Creating a 21st Century NATO Deterrent Approach: The Role of Nuclear Weapons


By Robbin Laird

The build up of the Russian missile arsenal, short, medium and long range, with clear violations of INF limitations are designed less to create a so-called anti-access and area denial capability than an arsenal designed to make the recovery of classic conventional deterrence seem beyond reach in Europe.

With the US decision to withdraw from the INF treaty, with the Russian buildup and diversification of its nuclear arsenal, with the Russian inclusion of nuclear threats in their European leveraging approach — clearly, nuclear deterrence is back on the agenda for NATO and the United States.

The anti-access and area denial bit is really about defending the Kola Peninsula, the largest concentration of military force in the world as well as the always-vulnerable “European” Russian area.

But with the gaping holes in European defense capabilities and the with the United States working to repair the focus on the land wars, there clearly is a major gap in a credible continental deterrent force.

In this sense the ability to combine hybrid warfare means, significant offensive strike missiles, and an ability to blend in low-yield nuclear weapons in the mix are designed to give the Russians flexibility in coercing European states.

With such an approach, how can European states, European NATO and the United States enhance a credible warfighting approach, which can deter the Russians?

Unfortunately, the current state of much thinking in Europe is that the challenge is to keep legacy arms control in place and to have a slow roll approach to conventional deterrence.

Such an environment is an ideal one for the Russian approach to using military power for political gain.

But what might a credible US and European offensive-defensive capability which could leverage nuclear weapons in a crisis look like?

Recently, I discussed this difficult question with my colleague Paul Bracken, the author of the Second Nuclear Age, a man whom I met many years ago when he was working for Herman Kahn and I was working for Zbig Brzezinski.

We have both spent many years working on the US-Soviet nuclear relationship, but the recasting of the nuclear deterrent challenge with Putin’s Russia in the context of significant political and military changes in both Europe and the United States requires its own analysis.

Bracken started by highlighting what he sees as two baseline realities facing analysis of nuclear deterrence in Europe today.

“There is widespread belief that nuclear weapons will never be used and should be factored out of any European defense discussion.  Nuclear incredulity is a key barrier to doing any analysis at all.

“The assumption is that there’s never going to be a Nuclear War or even a crisis. Such a thought is pushed off into a world of theoretically possible but largely unimaginable contingencies. It is so remote that politicians don’t have to think about them.”

“Secondly, analysts are chasing new technologies which they believe will reshape warfighting and are the real subjects to analyze.  New artificial intelligence or drone technologies are the focus of attention, rather than the integration of nuclear weapons into the Russian warfighting and political influence arsenal.”

“There is very little discussion of how nuclear weapons fit into the evolving warfighting approaches and here, one can miss the key threat: the Russians having a hodgepodge of capabilities ranging from the hybrid, to the traditional conventional, to a new kind of offensive-defensive approach and the blending of nuclear warheads throughout much of the conventional force.”

We then discussed the return of the nuclear challenge to Europe and what from the US and European side might be the focus of attention.

Four different postures came out of the discussion for dealing with Russia’s new challenge to NATO:

  1. The US leverages the current and future bomber force with longer range strike weapons, with a conventional emphasis but some nuclear elements deployed;
  2. A modernized NATO short range tactical nuclear weapon force;
  3. A mixed US-NATO maritime long range strike force with conventional emphasis and some low yield nuclear weapons;
  4. Rely on the US nuclear triad for deterrence in Europe, and to avoid political controversies over nuclear weapons.

The first alternative posture would be that the US could leverage the current bomber force and perhaps ramp up the new bomber and build out the longer range strike weapons on them, some nuclear but most with conventional warheads.  This force could then operate from outside of Europe but affect the battlespace within Europe.

The new bomber given the systems onboard the aircraft and its capacity to be highly integrated with the F-35 provides a wide range of contingencies in which the bomber strike force could be used to strike at key Russian choke points or axis of attack on key allies, notably the new European ones.

This would be especially important if Germany does not accelerate its ability to provide for credible conventional defense in depth.

The second would be to reorganize, restructure and build a new capability for shorter-range battlefield nuclear weapons.  This would be a limited arsenal and designed largely to be able to underscore to the Russians that lowering the nuclear threshold which is their current approach makes no sense, because we have a range of options to deny them any combat or political value from a limited nuclear strike in Europe.

The key change agent here is the nuclear equipped F-35, which can operate with its nuclear weapon inside of the airplane and with decent range to strike inside Russia to affect military capabilities of the Russian forces themselves.

Legacy aircraft are much less useful because of their vulnerability in contested airspace whereby the Russians are combining defensive and offensive means for a nuclear tipped tactical aircraft to get through.

This option becomes real again with the F-35 and with the various F-35 users in Europe who could continue in the current nuclear sharing arrangements.

The third is to rebuild the maritime strike force to have lower yield nuclear weapons, again useful in limited contingencies to deny the plausibility for the Russians pursuing a low yield nuclear strike designed to have political effect.

The fourth option is simply to rely on the strategic triad and to do flexible targeting to achieve the deterrent effect; the difficulty with this option is that the use of the strategic triad is part of a much larger piece of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, and may be the equivalent of using a hammer to open an egg.

With the patchwork quilt which NATO Europe is becoming and with the cross-cutting support the authoritarian powers are providing to one another, and with US uncertainties, it is not difficult to envisage a wide variety of crisis scenarios which would rapidly involve the question of how, when and for what purpose the Russians would threaten or use limited nuclear attacks.

Bracken underscored: “If a major country like Germany believed that they have only two choices, nuclear war or capitulation, that is not a choice that is really beneficial for the US or the rest of Europe.

“In Germany, the diplomatic and military issues are so out of sync that we could get into all sorts of crazy scenarios in a crisis which no one has really thought about.

“We need to start doing so.”

In short, for the Russians, limited nuclear use can be considered a key part of any crisis management strategy in Europe and is part of a leveraging strategy to further goals of accelerating the disaggregation of Europe.

In looking at a variety of crisis management strategies for the US and its allies, there is a clear need to avoid the fallacy of nuclear denial and to focus clearly on the role of nuclear deterrence from the NATO side with regard to the return of direct defense in Europe.

Editor’s Note: What the Nuclear Posture Review aid about Theater Nuclear Deterrence.

The Russian Challenge

Russia is not the Soviet Union and the Cold War is long over. However, despite our best efforts to sustain a positive relationship, Russia now perceives the United States and NATO as its principal opponent and impediment to realizing its destabilizing geopolitical goals in Eurasia. ,,,,

Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. Some in the United States refer to this as Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine. “De-escalation” in this sense follows from Moscow’s mistaken assumption of Western capitulation on terms favorable to Moscow. ..

Russia must instead understand that nuclear first-use, however limited, will fail to achieve its objectives, fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs for Moscow.

Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable.

The U.S. deterrent tailored to Russia, therefore, will be capable of holding at risk, under all conditions, what Russia’s leadership most values. It will pose insurmountable difficulties to any Russian strategy of aggression against the United States, its allies, or partners and ensure the credible prospect of unacceptably dire costs to the Russian leadership if it were to choose aggression. …

Since 2010 we have seen the return of Great Power competition. To varying degrees, Russia and China have made clear they seek to substantially revise the post-Cold War international order and norms of behavior.

Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use force to alter the map of Europe and impose its will on its neighbors, backed by implicit and explicit nuclear first-use threats. Russia is in violation of its international legal and political commitments that directly affect the security of others, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the 2002 Open Skies Treaty, and the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. Its occupation of Crimea and direct support for Russia-led forces in Eastern Ukraine violate its commitment to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine that they made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. …

Russia considers the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to be the principal threats to its contemporary geopolitical ambitions. Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the potential coercive and military uses of nuclear weapons. It mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to “de-escalate” a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.

These mistaken perceptions increase the prospect for dangerous miscalculation and escalation.

Russia has sought to enable the implementation of its strategy and doctrine through a comprehensive modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Russia’s strategic nuclear modernization has increased, and will continue to increase its warhead delivery capacity, and provides Russia with the ability to rapidly expand its deployed warhead numbers.

In addition to modernizing “legacy” Soviet nuclear systems, Russia is developing and deploying new nuclear warheads and launchers. These efforts include multiple upgrades for every leg of the Russian nuclear triad of strategic bombers, sea-based missiles, and land-based missiles. Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.

The Current US Non-Strategic Nuclear Force Posture

The current non-strategic nuclear force consists exclusively of a relatively small number of B61 gravity bombs carried by F-15E and allied dual capable aircraft (DCA). The United States is incorporating nuclear capability onto the forward-deployable, nuclear-capable F-35 as a replacement for the current aging DCA.

In conjunction with the ongoing life extension program for the B61 bomb, it will be a key contributor to continued regional deterrence stability and the assurance of allies. ….

Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression. It will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely.

Consequently, the United States will maintain, and enhance as necessary, the capability to forward deploy nuclear bombers and DCA around the world. We are committed to upgrading DCA with the nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

We will work with NATO to best ensure—and improve where needed—the readiness, survivability, and operational effectiveness of DCA based in Europe.

Additionally, in the near-term, the United States will modify a small number of existing SLBM warheads to provide a low-yield option, and in the longer term, pursue a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). Unlike DCA, a low-yield SLBM warhead and SLCM will not require or rely on host nation support to provide deterrent effect. They will provide additional diversity in platforms, range, and survivability, and a valuable hedge against future nuclear “break out” scenarios.

DoD and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) will develop for deployment a low-yield SLBM warhead to ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses. This is a comparatively low-cost and near term modification to an existing capability that will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable “gap” in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.

In addition to this near-term step, for the longer term the United States will pursue a nuclear-armed SLCM, leveraging existing technologies to help ensure its cost effectiveness. SLCM will provide a needed non-strategic regional presence, an assured response capability. It also will provide an arms control compliant response to Russia’s non-compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and its other destabilizing behaviors.

Tailored Deterrence Strategy

There is no “one size fits all” for deterrence. The requirements for effective deterrence vary given the need to address the unique perceptions, goals, interests, strengths, strategies, and vulnerabilities of different potential adversaries. The deterrence strategy effective against one potential adversary may not deter another. Consequently, the United States will apply a tailored approach to effectively deter across a spectrum of adversaries, threats, and contexts.

Tailored deterrence strategies are designed to communicate the costs of aggression to potential adversaries, taking into consideration how they uniquely calculate costs and risks. This calls for a diverse range and mix of U.S. deterrence options, now and into the future, to ensure strategic stability.

Tailored deterrence also calls for on-going analyses to adapt our strategies to different potential adversaries and contingencies. These analyses address how potential adversaries define unacceptable damage, and how the United States can credibly communicate to them the risks and costs that would accompany their aggression. Adjusting our deterrence strategies accordingly is what it means to tailor deterrence. ….

Shaping A Way Ahead for NATO

At both the 2014 Wales and 2016 Warsaw summits, NATO recognized that Russia’s activities and policies have reduced stability and security, increased unpredictability, and introduced new dangers into the security environment.

Importantly, NATO is addressing the changed security environment to make clear that any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO, however limited, would not only fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, but would result in unacceptable costs to an adversary that would far outweigh the benefit it could hope to achieve.

The Alliance has already initiated measures to ensure that NATO’s overall deterrence and defense posture, including its nuclear forces, remain capable of addressing any potential adversary’s doctrine and capabilities.

In support of these efforts, the United States will consult and work cooperatively with NATO allies to:

› Enhance the readiness and survivability of NATO DCA, improve capabilities required to increase their operational effectiveness, and account for adversary nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities;

› Promote the broadest possible participation of Allies in their agreed burden sharing arrangements regarding the DCA mission, nuclear mission support, and nuclear infrastructure;

› Replace aging aircraft and weapons systems with modernized or life-extended equivalents as they age out;

› Enhance the realism of training and exercise programs to ensure the Alliance can effectively integrate nuclear and non-nuclear operations, if deterrence fails; and

› Ensure the NATO NC3 system is modernized to enable appropriate consultations and effective nuclear operations, improve its survivability, resilience, and flexibility in the most stressful threat environments.

The United States will make available its strategic nuclear forces, and commit nuclear weapons forward-deployed to Europe, to the defense of NATO. These forces provide an essential political and military link between Europe and North America and are the supreme guarantee of Alliance security. Combined with the independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, as well as Allied burden sharing arrangements, NATO’s overall nuclear deterrence forces are essential to the Alliance’s deterrence and defense posture now and in the future. …

During the Cold War, the United States possessed large numbers and a wide range of non-strategic nuclear weapons, also known as theater or tactical nuclear weapons.

However, we have since retired and dismantled almost all of those weapons….

The United States is also incorporating nuclear capability onto the F-35, to be used by the United States and NATO allies, as a replacement for the current aging DCA. Improved DCA readiness and the arrival of the F-35, a “fifth generation aircraft,” in conjunction with the ongoing B61-12 gravity bomb LEP, will preserve the DCA contribution to regional deterrence stability and assurance. In parallel with its warhead LEP, the B61-12 will be equipped with a guidance tail kit to sustain the military capability of existing B61 variants.

As is the case with the sustainment and replacement programs necessary to maintain the triad, the programs supporting the DCA mission must be completed on time. ….

To address these types of challenges and preserve deterrence stability, the United States will enhance the flexibility and range of its tailored deterrence options. U.S. strategy does not require non-strategic nuclear capabilities that quantitatively match or mimic Russia’s more expansive arsenal. Rather, the United States will maintain a spectrum of capabilities sized and postured to meet U.S. needs, and particularly to ensure that no adversary under any circumstances can perceive an advantage through limited nuclear escalation or other strategic attack.

For decades, the United States has deployed low-yield nuclear options to strengthen deterrence and assurance. Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression. To be clear, this is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, “nuclear war-fighting.” Nor will it lower the nuclear threshold.

Rather, expanding U.S. tailored response options will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear weapons employment less likely.

Consequently, the United States will maintain, and enhance as necessary, the capability to forward deploy nuclear bombers and DCA around the world. We are committed to upgrading DCA with the nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft. We will work with NATO to best ensure—and improve where needed—the readiness, survivability, and operational effectiveness of DCA based in Europe.

See also the following piece on the F-35 and the nuclear mission:

The F-35 in the Second Nuclear Age

The featured photo was taken from an AFP story published on October 8, 2016 which discussed Russian weapons being deployed in Kalingrad.

Russia is again deploying nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its Kaliningrad outpost that borders two NATO members, Lithuania said today, warning the move was aimed at pressuring the West into making concessions over Syria and Ukraine.

Poland also reacted angrily to Moscow’s move while Lithuania added that it could breach the key nuclear weapons treaty. 

“Russia is holding military exercises in Kaliningrad, and its scenario includes deployment of Iskander missile systems and the possible use of them. We are aware of it,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.

He said modified Iskander missiles had a range of up to 700 km which means they could reach the German capital Berlin from the Russian exclave, which is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. 

Linkevicius said that this time he thought Moscow was using the move to “seek concessions from the West”.

Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz today called Russia’s “activities very alarming”.

Lithuania meanwhile said the Iskander deployment could breach the international nuclear arms treaty.

“Such actions are possible violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Russia’s defence ministry today confirmed deployment of the Iskander hardware but dismissed Western concerns, saying that “contingents of missile troops have been moved many times and will continue to be moved to Kaliningrad region as part of a Russian armed forces training plan.”