Theater Nuclear Weapons - A Direct Threat to European Security

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BASIC has had a lot to say over the years about U.S. theater nuclear weapons (TNW) in Europe. (I will repeat here, ad nauseam for some, that it is a grave mistake to call such weapons ‘tactical’; any deliberate nuclear explosion must have strategic consequences. ‘Theater’, meanwhile, simply denotes their basing posture and connotes their intended use, from within a military theater of operations.)

For various reasons, the focus on these weapons has generally revolved around NATO, not least since it was NATO that gave the U.S. legal coverage for deploying these weapons in Europe. However, it has grown increasingly more obvious over the past two years that NATO is deadlocked on the issue of maintaining U.S. TNW in Europe, and unable to take any meaningful action to change its current nuclear posture and/or policy. And its policy of consensus creates a recipe for inaction.

TNW in Europe, meanwhile, pose threats far greater and more numerous than simply a challenge to NATO unity. There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years regarding the problems posed by nuclear weapons, and what NATO Allies and European nations in general have not faced up to is the sobering fact that all of these threats apply to U.S. and Russian theater nuclear weapons in and around Europe:

• They represent a humanitarian threat;
• There is an environmental threat from proliferation;
• There is an environmental threat from use; and
• They represent a threat to the ability of the international system to manage crises.

States that are not directly involved with the deployment of nuclear weapons are equally threatened by their impacts. Yet, the tendency from non-NATO Europe has been to keep hands off the entire issue of theater nuclear weapons, for two reasons: First, the U.S. weapons are arguably a NATO issue for NATO to solve; and second, the vast majority of theater nuclear weapons in and around Europe belong to the Russian Federation, and publicly challenging Putin’s Russia can be uncomfortable. Then there is the troubled state of NATO-Russia relations; Russian military doctrine considers NATO actions and capability a potential threat, and Russia insists that the U.S. remove its B61 nuclear gravity bombs from Europe and return them to U.S. territory before it will agree to discuss the status of its own TNW arsenal.

The time has come, however, for non-NATO Europe to recognise that TNW constitute a threat to all, and that action is needed whether NATO is capable of taking it or not. Deference between international organisations is understandable, especially in Europe where defence-related issues have long since been ceded to NATO by the European Union. Deference to an organisation which has proved itself incapable of change, and whose inaction presents such direct and indirect threats, however, is folly. The EU’s institutions have their respective voices and firm reasons for injecting themselves into this discussion.

The current situation in Syria offers timely proof that situations can change rapidly between states. Prior to the Kerry-Lavrov breakthrough over chemical weapons, relations between the US and Russia over Syria were turning testy, and even dangerously bad, in a short period of time. It is in times of crisis, in fact, that the preponderance of Russian TNW over NATO’s arsenal can start to assume an ominous aspect. Nor can the possibilities of TNW-related catastrophes be ignored, either accidental or terrorist-induced.

For these reasons and the others noted above, BASIC will be elevating the issue of TNW in Europe from a NATO-specific problem to a fundamental challenge to European security writ large. This is not to dismiss the trans-Atlantic aspects of this problem – American B61s remain at the heart of this debate, and action by the United States will be required, in one form or another, in order to resolve this issue. On the contrary, this is a call for Europeans from all walks of life to take this issue to heart and to demand its inclusion in future discussions of European security, within the EU, NATO, bilaterally, or within national defence discussions.

It is in fact those who believe in the North Atlantic Alliance the most who should be working hardest to find a solution that will take TNW off the board in Europe once and for all – and we at BASIC number ourselves among that group.

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About the author(s)...
  • Ted Seay, Senior Policy Consultant served at the US Mission to NATO as arms control advisor from 2008 to 2011.
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