When NATO leaders gather in Lisbon this weekend to endorse the alliance’s new Strategic Concept, the most contentious component will be the role assigned to U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
The Obama administration (incorrectly) claims that America’s nuclear umbrella over NATO requires tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, and (justly) asserts that reductions in U.S. bombs in Europe must be matched by limitations of Russia’s vastly larger tactical nuclear arsenal.
In squaring these positions, the United States should bring home its two hundred nuclear weapons from Europe.
America’s tactical nuclear umbrella over NATO is no longer vital to European security. In fact, it is operationally irrelevant. And nuclear weapons are useless in defending NATO from plausible current threats--such as attacks on military or civilian infrastructure from terrorist groups, limited probes like the Russia-Georgia border clash in 2008, and cyberattacks such as those Estonia suffered in 2007.
Moreover, America’s commitment to protect its allies is already provided by long-range--or "strategic"--nuclear capabilities, conventional firepower, and missile defenses. Assuming the New START Treaty enters into force, the United States will retain a deterrent of 1,550 bombs on a nuclear triad of 420 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 60 long-range bombers, and 240 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Nuclear weapons are useless in defending NATO from plausible current threats--such as attacks on military or civilian infrastructure from terrorist groups, limited probes such as the Russia-Georgia border clash in 2008, and cyberattacks such as those Estonia suffered in 2007.
The United States also remains the world’s most powerful conventional military, with unmatched conventional power-projection assets. Finally, the administration is developing missile defenses to protect Europe from missile threats from Iran, or elsewhere, by 2018. Therefore, removing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe has little strategic cost to the United States and NATO allies.
Since U.S. bombs can be withdrawn from Europe, what limits should be demanded of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons?
First, increased transparency. The size of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal is uncertain, but it is believed include 2,000 operationally deployed warheads and another 3,400 in reserve. By contrast, the U.S. tactical force consists of 400 deployed and 400 inactive bombs. To provide greater transparency and predictability, the United States and Russia should declare to each other the type, location, and operational status of their respective arsenals.
Second, warhead repositioning. As U.S. tactical nuclear weapons leave Europe, Russia should verifiably reposition its operational tactical nuclear weapons--which primarily sit at bases along NATO’s borders--to permanent storage sites in central Russia. This would decrease the perceived threat of these weapons to NATO allies in Eastern Europe. U.S. officials believe that there are sufficient verification procedures to ensure Russian compliance with such a repositioning.
Third, strategic clarity. Russia should provide clarity about the roles and missions of its tactical nuclear arsenal. Russian military doctrine declares that its bombs are for deterrence and retaliation "in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat." Some Russian officials, however, quietly admit a need for its tactical nuclear arsenal as a hedge against a rising China. If Russia views China as the greater threat, it should willingly move to the east its operational tactical arsenal.
In leading efforts to deemphasize nuclear weapons, and an eventual "world without nuclear weapons," the Obama administration should promote a Strategic Concept reflecting this goal. In collaboration with its NATO allies, and through reciprocal limitations by Russia, the United States should bring home its only nuclear weapons still permanently deployed abroad.