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June 1, 2018
NATO agrees on new arms control body

Arms Control NOW

By Oliver Meier

A German Luftwaffe Tornado fighter-bomber capable of carrying nuclear gravity bombs. A German Luftwaffe Tornado fighter-bomber capable of carrying nuclear gravity bombs.

(BERLIN) On Feb. 8, NATO agreed on the mandate of a new arms control body. Allies tasked the "Special Advisory and Consultative Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Committee" to prepare a dialogue on confidence building and transparency measures on tactical weapons with Russia. Potentially, the new body could also deal with other arms control-related issues, including a dialogue between Russia and the United States about further nuclear cuts.

Agreement in principle to establish a new arms control committee had been reached at the May 2012 NATO summit. In Chicago, allies had adopted the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) report in which they agreed "to establish a committee as a consultative and advisory forum, with its mandate to be agreed by the [North Atlantic Council] following the Summit."

The North Atlantic Council (NAC) is NATO's highest political decision-making body.

Yet, discussions on the terms of reference for the new body proved to be difficult and lengthy. France and Germany disagreed over the lifespan of the new body, with Paris preferring a limited duration and Berlin pressing for a permanent committee. According to diplomatic sources, the agreed mandate states that the committee could be shelved when the NAC considers that it has completed its tasks. This, however, would require agreement by all allies.

Berlin also wanted the committee to have broad mandate, so that it could address a range issues related to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. This was resisted by some allies, including Turkey, which feared the new committee could weaken the role of the High Level Task Force (HLTF), charged with discussions on conventional arms control issues. Turkey is concerned about conventional imbalances on its borders. The recently agreed mandate now apparently states that the HLTF's role will be unaffected by the new committee.

The terms of reference were agreed in the NAC through a "silence procedure" under which the proposed text is agreed unless somebody objects. According to diplomatic sources, they specify three different functions for the new body.

First, the new committee will have an advisory role with regard to tactical nuclear weapons. In the DDPR, allies had stated that they "look forward to continuing to develop and exchange transparency and confidence-building ideas with the Russian Federation in the NATO-Russia Council, with the goal of developing detailed proposals on and increasing mutual understanding of NATO's and Russia's non-strategic nuclear force postures in Europe."

Russia possesses more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States. Moscow has made any discussion on the issue contingent on the withdrawal of the remaining 180 U.S. nuclear weapons, all B61 gravity bombs, believed to still be deployed in five European countries under NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements and on a compromise on NATO's missile defense plans.

Today, the U.S. forward-deployed nuclear weapons serve primarily as a symbol of alliance unity and are apparently not essential to NATO military missions or plans. NATO's Strategic Concept states that: "[t]he supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance" and not the U.S. tactical nuclear bombs stored in Europe.

Against this background, allies are currently considering how best to engage Russia in a process of confidence-building on tactical nuclear weapons. They discussed possible confidence-building measures during the first meeting of the committee, on Feb. 12. Committee members agreed that they would build on the work done on the issue under the new body's predecessor, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Control and Disarmament Committee, which existed during deliberations on the DDPR. (See ACT, April 2011.)

According to diplomats, one contentious issue among Allies is how much Russian reciprocity NATO will require before it changes its nuclear posture. The DDPR had stated that "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," yet there are different interpretations on what this might mean. Some allies prefer a strictly symmetrical approach in engaging Russia, others want a more flexible approach.

Another topic to be decided is whether NATO should present Russia with a comprehensive package of transparency and confidence-building measures, modeled on a proposal tabled by Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Norway with the support of six other NATO nations in April 2011, or whether a step-by-step approach would be more promising. Those preferring the latter approach are worried that an elaborate proposal could be "dead on arrival", leaving NATO with few options for follow-on steps.

There are also different expectations when NATO might be ready to present Russia with an offer on confidence-building measures, ranging from weeks to many months. Ambassador Rolf Nikel, Germany's Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control said at Feb. 21 conference in Berlin that Germany expects "the committee to make a significant contribution to transparency in the field of substrategic nuclear weapons, thereby facilitating talks between the US and Russia on the reduction of strategic and substrategic nuclear weapons, both deployed and non-deployed."

The second task of the committee will be to provide a venue for consultations on the U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and further cuts in strategic nuclear arms. This issue will be on the agenda of the committee's second meeting on March 5. Discussions to support the New Start follow-on process could be modeled on the Special Consultative Group on Arms Control which guided the Alliance's discussions on short- and medium-range nuclear weapons during the 1980s. The Obama administration wants a future U.S.-Russian arms control accord to cover all nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons.

In addition, the committee could facilitate discussions on other arms control-related issues. Thus, the new committee could continue debates in the DDPR, which was set-up to discuss linkages between the nuclear, conventional and missile defenses components of NATO's deterrence and defense posture. But this remains a contentious issue and the terms of reference apparently are vague on this point. Some believe that any discussions on these wide-ranging issues will be possible only when and if the committee, which could meet monthly, successfully masters the challenge of engaging Russia on tactical nuclear weapons.

The new committee, which some would like to abbreviate with the catchy acronym ACDC, will be chaired by Dirk Brengelmann, NATO's Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy. The United States, however, will assume the chair when U.S.-Russian arms control issues are on the agenda.

Allies also still have to decide how the new committee will fit into the existing landscape of NATO committees dealing with related issues. For instance, the relationship between the committee and the High Level Group, the senior advisory body to the Nuclear Planning Group on nuclear policy and planning issues, could be contentious and indicative of the importance NATO attaches to arms control in relation to nuclear deterrence.