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Why NATO Should Eliminate its Tactical Nukes, Despite Russian Belligerence

Authors: Hans M. Kristensen, and Adam Mount, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow
September 3, 2014
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists


Leaders attending the upcoming NATO summit at Cardiff, Wales, will face, once again, the question of what to do about the US nuclear weapons stationed at NATO bases throughout Europe. A holdover from the Cold War, when it was thought that the deployment could mute European nuclear ambitions and strengthen the threatened alliance, nearly 200 of these tactical bombs have remained in hangars in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey.

Several commentators have argued that Russia's aggression in Eastern Ukraine is evidence that the weapons are needed now more than ever. However, the evidence suggests the opposite: US tactical nuclear weapons detract from more useful defense initiatives, as is shown in several ways.

First, there is no evidence that these weapons have had any effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin's transgressions in Ukraine, Georgia, or the Baltic States. Russia took each of these aggressive actions, despite the presence of tactical nuclear bombs elsewhere in Europe. Nor have those bombs reassured eastern European NATO allies about US commitments to defend them. The newer NATO members closest to Russia are more concerned than ever and look to the West's non-nuclear forces instead for support. The reason tactical nuclear weapons are irrelevant in these cases is simple: The threat to NATO territory is not nearly severe enough for nuclear weapons to play a role.

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