calm down concerns that NATO nuclear weapons states might use their nuclear weapons assigned to NATO to circumvent their national Negative Security Assurances, it also raises a serious question: Who is going to decide on whether a non-nuclear state is no longer in compliance with its nuclear non-proliferation obligations? The UN Security Council? NATO? The U.S. President or who else? Honestly, having the 2003 Iraqi case in mind, I’m seriously concerned.

And second a comment on missile defense. Making missile defense part of the Alliance’s deterrence posture increases the likelihood that the ghosts of the past will return to NATO’s strategy debates. Just try to remember the 1970ies and 1980ies debates about options for limited nuclear warfare in Europe. At the time NATO’s European members concluded that any use of nuclear weapons should immediately embark the risk of all-out nuclear war, since the level of deterrence would be greater.

Finally one personal observation and my conclusions on the current status of the debate. First my observation: Since the end of the Cold War NATO never reached consensus on how to deal with Russia or on how to engage Russia best. One camp of members prefers working on European security issues in cooperation with the Russians, while another camp wants NATO to continue to prepare NATO defenses against Russia. NATO enlargement strengthened the second camp. Consensus was never reached, but the camps’ diverging positions heavily influenced many internal debates among NATO’s members. Often, they prohibited both consensus and progress. To just name a few examples: Georgia, the future of enlargement, conventional arms control, missile defense and the future of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Unless NATO discusses and solves this problem it will continue to loose on substance.

My conclusions: The momentum driving Germany’s initiative to create the conditions for a withdrawal of the remaining nuclear weapons from Europe is broken. NATO is proving again that it is a very heavy roadblock on the way to achieving a nuclear weapons free world. Currently it seems the Alliance is more likely to modernize its non-strategic weapons than to abolish these relics of the Cold War. Not, because there were any serious threat still making them necessary, but simply because the Alliance-members disagree and because there are still some true believers who argue, that nuclear sharing creates status.


ist freier Journalist und leitet das Berliner Informationszentrum für Transatlantische Sicherheit - BITS