NATO should move to a safer, more secure and more credible nuclear deterrent – including withdrawing, and not replacing, US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

The aftermath of President Donald Trump’s first visit to NATO headquarters in May 2017 and the G20 Summit in July might seem an inopportune time to debate the future of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Anxiety in NATO capitals has risen since last November, driven by continuing concerns over Trump’s election and the threatening direction of Russian security policy. Against this backdrop, the easy – some would say obvious – conclusion is for NATO to stay on nuclear-policy autopilot. But anxiety should not preclude strategic thinking about NATO’s nuclear future. Rather than cling to a preset course, programmed in a different era, NATO should confront three questions:

  • Does it make sense for the United States and NATO to store tactical nuclear weapons in locations with increasing vulnerability to an evolving and more deadly terrorist threat, or to domestic unrest? 
  • Does it make sense for the United States and NATO to invest billions of dollars in maintaining NATO’s current nuclear posture if a safer, more secure and more credible nuclear deterrent is available at a far lower cost?
  • Given the uncertainty in many NATO capitals of securing political and public support for the costly modernisation of their dual-capable aircraft and continued storage of US nuclear weapons on their soil, shouldn’t NATO get out ahead of that debate?

The answers should compel NATO to conclude that sustaining its current nuclear posture is an expense beyond what is needed to maintain a credible deterrent; moreover, it will undercut efforts to sustain credible conventional and counter-terror capabilities across NATO. Most urgently, the security risk of basing US nuclear bombs in Europe, highlighted by recent terrorist attacks there and developments in Turkey, underscores the need for NATO to move to a safer, more secure and more credible nuclear deterrent – including withdrawing, and not replacing, US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

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Steve Andreasen was the director for defense policy and arms control on the US National Security Council staff from 1993 to 2001. He is a national-security consultant in Washington DC, and teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October–November 2017

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