NATO ministers meeting should consider security costs of a nuclear defence

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Foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Council will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday in Brussels this week. Chaired by NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, this meeting will likely begin preparations for the 2014 NATO Summit to be held 4-5 September in Newport, South Wales. It is also likely that this week’s meeting will continue the discussions on “Defence Matters”, a theme that the Alliance has been exploring at great length.

Rasmussen explained in a speech in October that NATO leaders had been working with research institutes in eight Alliance member countries to explore what defence means to the people in those countries and why it matters in today’s world. Rasmussen stated: “The big question was: how much does our defence really matter? The results are now in. And the answer is clear. In a nutshell, defence does still matter. But we all need to do a much better job at explaining why.”

He went on to say:

“...our survey showed a growing divide between North American and European perceptions of NATO. Generally, Europeans tend to value their country’s membership in the Alliance….But North Americans increasingly believe that NATO doesn’t offer much for their security, and that Europeans need to share more of the transatlantic security burden.”

Last week, Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, General Knud Bartels, attended a conference in Brussels hosted by Carnegie Europe to review the results of the surveys. General Bartels stated that “security costs mean different things to different nations” so the key comparison is with the “costs of no security”.

The 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago stressed the importance of cohesion above all else. But the comments from Rasmussen and Bartels reveal a fear that the hairline fractures within the Alliance could quickly rupture into deep partitions. As echoed by Rasmussen, there are differences in perceptions between NATO partners in Europe and North America, especially when it comes to sharing the burden of the cost of security. An astounding example of this is that 72% of the 2012 NATO defence budget was covered by the Americans. There have been calls from several high ranking officials in the U.S. and NATO on their European allies to increase their spending on defence, but the Eurozone is still not financially stable and there is no prospect of the Europeans doing this, let alone meeting their NATO 2% GDP spending targets for defence.

Faced with tight budgets, strategic decisions need to be made in terms of defence and security, and nuclear weapons should not be absent from these conversations. Perhaps NATO members should be asking the question: what kind of security do nuclear weapons provide in relation to their cost? In fact, some European NATO partners are already having domestic debates around this narrative, especially among the group of countries involved in hosting and supporting the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

The 200-odd U.S. nuclear bombs stationed in five countries in Europe (Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey), are a very physical symbol of the U.S. extended deterrent. The system also demonstrates the commitment of these five Alliance members and those that take part in support operations to share the ‘burden’ of hosting part of the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent (though, there are very convincing arguments out there that these specific B61 bombs don’t do much deterring), and fielding the costs for aircrafts to carry these nuclear bombs and to train the pilots.

Recently, the debate within the Netherlands came to a decisive decision when the Parliament passed a motion agreeing that the successor to the F-16 fighter jet, the aircraft currently tasked with carrying these nuclear bombs, would not have a nuclear role. The Dutch Parliament had already passed a motion last year that rejected the modernization of the B61 bombs [1]. This clearly has implications on the Alliance as a whole, especially in terms of cohesive decision making, but the Dutch Parliament has spoken: the costs, risks and signalling associated with hosting nuclear weapons matter to the Dutch.

The latest round in the German domestic debate took a dramatic turn after the 2009 election, when then new Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP) announced the government’s position in support of the removal of US nuclear weapons from Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) clarified that Germany would not act unilaterally and was looking for Alliance agreement. The new German coalition government last week released a new white paper in which withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons was preconditioned on successful (and currently highly improbable) disarmament negotiations with Russia. It has stated that Germany would want to be involved in NATO’s nuclear planning for as long as nuclear weapons play a role in NATO’s Strategic Concept.

Domestic debates in member states such as Germany, the Netherlands and the UK around hosting or deploying nuclear weapons mean that nuclear weapons should feature in Alliance discussion on “Defence Matters” and upcoming conversations about the reform of NATO. NATO itself is a defence alliance, but the public within some of the member states are starting to question whether or not nuclear weapons are needed as part of its defence in the 21st century, especially when the costs of this type of security are so high.


[1] The B61 life extension program, which is being led by the Americans and will extend the life of the aging systems, is expected to cost $10 billion USD total. The future modernized B61s, the B61-12 bombs, are estimated to cost $28 million USD each.