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RUSI: NATO's Tactical Nuclear Dilemma

Authors: Malcolm Chalmers, and Simon Lunn
March 1, 2010


The purpose of this study is therefore to assess current thinking in NATO as it begins the development of the new Concept on the role of nuclear weapons, and the related questions of disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation.

The purpose of this RUSI occasional paper is to contribute to the emerging debate on the future of the small number of remaining US nuclear weapons in Europe.

During the Cold War, these weapons played a central role in NATO plans for deterring a Soviet attack on NATO. As late as 1991, the US maintained around 2,500 such warheads in Europe, operationally deployed with short-range artillery and missiles, surface ships and dual-capable aircraft. The clear message was that, if it came to war with the Soviet Union, early nuclear use by NATO was a distinct possibility.

Since the Cold War ended, however, the role of these weapons in NATO strategy has been dramatically reduced, as have their numbers. Unofficial estimates suggest that only around 150-250 US warheads remain in Europe, all free-fall gravity bombs designed for use with US and allied tactical aircraft. This reduction has largely taken place away from the public spotlight, with little interest beyond the specialist defence and arms control communities.

Yet the prospect that this protracted drawdown might soon lead to their final elimination has now triggered a major debate on the role of nuclear weapons in NATO strategy. This is between those who believe that elimination could be a relatively cost-free approach to taking forward the disarmament agenda set out in President Obama's April 2009 Prague speech; and those who fear it could do serious damage to the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence. As a result, reducing from 200 weapons to zero looks set to be much more controversial than the 90 per cent reduction (from 2,500 to 200) that has taken place since 1991. What these weapons lack in operational utility (given their short range and location, together with the continuing availability of larger and more powerful strategic arsenals) is now greatly outweighed by their symbolic significance.

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