NATO and Nuclear Disarmament – I: NATO’s nuclear posture

photo courtesy of NATO

See The Simons Foundation's page on Canadian Defence Policy for briefing papers by Ernie Regehr, O.C., Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation.

NATO and Nuclear Disarmament
– I: NATO’s nuclear posture

Last June there was all-party support for an extraordinary recommendation by the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence. It called on the Canadian Government to “take a leadership role within NATO in beginning the work necessary for achieving the NATO goal of creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons.” In October, the Government responded to say it agrees with the recommendation but essentially argued that its current policies and activities already constitute such leadership. A closer look at NATO’s nuclear posture indicates there is still plenty of room for improvement. 

The all-party recommendation came via the Defence Committee’s (NDDN) report on its study on “Canada and NATO” and called for Canadian leadership to be undertaken as a matter urgency, given “the increasing threat of nuclear conflict flowing from the renewed risk of nuclear proliferation, the deployment of so-called tactical nuclear weapons, and changes in nuclear doctrines regarding lowering the threshold for first use of nuclear weapons by Russia and the US.”  The Liberal, Conservative, and New Democrat members of the Committee all agreed – a welcome display of political solidarity in the face of growing global danger. In its response, the Government acknowledged that “NATO’s deterrence and defence posture must be balanced with support for confidence-building measures that can help advance, step-by-step, the nuclear disarmament agenda,” and noted its support for a fissile materials treaty and the development of “global nuclear disarmament verification capabilities.”  

Whether NATO’s overall nuclear posture qualifies as “balanced” is certainly open to question – in fact, it would be more accurate to say that it reflects the quintessential contradiction of the nuclear age. One the one hand, ever since the first (and only) use of nuclear weapons in war, near the end of World War II, the overwhelming majority of states in the international community have agreed that the only answer to the nuclear danger, to what Robert Oppenheimer called “the destroyer of worlds,” is the prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons – and so, NATO’s nuclear posture incudes the by now pro forma declaration of NATO’s support for the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. On the other hand, as an entrenched nuclear alliance, NATO extols nuclear weapons as the “supreme” guarantors of the security of NATO member states.

There is little doubt as to which side of this contradiction drives NATO’s current policy and practice. The 2018 NATO Summit Declaration  features a fulsome, and oft-repeated, defence of nuclear weapons and their importance to NATO security. The language is not new, having appeared in earlier NATO Strategic Concept statements, and continues to insist that Alliance defence and deterrence continue to require “an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities” (para 34). The leaders continue to insist that NATO will “remain a nuclear alliance” for “as long as nuclear weapons exist,” and they credit “the strategic forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States,” with being “the supreme guarantee of the security of allies” (para 35). 

Managing NATO’s posture

The first thing to be clarified is that, even though three NATO members are nuclear weapon states and another five host US non-strategic nuclear weapons on their territories, NATO as an organization has no nuclear weapons under its own authority. Its status as a “nuclear alliance” is based on the willingness of its nuclear weapon state members to make their nuclear weapons available for collective operations by NATO  – essentially in the same way that NATO has a conventional military capacity only to the extent that its member states make their conventional military forces available for collective operations. NATO cannot demand that military forces (nuclear or conventional) be made available, it can request them. Even when Article 5 is invoked, it remains the sovereign responsibility of each member state to decide what, if any, military forces it will contribute to a collective mission.

As a result, NATO nuclear decision-making is ultimately not a NATO decision. A NATO request to use nuclear weapons in an armed conflict would require consensus among its 29 member states (no small thing in a diverse group with widely differing perceptions of threat or appropriate response). And once a request was issued, the decision would rest with the states that own those weapons. In the case of American non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe, each state hosting those weapons and operating aircraft capable of delivering them, would also have to give its consent. In other words, authorization to use B61 bombs based in Europe is subject to “dual key” arrangements. The US, as owner of the bombs, would first have to authorize their availability for use, and then the countries operating the aircraft that would deliver the bombs would also have to give their approval. 

In the case of strategic forces, the discretion belongs entirely to the states with the weapons, and actual use would be processed and managed through their respective chains of command. 

Simon Lunn, a former secretary general of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and former head of plans and policy on NATO’s international staff, now linked to the European Leadership Network, summarizes the process:

“…the decision to initiate the use of a nuclear weapon made available to NATO rests with the U.S. president or the British prime minister. If a decision were made to use a U.S. forward-deployed warhead [the B61] and have it delivered by NATO dual-capable aircraft (DCA), the decision to release the warhead would lie with the U.S. president; the use of a DCA would require the assent of the relevant host country. Although not required, it is widely assumed that such a decision would be made in close consultation with all allies, and it would be reasonable to expect that the NAC [North Atlantic Council], in permanent session, would play a central role. France also would be a likely participant, despite not being part of the NPG” [NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group]. 

All NATO member states (except France) participate in the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) where alliance nuclear policies are developed and where the overall posture is shaped – but, as already noted, it is not where nuclear use decisions would be made. The NPG meets weekly at a staff level, but it has been some 15 years since it met at the NATO Ambassador level or higher. Issues addressed include safety, security and survivability, communications and information systems, deployment, arms control, and proliferation. Though the NPG is particularly linked to US nuclear weapons forward-based in Europe, if those were withdrawn, the NPG would still continue to meet and function.  Continue reading...



Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace Advancement, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.