As the Wales Summit recognized, NATO faces a potential threat of attack by conventional force elements, both in traditional formations and in the form of “little green men.” Enhancing NATO’s capabilities against these threats as mandated by Wales is vital. Nevertheless, attention is also necessary to the highest end threats to the Alliance, that is; the threat of nuclear blackmail from Russian President Vladimir Putin and the threat posed by Russia’s nuclear capabilities.
The Fundamentals of Deterrence
We must begin by understanding the fundamental principles of deterrence. Deterrence is not magic. It involves a nation – or, in our case, an Alliance – building and maintaining its military capabilities in such a manner that would-be aggressors are persuaded that they should not attack because they would lose more than they could hope to gain due to the stoutness of the defense and the force of the counter-attack. History has shown, however, that the deterrent effects produced by conventional military capabilities alone have not always been sufficient to deter aggression; this is because aggressive leaders can come to believe their own military’s creative genius can overcome and defeat conventional defenses. The invention of the atomic bomb changed this dynamic fundamentally. Nuclear weapons provide the capability, even if one’s own forces might be breaking and on the verge of defeat, to devastate the aggressor’s homeland and to thereby turn the fruits of victory into the ashes of defeat.
We should always have strong, capable, and modern conventional forces to raise the threshold of attack and to repel it; but we need to also have a credible nuclear deterrent. A deterrent which includes both modern conventional forces and a credible nuclear capability strengthens stability and safeguards peace.
NATO and Nuclear Deterrence
Sadly, NATO and the leaders of the Alliance, have largely ignored nuclear weapons since the early 90’s, except to wish them away. For example, President Barack Obama’s May 2009 “Prague speech” confirmed for many the view that nuclear weapons shouldn’t matter and that their role should be reduced.
Unfortunately for all of us, President Obama’s message wasn’t received in Moscow. At the Warsaw summit, NATO’s leaders must recognize that the world we face today is not the world we desired or hoped for. Given Russian behavior, in order to maintain peace and security in the Euro-Atlantic space the Alliance must put new life into some basic principles.
There are five steps the leaders of NATO should take to achieve this at the Warsaw Summit.
Step One: Recognize the Threat
The Russian Government has placed great emphasis on nuclear weapons throughout the last 25 years, to the point of continuing to maintain excessive arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons and, in the process, violating the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives and more recently the INF Treaty.
Russia is also engaged in a major buildup of its strategic nuclear forces. Moscow is spending large sums of money to do so, money which could be employed for far more peaceful purposes. In fact, in February, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu indicated that as a result of this investment, 56% of Russia’s nuclear weapons are new. Russia has developed and has been deploying for several years:
• two new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), including a new road-mobile missile and a silo-based variant (Topol-M Variant 2 and Yars);
• a new type of sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Bulava-30, and two upgraded versions of an existing SLBM (Sineva and Liner);
• a new class of ballistic missile submarine (Borey), three of which are already operational
• modernized heavy bombers of the Tu-160 (Blackjack) and Tu-95 (Bear) classes;
• and a new long-range strategic cruise missile.
Russia is also developing additional strategic nuclear weapons systems, including:
• a new road-mobile ICBM and a new rail-mobile ICBM;
• a new heavy ICBM;
• a new “fifth generation” missile submarine to carry ballistic and cruise missiles;
• a new stealthy heavy bomber to carry cruise missiles and reportedly hypersonic missiles
• and according to recent press reports an intercontinental nuclear torpedo. This new torpedo is designed, according to the power point slide seen by the press, to “destroy important economic installations of the enemy in coastal areas and cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time.” This is, plain and simple, a terror weapon.
In sharp contrast, neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has deployed a new strategic system in this century. Both countries’ modernization programs remain in the planning stages, with new systems not expected in the field until the mid-to-late 2020’s and, in the UK’s case, the early 2030’s. To suggest therefore that the Russian modernization programs are a response to allied programs is sheer nonsense.
Furthermore, the Putin Administration is guilty of nuclear saber-rattling in a manner that has not been seen since the days of Nikita Khrushchev. This saber-rattling has taken three forms.
First, the Russian military has engaged in a series of nuclear forces exercises which deliberately simulate nuclear strikes on NATO member states.
Second, Russian nuclear bombers have been engaged in increasingly dangerous forays into airspace adjacent to Alaska, California, the UK, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Japan. These flights, taking the form of attack formations, are now occurring on many occasions with the bombers’ safety of flight transponders turned off, thereby endangering civil aviation and causing near collisions on multiple occasions.
Finally, the Russian leadership has been making several outrageous statements about its nuclear weapons. Back in June 2010, Gen. Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, declared a dangerous change in Russia’s nuclear policy. “In a situation critical for national security, we don’t exclude a preventive nuclear strike at the aggressor.” Two years later, Putin, disclosed his emphasis on Russia’s nuclear capabilities. “The nuclear deterrent and missiles is our absolute priority and we have funded that program 100%.” In August 2014, after Russia seized Crimea, Putin crudely threatened, “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers… It’s best not to mess with us.” And a few months later he once again drew the world’s attention to his nuclear arsenal and announced, “what a powerful force this is.” Russia even had the boldness to make direct nuclear threats to a member of NATO. In March 2015, Russia’s ambassador to Copenhagen, Mikhail Vanin, declared that, “If Denmark joins the American-led missile defense shield… then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles.”
The intent of these Russian actions is clear: they are designed to intimidate the West. There should be no place or tolerance for this kind of rhetoric and activity in the twenty-first century. And we must not permit Putin and company to believe we will be intimidated or blackmailed. So, we must recognize what Moscow is doing, because continuing to ignore it will make the situation worse rather than better.
Step Two: Inform the Public
The second step of this recognition is to inform the public of all NATO members. I am not aware of any official NATO document which sets forth what the Russian Federation has been saying and doing with respect to its nuclear forces over the past decade.
NATO has not even refuted the line now taken up by Putin and his henchmen that the modernization of the B61 bomb, a weapon designed in the 1960s and which still uses vacuum tubes, changes the military balance in Europe and is a violation of the NPT. Of course the Russian charges are blatant lies: the presence of US nuclear forces in Europe and the role of Allied nuclear delivery systems operating in conjunction with US custodial teams was explicitly recognized by the USSR in the NPT negotiations, and the 1-for-1 replacement of the current bombs to replace antiquated electronics with modern ones does not alter the existing military balance.
Public understanding and support are vital to an alliance of democratic nations. But how can publics understand if their governments remain silent? It is time for all 28 member governments (including the United States) – and for NATO’s senior leaders in Brussels – to engage in this critical public diplomacy mission. The Warsaw Summit should produce an explanation of why NATO needs to modernize its nuclear deterrent, and governments should engage their publics on it.
Step Three: Fix NATO’s Declaratory Policy
Similarly, NATO has not responded to Putin’s continued nuclear threats. A failure to respond inevitably allows the perception to grow that we are intimidated. Such a perception could cause the Russian government to miscalculate gravely in a crisis. At Warsaw, the Alliance must make clear that any use of a nuclear weapon by the Russian Federation including one intended only to produce EMP or including any implementation of the announced Russian “escalate to de-escalate strategy”, opens the door to a world of enormous uncertainty, one potential result of which might be the destruction of Russia as Putin knows and cherishes it. We know that there are no winners in a nuclear war. For deterrence to be effective, NATO must convince Mr. Putin of this, because that is the way to prevent miscalculation, aggression and war. The Warsaw Summit should produce new declaratory policy along these lines.
Step Four: Improve NATO’s Nuclear Plans and Forces
This leads directly into a discussion of forces and plans. Deterrence cannot be based on bluff. NATO must ensure that its nuclear forces are capable – and are seen by the Russian leadership and military as capable – of carrying out their mission. To achieve this, NATO must make some key changes. To begin with, it is essential for the Alliance to conduct more realistic nuclear exercises. Closely linked to this is the vital need to improve the ability of the military staff at SHAPE to engage in realistic planning. In addition, it is essential for NATO to modernize their dual-capable aircraft (DCAs), This can be done over time, but increasing the survivability of the existing DCA force is a must. And of course, the completing the B61 modernization program is critical and must not be delayed any longer.
Much needs to be done to improve NATO’s nuclear plans and forces. In this regard, the members of the Alliance also need to improve dramatically their scholarship and intelligence on Russian thinking on nuclear weapons. Deterrence depends on understanding an opponent’s thinking and influencing it. Our knowledge of Russian nuclear policy has declined over the past several decades as resources were shifted to other, more seemingly pressing, near-term subjects. It is past time to rejuvenate our ability to understand Russian nuclear policy and developments.
The Summit should lend support to improving planning and forces and in addition should call for an initiative to increase our understanding of Russian policy.
Step Five: Maintain and Strengthen Solidarity
Finally, there is the question of Alliance solidarity. For five decades during the Cold War, the United States put our homeland at risk to nuclear attack in order to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of our NATO allies.
There is perhaps no more unselfish act in modern history.
A few years ago, however, voices were heard in some parts of the Alliance that suggested some were not prepared to put their countries at risk to defend other, newer, members of NATO.
That is completely unacceptable. If NATO, the most successful military alliance in history is to survive, it must return to its roots: an attack on one is an attack on all.
There is arguably no better statement in this regard than the following quote from the November 1991 New Strategic Concept:
The security of all allies is indivisible: an attack on one is an attack on all. Alliance solidarity and strategic unity are accordingly crucial prerequisites for collective security. The achievement of the Alliance’s objectives depends critically on the equitable sharing of roles, risks and responsibilities, as well as the benefits, of common defense. The presence of North American conventional and US nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America.
While written 25 years ago, those words and that thought remain absolutely valid today.
Nuclear risk sharing and burden sharing is one means by which the Alliance demonstrates solidarity. In this regard, NATO needs to think creatively about how to increase nuclear burden-sharing without having to seek new basing countries.
The Summit should reaffirm NATO solidarity and indicate that nuclear risk sharing and burden sharing are a key part of Alliance strategy.
In closing, it is important to remember that nuclear weapons are not, and never were intended to be, an all-purpose deterrent. Their role is to deter, to forestall, to prevent direct attacks, either massive conventional attacks or nuclear threats or attacks. They are not and were never intended to fill an “all purpose” role. They are indeed not useful for deterring terrorists or little green men. They are arguably of marginal use in deterring all but the most catastrophic cyberattacks or attacks against our space assets. They were not designed to do so. Other tools need to be used to deter and defeat such threats. NATO needs a full spectrum of deterrent — and defense — capabilities. NATO leaders must consider all these factors in their deliberations as they prepare for Warsaw summit.
Franklin C. Miller is a Principal of The Scowcroft Group and a Director of the Atlantic Council. An earlier version of this report was presented at NATO headquarters on January 8, 2016.