Nearly 50 years ago, the United States introduced so-called tactical nuclear weapons into NATO forces in Europe to deter and, if necessary, use against a Soviet land attack. Not long after, the Soviet Union followed suit.
The U.S.-Soviet military rivalry is now over. Yet, both countries cling to the remnants of their massive tactical nuclear arsenals. An estimated150-250 U.S. nuclear gravity bombs remain at six bases in five NATO countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Russia is estimated to possess about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons in various states of readiness.
In the 21st century, battlefield nuclear bombs serve no meaningful military role for the defense of Europe or Russia, and the possible loss or theft of these weapons poses an unacceptable risk of nuclear terrorism. The devastating power and inescapable collateral effects of such weapons make them inappropriate tools against non-nuclear targets. Rather than treating tactical nuclear weapons as just another part of NATO’s arsenal, the alliance should finally agree to eliminate forward-deployed U.S. nuclear bombs. This could also induce Russia to agree to further consolidate and verifiably dismantle its larger tactical nuclear stockpile.
At last, key European leaders are pressing for changes in NATO’s outdated defense doctrine, which claims that forward deployed U.S. nuclear forces in Europe “provide an essential political and military link” between alliance members. In a Feb. 26 letter to NATO’s secretary-general, the foreign ministers of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway called for NATO support for action on nuclear arms control, including “sub-strategic nuclear weapons in subsequent steps towards nuclear disarmament.” NATO is due to revamp its “strategic concept” by November.
The five ministers’ letter is but the latest in a series of statements from top U.S. and European leaders calling for changes in NATO nuclear policy. Last April, German then-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the German magazine Der Spiegel that "these weapons are militarily obsolete today" and promised that he would take steps to ensure that the remaining U.S. warheads "are removed from Germany." On Oct. 25, the current foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said the new German government would "enter talks with our allies so that the last of the nuclear weapons still stationed in Germany, relics of the Cold War, can finally be removed."
On Feb. 1, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called on the United States and Russia to achieve “early progress on steep reductions in sub-strategic nuclear weapons” in a joint op-ed in The International Herald Tribune. In refreshingly modern terms, they wrote “We still face security challenges in the Europe of today and tomorrow, but from whichever angle you look, there is no role for the use of nuclear weapons in resolving these challenges.”
Alliance members to the east such as Poland are still mindful of possible Russian coercion and the country’s remaining tactical nuclear stockpile. Until now, Moscow has refused to discuss relocating its tactical nuclear weapons, citing NATO nuclear deployments along its border and a perceived conventional military imbalance.
Consequently, Sikorski and senior U.S. officials now seem to understand that the United States and NATO should be prepared to negotiate away their relatively small number of obsolete tactical bombs in Europe to induce Russia to consolidate and reduce its larger tactical nuclear stockpile. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in January 2009 that the United States would seek reductions in all types of nuclear warheads—deployed and nondeployed, strategic and nonstrategic—in a future round of arms control talks with Russia.
Still, there are some who still believe in the 1960s-era notion that forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons reduce the incentive for allies such as Turkey to acquire their own nuclear weapons capability. In reality, U.S. and NATO security commitments make the presence of these weapons irrelevant to Turkey’s defense, and a Turkish nuclear weapons program would reduce not increase that nation’s security. Furthermore, Ankara’s leaders government is on record in support of “the inclusion of all non-strategic nuclear weapons” in the disarmament process “with a view to their reduction and elimination.”
NATO foreign ministers will meet in Estonia this April, just days ahead of the pivotal Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference. They should seize the opportunity to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons by declaring that NATO nuclear sharing no longer is necessary for alliance defense. This would open the way for the United States to invite Russia to negotiate an agreement on warhead accounting and the verifiable dismantlement of excess tactical nuclear weapons as part of the next, more comprehensive round of arms reduction talks.
As Sikorski and Bildt said, “such weapons are dangerous remnants of a dangerous past—and they should not be allowed to endanger our common future.” Given the threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism facing all nations, doing nothing is not a responsible option.