The End of Tactical Nukes in Europe?

Gates attends NATO ministerialWith little notice from most press outlets, NATO recently developed contingency plans to defend its Central and Eastern European member states against potential Russian aggression. This move follows the disclosure in January that the alliance would create such plans for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. But in late July, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “We have all necessary plans in place to defend and protect all allies. I think the Russians would be surprised if we didn’t. That’s the core purpose of the alliance.” This statement indicates that — in addition to developing plans for the Baltic region — NATO’s military wing has also produced strategies to protect states like the Czech Republic and Turkey, which previously lacked alliance defense planning.

Contingency plans are the operational basis behind NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense commitments and specify the alliance’s land, sea, and air force deployment patterns for reacting to crises. Although this type of planning should be standard procedure for NATO, the alliance had avoided pinpointing Russia as a threat in the post-Cold War era, prior to this latest round of plans. It is unusual that NATO now suddenly perceives Russia as a threat. After all, alliance conventional forces outnumber their Russian counterparts by a factor of three. And for all the rhetoric about Russia’s coercive energy politics, Moscow exports over 90 percent of its oil and natural gas to Europe, fostering a situation of mutual economic interdependence.

Unfortunately, these new military arrangements send signals to the Kremlin that could undermine western attempts to “reset” relations with Moscow. In fact, NATO’s original decision to create Baltic contingency plans may have prompted Russia to label the alliance as a threat in its latest military doctrine.

Concrete vs. Symbolic Commitments

But despite all of the negatives associated with new contingency planning, these arrangements could actually ease the process of withdrawing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) from Europe. Approximately 200 American TNWs (PDF) remain deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.

There are numerous legitimate concerns regarding the military utility of these B61 gravity bombs, and Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway have called for their removal from the continent. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt have also done so. Nevertheless, Obama administration officials have been clear: The United States will only remove its TNWs from Europe when NATO agrees to do so on the basis of consensus. Several European countries still oppose removal.

With military tensions in Central and Eastern Europe at an all-time low, battlefield nuclear weapons have outgrown whatever utility they might once have had. Very few analysts believe that TNWs are militarily usable, and alliance documents even characterize the role of NATO nuclear forces as “fundamentally political.” Nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe have come to represent a symbolic expression of the U.S. security commitment to its NATO allies. In Europe, the United States currently deploys few forces to the east of Germany. Furthermore, in the 1997 Founding Act on NATO-Russia relations, NATO pledged to eschew collective defense via the “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” on the territory of its new members. With the absence of U.S. forces on the ground, TNWs have served as reassurance to eastern members of NATO.

But contingency plans offer a concrete rather than symbolic security guarantee. They would remain in place as a reassurance once the nuclear weapons leave.

Alliance Solidarity and Burdensharing

New contingency plans are a part of NATO’s growing nonnuclear security architecture and should reduce European reliance on U.S. TNWs. The countries most resistant to TNW withdrawal perceive proximate geopolitical threats. For example, Estonia does not have a border treaty with Russia and faces ongoing minority rights disputes with the Kremlin. Turkey borders Iran, a state with growing influence in the Middle East that might be pursuing nuclear weapons. Accordingly, both Estonia and Turkey support a continued U.S. nuclear presence in Europe. Some observers have argued that European ballistic missile defenses could provide the symbolic value necessary to replace and thus withdraw TNWs. However, with the development of new contingency planning, there should no longer be any question that the allies will honor their Article 5 commitments in an emergency.

But regardless of the cohesive value of contingency plans, TNWs and NATO nuclear sharing arrangements have long been cited as a critical source of alliance burdensharing. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment, stating, “As a nuclear alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities is fundamental.” However, if TNWs are withdrawn from Europe, there’s no reason why nonnuclear members of the alliance couldn’t provide planning assistance or conventional air support for nuclear missions. At present, numerous members of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) would play no military role in the physical execution of potential nuclear missions. Membership in the NPG and participation in joint nuclear planning is not contingent on a state’s contribution to nuclear exercises.

Conventional contingency planning for Central and Eastern Europe also offers new opportunities for alliance burdensharing. As Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has said, “When you are a member of NATO, you have to work for the collective security.” Now that NATO has military plans to protect its eastern members, the alliance can carry out conventional military exercises that mirror the annual Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. But these types of exercises will likely infuriate the Kremlin and possibly provoke counter reactions. For this reason, NATO should consider the advice of James Goldgeier of the Council on Foreign Relations, who argues that contingency planning “transparency is essential to assure the Russians these efforts are purely defensive.” The alliance could allow Moscow to observe the exercises or even invite Russian forces to participate, as has occurred several times in BALTOPS.

In the end, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe create divisions within NATO, complicate conventional and strategic arms control efforts, and contribute to the overall climate of distrust between Moscow and Brussels. While contingency planning for states bordering Russia may also be somewhat provocative to the Kremlin, these arrangements enhance alliance solidarity and provide vast opportunities for NATO burdensharing. And most importantly, Article 5 contingency planning presents nearly unequivocal proof of an American and Western European commitment to the security of Central and Eastern Europe. Given this dynamic, symbolic Cold War relics like U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe appear to have little — and precipitously declining — political value. When NATO meets in Lisbon this November to draft its new Strategic Concept, the allies should prepare to part ways with these anachronisms.

Stephen Herzog is an independent security policy analyst, an arms control consultant to the Federation of American Scientists, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.