Reconsidering U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe
(Source: Defense Priorities; issued Sept. 14, 2020)
-- NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons are dangerous relics. Whereas during the Cold War tactical nuclear weapons were believed to help bolster deterrence, today they serve no functional purpose other than to unnecessarily escalate a local crisis—such as in the Baltic states—into a potential strategic calamity.

-- Operationally, the 150 B61 bombs the United States still deploys in Europe are effectively useless. They are basic gravity (or free-fall) bombs whose delivery would require a non-stealth plane like the F-16 or Tornado strike aircraft to fly into the teeth of Russia’s advanced air defense capabilities where it would face certain destruction well before reaching its target.

-- Removing U.S. B61s from Europe would not be a panacea for NATO-Russia relations, but it could be a first step in reestablishing a constructive dialogue with Moscow, one that would cost the alliance nothing in actual warfighting capability.

-- Russia is an illiberal regime with capable military forces within its own region. But it is not “the Soviet Union 2.0.” Russia does not pose the same global, existential threat it once did. In dealing with Moscow, there is thus no reason to perpetuate nuclear policies from another era that were designed to address a significantly greater challenge.

Tactical nuclear weapons: unwelcome return

In 1953, Robert Oppenheimer likened the United States and the Soviet Union to two scorpions locked in a bottle—"each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life." That analogy should not obtain today. America and Russia are no longer equals, nor should they be seen as "locked" into conflict. The ideological underpinnings of the Cold War and its zero-sum nature are not relevant to current disputes between the two nations. Promulgating nuclear policies created and designed for that era serves no useful purpose.

The U.S. and Russia currently have more than 6,000 nuclear weapons each, including stockpiled warheads and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.

The United States has more concerns—both at home and abroad—than its differences with Russia. Fixating on Russia as a peer competitor—and particularly a nuclear one—is a needless, self-fulfilling prophecy, one that distracts the United States from other concerns. Furthermore, it risks an unnecessary and potentially catastrophic clash over minor interests. Nowhere is this more obvious than in current debates about modernizing NATO's nuclear weapons and their possible applicability to a crisis involving the Baltic states.

Current plans to enhance U.S. tactical nuclear holdings in line with the findings of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) are therefore a mistake. Rather than fielding new and upgraded weapons, the United States should unilaterally withdraw its remaining force of B61 bombs from Europe.

In the specific instance of the Baltic states, tactical nuclear forces are unlikely to aid their defense without devastating large portions of their territory and possibly inciting a strategic nuclear exchange. They will not effectively compensate for Russia's local conventional superiority in northeast Europe. Nor will tactical nuclear weapons inherently bolster deterrence, contrary to the arguments of their proponents.

Rather than enhanced nuclear planning, NATO needs a new mechanism for strategic dialogue with Russia. Throughout the Cold War, such mechanisms existed—whether in the form of the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks of the 1970s or the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) negotiations of the 1980s. Although the latter produced a landmark treaty, the former nominally produced nothing. But the dialogue itself was useful in managing the Cold War standoff and likely laid the diplomatic foundation for more concrete steps in the 1980s, such as the CFE Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

A similar approach is required now. Removal of the B61s could be a literal peace offering to promote such a discussion, one that would cost NATO nothing in terms of actual warfighting capability. As will be discussed below, the B61s have practically no utility due to the constraints on their employment and their severe operational limitations.


Click here for the full report (18 PDF pages), on the Defense Priorities website.

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