"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
NATO Experts Hedge on Nuclear Posture

Oliver Meier

A report delivered by a group made up largely of diplomats and former officials on May 17 to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen does not give clear guidance on whether U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe should be withdrawn, saying that “the Alliance should be prepared for in-depth consultations on the future role of nuclear weapons in its deterrence strategy.”

The lack of clear guidance reflects divisions among the experts and among NATO allies on this question, diplomatic sources said. “I am not sure that you can say that there is an overall direction” with regard to the group’s recommendations on the future of nuclear sharing arrangements, a senior U.S. official said in a May 20 interview.

The report, “NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement,” had been mandated by an April 2009 NATO summit to encourage an open discussion of NATO’s organization and purpose. The group of experts, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, had consulted widely on the report since September.

During a May 17 press conference, Rasmussen called the report a “very solid basis for the discussions to come.” Rasmussen is expected to develop a first draft of NATO’s new Strategic Concept by September; member states hope to be able to agree on the substance at the meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers on Oct. 14 in Brussels. NATO intends to adopt its new Strategic Concept at its Nov. 19-20 summit in Lisbon.

The report’s recommendations on nuclear weapons and arms control, which make up 1.5 pages of the 35-page substantive analysis, restate a number of principles of NATO’s nuclear weapons policy, including the fact that “NATO relies upon a mixture of conventional and nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterring an armed attack.” The experts also say that any change to NATO’s nuclear posture “including in the geographic distribution of NATO nuclear deployments in Europe” should be made by the alliance “as a whole.” No member state has questioned these fundamentals, although Germany in October 2009 initiated an alliance-wide discussion on the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany and Europe. (See ACT, December 2009.) At a May 20 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the report, Albright said that the group “spent quite a lot of time” on nuclear issues and had “some of our livelier discussions” on NATO’s nuclear posture.

Under NATO nuclear sharing arrangements, the United States keeps an estimated 150 to 200 nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These countries would provide aircraft that could deliver U.S. nuclear weapons to their targets in times of war, although the strike mission of the Turkish air force probably has expired. NATO does not provide details of nuclear deployments, but officials in the past have confirmed that “a few hundred” U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed in Europe. (See ACT, September 2007.)

In addition to forward-deployed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, NATO relies on the nuclear arsenals of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States for nuclear deterrence.

The group recommends re-establishing the “special consultative group” on arms control “for the purpose of facilitating its own internal dialogue about the whole range of issues related to nuclear doctrine, new arms control initiatives, and proliferation.” During the Senate hearing, Albright portrayed the proposal as being aimed primarily at engaging Russia on tactical nuclear weapons. The group “did believe that it was very important to have discussions with the Russians over this,” she said. The consultative group could be the place “to have this kind of a dialogue,” she said.

NATO in 1979 had set up the consultative group to raise NATO’s profile on arms control and coordinate allied positions for talks with the Soviet Union, specifically during negotiations on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. After the treaty was signed in 1987 and most of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe were withdrawn in the early 1990s, the group fell into disuse.

Officials view the recommendation as a sign that the group wants to postpone any real decisions on the future of nuclear sharing beyond the Lisbon summit, the U.S. official said. “There are some in the alliance that believe that there is more harm than good to be done by NATO agreeing on specific recommendations in the Strategic Concept. They want to avoid potentially divisive discussions on this issue,” the official argued. He said the “allies would have to agree on some placeholder language in the new Strategic Concept” if that course were followed. In response to questions from the Green Party, the German government stated May 11 that there is “unanimity in NATO” that decisions on the future of the alliance’s nuclear deployments “will be taken only after the Lisbon summit” in order to “take into account the agreements reached in the Strategic Concept.”

The report argues that “broad participation” of the non-nuclear NATO members “is an essential sign of transatlantic solidarity and risk sharing” and that “under current security conditions, the retention of some U.S. forward-deployed systems on European soil reinforces the principle of extended nuclear deterrence and collective defence.” The U.S. official, however, described the latter statement as “a linguistic finesse that avoids having to say whether the weapons will have to stay.”

The group’s finding that “participation by the non-nuclear states can take place in the form of nuclear deployments on their territory or by non-nuclear support measures” is causing some confusion. “I don’t understand what those non-nuclear support measures could be,” the U.S. official conceded. Other officials, speaking privately, speculated that the measures could include participation in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, acceptance of the temporary deployment of dual-capable aircraft by NATO members that currently do not host nuclear weapons, and the refueling of such aircraft.

Julian Borger of the Guardian newspaper reported on his Web log in March that the experts group had reached a consensus that withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons would only be envisaged in a quid pro quo with Russia. (See ACT, May 2010.) That condition, however, is not in the final version, which only states that “there should be an ongoing NATO dialogue with Russia on nuclear perceptions, concepts, doctrines, and transparency” and that these talks “should help set the stage for the further reduction and possible eventual elimination of the entire class of sub-strategic nuclear weapons.” The U.S. official pointed out that the lack of insistence on Russian reciprocity “reflects a lack of consensus among the group’s experts on this issue.” The argument that NATO should only change its nuclear posture if Russia does “is not universally shared within the alliance,” he said.

Reacting to the experts group report, Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin was quoted by Deutsche Welle as saying May 19 that the United States first “must bring their tactical nuclear weapons home. Only then would we consider reducing our own arsenal.”

Russia is believed to possess several thousand short-range nuclear weapons in various states of readiness.

The group also recommends that NATO adopt the new negative security assurances contained in the recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report (see ACT, May 2010), saying that “NATO should endorse a policy of not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” The U.S. official predicted “intense discussions” among allies on this issue.