The Future of NATO’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons


By Dr. Richard Weitz

Preparing for the NATO Summit (Credit: NATO)Preparing for the NATO Summit (Credit: NATO)

12/21/2010 – One of the most important issues that NATO Heads of State addressed at their November 2010 Summit in Lisbon was what to do about the remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) stationed in Europe under the alliance’s “nuclear-sharing” arrangement. In the end, the Lisbon summit essentially confirmed the decision made at the April 22-23, 2010 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia, that the alliance would continue stationing about two hundred U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe until a consensus arose among allied governments regarding their final removal.

Supporters of keeping NATO in the nuclear-sharing business focused on the need to provide leverage to induce Russia to negotiate its superior TNW holdings, but there has been no announced NATO initiative to start negotiating with Moscow on this subject.

The April 2010 informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Tallinn agreed on some “themes” to guide their approach to the issue:

  • NATO would maintain nuclear weapons as long as they existed in the world;
  • Member states will not make “unilateral moves” on nuclear weapons issues;
  • Members would share the burdens of maintaining a safe and credible nuclear deterrent;
  • The alliance would balance maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent with the need to contribute to general arms control and disarmament

The foreign ministers did indicate one way in which NATO could reduce its TNWs — if Russia agreed to eliminate some of its much larger stockpile of these weapons, as well as relocate any TNW it does keep away from neighboring NATO countries and make these holdings more transparent.

NATO “nuclear sharing” is a longstanding alliance concept that allows member states not having their own nuclear weapons to participate in the alliance’s planning and possible use of nuclear weapons for NATO’s collective defense if they so choose. The Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), established in 1966, enables the defense ministers of all countries belonging to NATO’s integrated military commands (though France has declined to participate) to discuss the alliance’s nuclear posture and policies.

Members also have the opportunity to host U.S.-made nuclear weapons in peacetime and, during war, employ them using their own nuclear delivery systems (currently specially equipped combat aircraft that are capable of delivering nuclear as well as conventional weapons). In peacetime, American soldiers stationed at their storage sites — specially constructed vaults on certain airfields — keep them under their control while host-nation pilots train with dummy warheads. In wartime, the American president can authorize their release, as well as the codes for detonating them, to the host-nation’s military command. In turn, the NATO nations hosting U.S. nuclear weapons equip and train their air forces to deliver them.

NATO’s collective defense policy has always preserved the option of employing nuclear weapons, including using them first for purposes of deterrence, defense, and retaliation. During the Cold War, these nuclear forces were seen as essential compensation for the inability of the allies to meet their defense spending and conventional force commitments.

NATO’s Strategic Concept of 1999 stated that, following the end of the Cold War, NATO “has radically reduced its reliance on nuclear forces” and that “its nuclear forces are no longer targeted against any country” and that “the circumstances in which their use might have to be contemplated are considered to be extremely remote.” Yet, it reaffirmed the alliance’s flexible response strategy of having nuclear options.

In short, “NATO’s nuclear forces continue to play an essential role in war prevention, but their role is now more fundamentally political… to preserve peace and prevent coercion.”

The American government refuses as a matter of policy to confirm or deny the location of U.S. nuclear weapons, whether based in foreign countries or deployed aboard U.S. planes or ships. That said, analysts consistently report that the number of NATO countries hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, as well as their total number, has been declining over time. All U.S. nuclear weapons were removed from Canada in 1984 and Greece in 2001.

Whereas the United States had thousands of various types of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe during the Cold War, the total TNWs under NATO’s nuclear-sharing agreement is now estimated at under 200 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs stored in 87 specially designed aircraft shelters at six bases in five NATO countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.  The tactical variant of the B-61 can be delivered by NATO fighter-bombers, including the Tornado, F-15E, and F-16 C/D warplanes.


The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released in April stated that NATO would collectively review this year whether to change its TNW policies when revising the alliance’s Strategic Concept. Yet, the report confirmed that the administration had embraced the traditional logic for keeping these weapons despite the review’s modification of other U.S. doctrine.

“Although the risk of a large-scale comprehensive nuclear attack against NATO members is at an historic low, the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons — combined with NATO’s unique nuclear sharing arrangements under which non-nuclear members participate in nuclear planning and possess specially configured aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons – contribute to Alliance cohesion and provide reassurance to allies and partners who feel exposed to regional threats.”

Given that “Russia maintains a much larger force of non-strategic nuclear weapons, a significant number of which are deployed near the territories of several North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries and are therefore a concern to NATO,” the report argued that “Non-strategic nuclear weapons, together with the non-deployed nuclear weapons of both sides, should be included in any future reduction arrangements between the United States and Russia. The United States will consult with our allies regarding the future basing of nuclear weapons in Europe, and is committed to making consensus decisions through NATO processes.”

The NPR decided that the Air Force would incur the expense of ensuring that, like the F-16, the replacement F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be dual-capable fighter (having the capability to deliver both nuclear and conventional weapons).

The Review also indicated that, “While security arrangements including NATO will retain a nuclear dimension so long as nuclear threats to the United States and our allies and partners remain, we will continue to seek to reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in the future. In the coming years, as U.S. and allied non-nuclear and counter-WMD capabilities continue to improve and regional security architectures are strengthened, and as we assess progress in restraining other threats, including in particular biological weapons, the United States will consult with allies and partners regarding the conditions under which it would be prudent to shift to a policy under which deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Although the United States had thousands of non-strategic nuclear systems during the Cold War, analysts believe that the U.S. military now only has a few hundred short-range nuclear weapons in the form of gravity bombs for airplanes (some at U.S. air bases in Europe) and nuclear-armed submarine-launched cruise missiles (deployed at secure land facilities in the United States).

In its latest budget request, the U.S. Department of Energy has requested funding to extend the life of the U.S. arsenal of B-61 nuclear gravity bombs. These include some 400 bombs designed for tactical battlefield use as well as 150 for use on strategic long-range bombers and 200 additional non-strategic bombs held in reserve. Five versions of the B-61 nuclear bomb currently exist. The Mod 7 and Mod 11 are designed for use by long-range strategic bombers, whereas the Mod 3 and 4 are deployed for use by NATO. The more advanced B-61 Mod 10 is also designed for non-strategic use, but is kept in reserve in the United States.

The proposed modernization program would reduce the five existing models into two modern versions suitable for both strategic and non-strategic use. The B-61 Mod 11 would be retained for its earth-penetration capabilities, whereas a new multi-purpose Mod-12 would be equipped with the latest safety and security features.

The new variant, available by 2018, would also be designed for use by the next generation of NATO nuclear-capable fighter jets, such as the new F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighter. The proposed Mod-12 is controversial in Congress since critics charge it would violate President Obama’s pledge not to develop a new nuclear weapon.

The U.S. armed forces have been dramatically reducing their holdings of non-strategic weapons because the advent of precision-guided conventional weapons has reduced the number of missions that might require nuclear munitions.

In addition, an important role for theater nuclear weapons — defending NATO allies in Europe from the large conventional militaries of the Soviet block — vanished with the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, many American commanders and civilian strategists doubt that the U.S. President or other senior civilian and military leaders would authorize the use of a nuclear weapon except under the most extreme circumstances.

The U.S. military has preferred to redirect monetary and other resources to researching and developing conventional weapons whose use is more likely.

Russian tactical nuclear warhead in the field during the 1990s (Credit:
Russian tactical nuclear warhead in the field during the 1990s (Credit:

It is understandable why both NATO’s Foreign Ministers and the expert group cited Russia’s TNW as the reason to retain the alliance’s nuclear weapons. The main argument for keeping the weapons for the moment is to induce Russia to reduce its own holdings. The Russian government has eliminated many of the tactical nuclear weapons it inherited from the Cold War and removed other TNWs from operational deployment.

Nevertheless, analysts estimate that the Russian military still retains thousands of such weapons, most likely from 2,000 to 4,000, or up to ten times more than the United States likely deploys in Europe. No existing arms control agreement directly applies to them. Despite the urgings of some Republican Senators, the recently concluded START Treaty does not address tactical nuclear weapons.

In this context, it is unclear how NATO might best engage in TNW elimination or reduction negotiations with Russia. These could be discussed in bilateral Russia-U.S. talks devoted solely to that issue, though Russia has always resisted that approach and Washington’s NATO allies would not welcome their exclusion, though Washington would presumably solicit NATO and other partner concerns as it did in the INF negotiations during the 1980s.

A variant would be to negotiate TNW limitations as part of follow-on negotiations to the New START Treaty, which would cover other issues set aside in the rush to negotiate the recently signed treaty (non-deployed nuclear warheads, strategic defense systems, and the use of conventional warheads on traditionally strategic delivery vehicles such as long-range ballistic missiles).

Furthermore, they could also be dealt with as part of the NATO-Russia dialogue regarding a new European security architecture, which Moscow would also see draw up a new European Security Treaty along the lines of the draft text proposed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. These could occur within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC. Finally, they might be considered as part of the discussions aiming to strengthening the NPT against further nuclear proliferation.

The debate over the appropriate negotiating forum also relates to how one defines a tactical nuclear weapon, which is also variously, referred to as “theater,” “sub-strategic,” “short-range,” and “battlefield” nuclear weapons.

The yield of the weapon’s explosive power may not be a good indicator now that many countries are developing low-yield nuclear weapons. Range is therefore more often used as a classifying category, but many nuclear warheads can simply be moved from a short-range launcher to a longer-range one.

Yet, relying on non-physical properties — such the weapons intended use — is difficult when some countries, such as Russia, intend to use TNW for both tactical battlefield purposes and strategic ones.

In any case, the allies would need to assess whether they can accept a persistent imbalance in the number of TNWs in Russia’s favor if Russia declines to go to zero.

This might be acceptable if the reductions resulted in a net decrease in Russia’s aggregate superiority, a more secure and transparent Russian TNW arsenal, and a credible capacity of the allies to employ whatever TNW they did obtain, thereby making threats of TNW retaliation theoretically credible. Even with a TNW imbalance, NATO would enjoy compensating advantages in the conventional and perhaps strategy dimensions of warfare.

Even if the parties are unable to secure the elimination of all NATO and Russian TNW, or if some weapons were exempt from the transparency arrangements to enhance deterrence through the increased uncertainty, limited mutual TNW reductions could provide several advantages, including decreasing the number of possible terrorist targets, saving money spent on having to modernize a larger number of weapons, allowing NATO to remove the TNWs from countries no longer eager to host them, and demonstrating NATO and Russian commitment to making progress toward nuclear non-proliferation.