A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

NATO’s Nuclear Future

The Warsaw summit re-affirms the role of nuclear deterrence in the alliance.

Despite expectations to the contrary, no great mention was made of nuclear weaponry at the NATO summit in Warsaw – but that in itself is a statement, indicating that the alliance intends to maintain its nuclear status quo.


© REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

NATO’s recent summit in Warsaw was meant to find convincing answers to the challenges to the alliance’s east and south – the two major themes were increasing NATO’s military presence in Central and Eastern Europe and enhancing NATO’s engagement with countries in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the Warsaw summit was also billed as an opportunity to consider strengthening NATO’s nuclear deterrence. Almost two years after initial steps were taken to enhance NATO’s conventional arms positioning at the Wales summit, Warsaw was supposed to provide a chance to look at the nuclear dimension.

Accordingly, in the run-up to the summit there was a great deal of speculation about whether and how NATO would revamp its nuclear policy. Some observers considered Warsaw to be an opportunity for a fundamental re-think of NATO’s nuclear policy and posture, while others warned against setting off a new nuclear arms race.

A Nuclear Alliance”

In the end, none of this happened. The Warsaw summit declaration contained lengthy passages on deterrence and defense; yet the nuclear portion, while more elaborate than in previous summit declarations, was far less spectacular than some had hoped and others had feared.

Allies merely repeated that “[as] long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance,” highlighted the role of US strategic nuclear forces as the “supreme guarantee” of the security of the allies, and noted the contribution of the independent strategic nuclear forces of the UK and France. The summit declaration also stressed US nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe and Dual-Capable Aircraft (DCA) as parts of NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture, and vowed to ensure “the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned in their agreed nuclear burden-sharing arrangements.”

The document also stated that nuclear weapons were “unique” and that any use of them against NATO “would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict.” Such statements indicate that the allies’ main concern was not beefing up NATO’s nuclear arsenal, but rather preventing Russia from miscalculating about the eventual use of its own. The major focus of NATO’s post-Crimea military reinforcements remained conventional.

Much of this language was based on the 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR). This process has become necessary to regain alliance consensus on nuclear issues in danger of losing support. After some allies’ representatives, notably then-German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, argued for a withdrawal of US sub-strategic weapons from Europe, the DDPR helped rein in a potentially controversial debate among Allies about NATO’s future nuclear posture.

Back to Basics

Put simply, the DDPR helped to get NATO back to nuclear basics – and demonstrated that any attempt on the part of Europeans to “hijack” President Barack Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world for their own domestic agendas would fail. Even though the review was concluded well before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the agreed language of the document – amended by statements that can be read as a signal to Russia not to underestimate NATO’s resolve – still appeared appropriate.

Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, most aspects of NATO’s nuclear dimension – such as the linkage between conventional and nuclear capabilities, exercise patterns, and readiness levels – are not to be found in any public document. The declaration merely alludes to a requirement for “planning guidance aligned with 21st century requirements.” However, the fact that the Declaration did not offer fundamentally new messages was a message in itself: the issue at stake was not nuclear hardware, but reaffirming the principle of nuclear deterrence. To this end, NATO needed neither to mimic Russia’s high-testosterone nuclear rhetoric, nor initiate a major debate about future nuclear strategies or force postures.

Warsaw showed that NATO’s nuclear “acquis” is unlikely to change anytime soon. This means that several European allies will continue to host aircraft and US gravity bombs in what has come to be known as “nuclear sharing” arrangements. While this concept dates back to the 1960s, it still meets several major alliance objectives better than any conceivable alternative: aircraft, for example, can be deployed to crisis regions for the sake of political signaling.

Above all, however, the current arrangements allow non-nuclear allies to participate in the planning and implementation of the nuclear mission. While some allies host dual-capable aircraft that can deliver US weapons, for example, others play a role in suppressing opposition air defenses. These arrangements underscore the fact that, by sharing risks and burdens, the allies consider their solidarity to extend to the nuclear domain.

Nuclear sharing will continue to draw criticism from anti-nuclear activists, yet their arguments remain spurious. Whereas in the past critics maintained that aircraft armed with gravity bombs were Cold War remnants without military value, they now argue that a new generation of aircraft, plus a refurbished bomb, would dangerously tilt the strategic balance in NATO’s favor.

Feeble Arguments

This shift from one feeble argument to another is not likely to gain much traction. The same holds true for initiatives to ban nuclear weapons in order to speed up the long and difficult process of gradual and reciprocal nuclear disarmament. Some allies may well feel sympathetic to that cause; yet even they have to realize that in the current security environment, advocating initiatives that de-legitimize Western defense policies while leaving potential opponents – including Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy” – untouched is counterproductive.

The Warsaw summit’s reaffirmation of nuclear deterrence does not suggest that allies must renege on their commitments to further reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their defense strategies. Nor does it invalidate the objective of creating the conditions for a nuclear-free world. For the foreseeable future, however, these conditions simply do not exist. As the allies put it in the Warsaw summit declaration: “We regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favorable today.”

The Warsaw Summit heralded neither a new “nuclearization” of the alliance nor a new chapter of the NATO-Russia relationship. It simply reaffirmed the importance of nuclear deterrence as part of an overall strategy of defense and deterrence at a time when members of the Western strategic community were in danger of forgetting it.

NB. The author expresses solely his personal views.