Western European options for nuclear risk reduction
Martin Butscher, Otfried Nassauer & Stephen Young
The United States first introduced nuclear weapons into Europe for its own forces. Beginning in the late 1950s, however, additional US weapons were deployed to equip allied forces of some NATO countries. At the height of the Cold War, the total of US nuclear weapons stored in Europe exceeded 7,000 warheads. Today, there are fewer than 180 US nuclear bombs in Europe. While all weapons are under US custody, in times of war they could be used by both US and Allied air forces.
The mid- to long-term future of these remaining weapons will be decided in the months to come. Several political processes will influence the outcome of this decision:
It is also possible that formal US-Russian talks on START III could begin, or the current background discussions about the framework for future nuclear disarmament could become more official. If either of these happen within the timeframe of the above three processes, it greatly increases the chances that NATO nuclear policy head towards one of two options: either NATO will have to re-emphasise the role of its nuclear weapon posture, or it will be reduced. In the first case, US nuclear free-fall bombs will continue to be deployed in Europe and assume additional military functions, such as in countering proliferation. In the second, they might be withdrawn or eliminated as part of future arms control measures.
The United States continues to deploy a maximum of up to 180 B-61 nuclear bombs in NATO Europe.1 They are stored in seven European countries, six of which are nominally non-nuclear weapons states. As part of withdrawing most of the nuclear weapons from Europe, all but 13 nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe were closed down. Nine of these sites are used to store nuclear weapons during peacetime. Four are in a caretaker status - no weapons are stored, but the facilities are available for use during crisis and war. All 13 storage sites are on air bases. NATO built modern, more secure storage facilities on each base during the 1990s. Today, in all likelihood, all nuclear weapons are stored in these "Weapons Storage and Security Systems" (WS3) vaults - small underground bunkers built into the floor of hardened aircraft shelters. NATO no longer needs the separate nuclear weapons storage sites it formerly used. Table Three below lists the locations and the number of vaults built at each Air Base.
The US also continues to deploy dual-capable aircraft - F-16s and F-15Es - in Europe. US F-16 aircraft are deployed at Aviano Air Base (AB) in Italy and Incirlik AB in Turkey, and F-15E Strike Eagles are based at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom. Spangdahlem AB in Germany also hosts US F-16 aircraft, but it is not clear whether nuclear tasks are assigned to flying squadrons of the 52nd Fighter Wing stationed there.2 Six NATO non-nuclear weapons states (Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands and Turkey) each maintain one unit fully trained to join the US in employing nuclear weapons in times of war.
a According to the Department
of the US Air Force, completion of these bases was scheduled for April 1998, but this has
not yet been confirmed in publicly released documents. The Headquarters of the US Air
Forces in Europe, in information released on 12 February 1998, lists Ghedi Torre as
operational but not Araxos, Akinci, Balikesir or Incirlik. However, it is believed that
installation is now complete at all bases.
NATO policy still requires the Alliance to "maintain adequate nuclear forces in Europe".
a Caretaker status, reduced readiness in peacetime
Since the 1950s, a significant portion of the arsenal of US-controlled tactical nuclear weapons in Europe have been allocated and deployed for use by non-nuclear NATO member states. This remains true for a portion of the remaining weapons. In the event of war, these weapons could be deployed on aircraft belonging to the non-nuclear-weapon states hosting the weapons. As early as 1964, a formerly top secret description of US policies on nuclear weapons by Charles E. Johnson of the National Security Council, outlined the consequence of this policy: "As a result of NATO's commitment to the nuclear mode of defence, the non-nuclear NATO partners in effect become nuclear powers in time of war".5 In 1969, after a number of countries had already signed the NPT, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk issued a unilateral statement to the US Senate. The statement described the US interpretation, explaining that the US and its European allies considered the "transfer of nuclear weapons or control over them" illegal under the Treaty "unless and until a decision were made to go to war, at which time the treaty would no longer be controlling".6 The statement was published in the records of the US Senate and thus assumed to be known to all signatories.7 However, Leonard Meeker, working at the Office of the Legal Advisor in the Department of State at the time, warned in 1966: "Should we decide to leave the wartime exception implicit we would want to make it perfectly clear at Geneva what we were doing, lest we later be accused of having negotiated a treaty under false pretences".8
Many nations doubt that NATO could rightfully claim a wartime exception from obligations under the NPT and thus consider NATO nuclear sharing and especially the wartime exclusion a violation of the Treaty. At an April 1998 NPT meeting, the 113 member states of the Non-Aligned Movement recommended that all nations should "refrain from, among themselves, with non-nuclear weapons states, and with States not party to the Treaty, nuclear sharing for military purposes under any kind of security arrangements".9 NATO doctrine is the only instance of nuclear sharing.
Six non-nuclear-weapon states parties to the NPT - Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, and Turkey - have full-fledged "nuclear sharing" arrangements with the US. They are thus are prepared to become nuclear-weapon states in time of war. Each of these countries has a bilateral nuclear co-operation agreement, known as Programs of Co-operation, with the US. The Programs of Co-operation provide for communication of classified information for
All NATO members are parties to the 1964 "Agreement between the Parties to the North Atlantic treaty for Co-operation Regarding Atomic Information". Bilateral agreements contained in secret notes exchanged between the US and NATO governments hosting US nuclear weapons described both sides' responsibilities. These notes were not made available to national parliaments by the governments involved. The host country provides the delivery systems, external security during transport and storage, land for storage sites, and infrastructure for US personnel. The US furnishes personnel for maintenance, custody and safety of the weapons on allied bases.11
Secret notes exchanged between the US and the host nation as well as classified NATO guidelines govern the process of nuclear planning and consultation and the authorisation for the use of nuclear weapons in NATO. NATO's nuclear planning and consultation process is guided by "Political Principles" last updated during the Glenneagles meeting of the Nuclear Planning Group in October 1992. It encompasses guidelines for nuclear planning, selective use of nuclear weapons and major nuclear response, consultations, and considerations for the employment of nuclear weapons. These include provisions that the views of those allies whose territory or forces would be most seriously affected by the use of nuclear weapons should be given special consideration.
Today, all members of NATO can play a role in the Alliance's nuclear decision-making through participation in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group and its subordinate bodies, since full-fledged participation in all aspects of nuclear sharing is no longer a prerequisite for participation. Thus NATO non-nuclear-weapon states are eligible in nuclear planning and consultations during peacetime, crisis and in the context of military exercises.
NATO's extended deterrence will cover new members and they are eligible to participate in NATO nuclear sharing. Both Russia and critics of NATO nuclear sharing have expressed concern about this aspect of enlargement. Russia fears that NATO could retain the option to threaten its territory with nuclear weapons deployed closer to Russian borders. On the other hand, non-nuclear-weapon states have noted that expansion will increase the number of countries dependent on nuclear deterrence.12
NATO frequently reiterates that it has "no plan, no reason and no intention" to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of its new members. However, it has been unwilling to make this commitment legally binding.
Negotiations between NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov led to the "Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation". During the negotiations, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright set out the US position on its nuclear weapons in Europe for the US Senate Armed Services Committee:
However, Russian concerns continued, focused on the possibility of infrastructure preparations for crisis and wartime deployments of nuclear weapons. As a result, within the NATO-Russia Founding Act, NATO elaborated slightly on its position. The Alliance stated "it has no intention, no plan, and no reason to establish nuclear weapons storage sites on the territory of those members, whether through construction of new nuclear storage facilities or the adaptation of old nuclear storage facilities".14
During Senate hearings on ratification of NATO enlargement, Albright and US Secretary of Defence William Cohen added some additional "no's" to the first three. Both confirmed that there are no plans to:
Furthermore, they stated that the US does not intend to conclude bilateral Programs of Co-operation with the new member states.16 Finally, Albright and Cohen made clear that new members would not be required to buy nuclear-capable aircraft.17 In total, these politically binding commitments provide Russia with some reassurance that NATO has no option for a quick breakout from the self-constraints entered under the Founding Act.
However, the new members to NATO will,
In addition, NATO has made it clear that "New members will be expected to support the concept of deterrence and the essential role nuclear weapons play in the Alliance's strategy of war prevention as set forth in the Strategic Concept."19 It is therefore not surprising that the candidates for NATO membership have been some of the most determined opponents of proposals for a Central European Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone.
NATO's Strategic Concept of 1991 requires "widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements."20 The remaining US tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe now play a "political" rather than a military role. They symbolise the US commitment to Western Europe as well as European countries' commitment to share the risks and roles of extended deterrence. In the Strategic Concept of 1991, this link between US nuclear weapons and its commitment to Europe is expressed as follows: "The presence of North American conventional and US nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America".21
US officials make two arguments for maintaining US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. First, the US will not withdraw its remaining nuclear weapons unless US troops are also withdrawn. Second, US nuclear weapons cannot be withdrawn from NATO Europe because of the opposition from non-nuclear-weapon states who perceive these weapons as the ultimate guarantee of extended deterrence. The same rationale was reflected in MC 400, the new military strategy NATO approved in December 1991.22
At the North Atlantic Council meeting on 3 June 1996, NATO approved a revised version of that military strategy, called MC 400/1. MC 400/1 commits the Alliance to maintain a reduced, but more flexible, nuclear posture for the foreseeable future. It neither mentions nor revokes NATO's long-standing policy of retaining the option of "first-use" of nuclear weapons. It also does it commit NATO to using nuclear weapons only as a "last resort", a position taken during the London Summit in 1990 but never repeated. Nuclear weapons are described as having an essential stabilising role in Europe, guarding against uncertainties (such as risks resulting from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction) and serving as a hedge, in case a substantial military threat to NATO re-emerges.23
NATO will no longer maintain detailed nuclear war plans for the use of nuclear weapons in specific scenarios. Instead, like the US, it is developing a so-called "adaptive targeting capability".24 This capability is designed to allow major NATO commanders to develop target plans and nuclear weapons employment plans on short notice, during a contingency or crisis, from pre-developed databases containing possible targets.
Within the NATO-Russia Founding Act, signed in May 1997, the Alliance promised to review its 1991 Strategic Concept, NATO's principal guiding document. During the July 1997 Summit the Alliance launched the review. NATO's Foreign Ministers meeting in December 1997 set out the terms of reference for the update and substantive work began in early 1998. During the first half of 1998, ideas were collected for necessary changes. Actual drafting of new text began in September by NATO's international staff, with a first draft distributed at the meeting of Defence Ministers in Portugal that month. Some in the Alliance had hoped to have agreement on the new Concept ready as early as NATO's Autumn Ministerials in December 1998, but this now seems unlikely. This is particularly true in view of the statements by German officials for the need to examine NATO's first-use policy. NATO Heads of Government will approve the updated Strategic Concept at their next summit in April 1999.25 Before that, NATO intends to brief Russia on the new strategy in the framework of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.26 However, NATO did not offer to consult with Russia about it. Instead, the Alliance is waiting to see whether Russia proposes putting the Strategic Concept on the agenda of the Permanent Joint Council.
The US is creating new roles for nuclear weapons. Based on the Nuclear Posture Review and the 1997 National Security Strategy, the newest version of the National Military Strategy foresees a change in the role of NATO-deployed nuclear weapons. Strategic nuclear forces serve,
The rationale for maintaining non-strategic nuclear weapons is shifting. While NATO still perceives nuclear weapons' function to be primarily a link between the US and its European allies and a symbol of intra-alliance solidarity, US armed forces increasingly perceive the arsenal deployed in Europe as a mere add-on to the role of US strategic forces.
Changes in the role of nuclear weapons in the US national strategy have led to this difference. According to the new US doctrine, "the fundamental purpose of US nuclear forces is to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction" (nuclear, chemical, and biological) and their means of delivery by hostile governments.28 The objective is to enhance freedom of action for US and allied forces in out-of-area missions as well as to protect US and allied territories. The mission also includes retaliatory strikes once opponents have used weapons of mass destruction.29
Often maintaining the "first-use" option is justified as the logical consequence of deterring and possibly retaliating against the use of biological and chemical weapons by actors who do not possess nuclear weapons. However, US proponents do not exclude the pre-emptive use to eliminate enemy WMD and their delivery means and supporting infrastructure "before they can be employed against friendly forces. For these reasons, offensive operations against enemy WMD and their delivery systems should be undertaken once hostilities become inevitable or commence".30 The first-use of tactical nuclear weapons is now considered an option within offensive counter-proliferation missions and as part of an emerging doctrine for managing crisis. President Clinton's Presidential Decision Directive 60 also reflects the increased role of US nuclear weapons in offensive counter-proliferation.31
Recent changes in the role of sub-strategic (and strategic) nuclear weapons in the US national strategy also indicate that the US no longer limits the threat to use nuclear weapons against states or government-controlled targets. Numerous official US documents highlight the dangers of non-state actors acquiring and threatening to use weapons of mass destruction.32 These non-state actors (such as terrorists, organised crime, transnational companies or fanatic religious groups) have come to the attention of US military planners. The US military's list of "likely targets" for US sub-strategic weapons, including US tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, now includes "nonstate actors (facilities and operation centers) that possess WMD", along with underground facilities or WMD owned by enemy governments.33
To the authors knowledge the United States is the only nuclear-weapon state considering the use nuclear weapons against non-state actors. Even though the likelihood of use against terrorist targets is remote, the change is significant. It encourages military planners to study such options and to present them to politicians for consideration. In addition, non-state actors generally operate on state territory. The Joint Chiefs of Staff do not explain whether this fact would legally limit the use of nuclear weapons to US territory, or whether targeting against other countries would be considered as well.
While the US has moved its national doctrinal developments a long way towards integrating nuclear weapons into offensive counter-proliferation missions, its European NATO allies have been more cautious. Since 1994, two senior NATO bodies have studied counter-proliferation. Their recommendations, as well as a special set of NATO force goals agreed in late 1996, focused only on improving intelligence capabilities and defensive military and non-military measures against the threat from weapons of mass destruction. No requirements for action on new conventional or nuclear offensive military capabilities were developed. This clearly reflects the more cautious course of action in the European NATO countries.
Most European countries are hesitant to follow the US path of active engagement in offensive counter-proliferation, especially if nuclear weapons are involved. European countries still perceive nuclear weapons as a tool of deterrence or a last resort; almost all cannot imagine giving these weapons a role in counter-proliferation. This is particularly true in the case of targeting non-state actors with WMD capabilities. In fact, serious European questions about the future of US nuclear weapons in NATO may be raised by US pressure to include such options into NATO's officially acknowledged and agreed military options.
However, throughout the Alliance's history, its doctrine and strategy development have been driven by changes to the national US strategy, especially in the nuclear field. The changing role of non-strategic nuclear weapons in US doctrine thus might cause the initiation of a new round of discussions in the context of NATO's strategy review. European fears of US-led changes in doctrine may have contributed to most European NATO member states' initial efforts to avoid discussions about any changes to NATO's nuclear policy.
NATO's strategy review will have to address a number of issues relating to nuclear weapons, including NATO's future approach to arms control and the role of nuclear weapons in NATO's political and military strategy. NATO last revised its Strategic Concept in 1991, when the Soviet Union still existed. The strategy review therefore is the Alliance's first opportunity to address many aspects of its nuclear policy and posture comprehensively in the context of the new security environment in Europe.
However, several European officials have indicated that many nations initially wanted to leave the nuclear sections of the Strategic Concept untouched.34 Diplomats feared that even considering changes would open a Pandora's box. For example, in the early summer of 1998, Dutch officials expressed the opinion that NATO should maintain the nuclear paragraphs in the Strategic Concept. Most analysts also doubted that NATO would rework its nuclear strategy.35
However, it is more likely that NATO will finally review the nuclear sections of its strategy. Some already point to this option. The new German government stated, for example, that during future work on the Strategic Concept "the nuclear component" of NATO's strategy "will be examined, too".36 German officials have also raised the Alliance's policy of retaining the right of first-use as an issue for discussion. (See Chapter 6.4 below.) In background interviews, diplomats from other NATO countries have expressed similar points of view. There are several reasons why a review is likely:
It remains to be seen whether the US will push NATO to agree to widened nuclear tasks within the new Strategic Concept or whether those more interested in arms control and verifiable disarmament will prevail. The debate will be complicated. However, elements in the US military support reducing the role of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Air Force General Eugene Habiger, commanded-in-chief of US Strategic Command, stated in March 1998, "It is time for us to get very serious about tactical nuclear weapons. If you look at the gross numbers of tactical nuclear weapons that are in Russia today, we must begin to parlay that element into START III, and I have every expectation that we will".38 See Chapter 6.3 below for a more detailed discussion.
The number of US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe has fallen to a Cold War low in the last ten years. NATO acknowledges that these weapons no longer play a primarily "military" role. The Alliance now faces a major choice: Will European-deployed US nuclear weapons assume new roles and missions such as offensive counter-proliferation operations, or will these weapons be removed in the interest of renewed emphasis on nuclear arms control? The decline in nuclear weapons' numbers and their military value in the European security context have left European NATO nations sceptical about their future role.
The US has clearly outlined that NATO's new members are unlikely to have US nuclear weapons deployed on their territory. There will be no nuclear co-operation agreements nor training and infrastructure for aircraft to carry out nuclear roles. Nuclear weapons are evidently no longer required to cement the relationship between the US and NATO's European members. Thus, the idea that the US nuclear presence in Europe provides the ultimate guarantee of the US commitment to NATO Europe is finally becoming outdated, nine years after the end of the Cold War.
Previously, nuclear arms control has been left to bilateral negotiations between the US and Russia. The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council and its nuclear experts working group provide the first opportunity for the UK, France, and the NATO non-nuclear-weapon states to participate alongside the US and Russia in a permanent forum for discussion of nuclear weapons issues.