The NPR:  Obama Finally Leading on NATO Nuclear Policy

The NPR:  Obama Finally Leading on NATO Nuclear Policy

After much internal wrangling, the Obama administration has settled on a clever and well-prepared Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which, without explicitly addressing NATO nuclear policy, clearly steers the unruly Alliance debate in a conservative direction. Consistent with President Obama’s commitment to "listen, learn and lead," the administration is finally leading on nuclear policy. However, the time spent listening – in effect not shaping the Alliance debate on nuclear issues – has complicated Washington’s task of unifying the allies around its new policy.

The NPR and NATO

The Administration released its Review on Tuesday, outlining the strategy for implementing the president’s "Prague agenda" – that is, their plan to reduce nuclear dangers and to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. But the NPR also explains how the United States will sustain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent for the United States and its allies as long as nuclear weapons exist.

While the NPR was meant to inform the debate on NATO nuclear policy, the NPR does not explicitly address the subject. In fact, the NPR states, "any changes in NATO’s nuclear posture should only be taken after a thorough review within – and decision by – the Alliance. The United States will consult with our allies regarding the future basing of nuclear weapons in Europe, and is committed to making consensus decisions through NATO processes."

Decisions on Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Nonetheless, the decisions included in the NPR related to tactical nuclear weapons underscore that the administration is finally ready to steer the NATO nuclear debate decisively – and in a more modest direction than many expected, or in the case of some allies, such as the Germans, hoped.

The NPR concludes that regional "security arrangements including NATO will retain a nuclear dimension so long as nuclear threats to the United States and our allies and partners remain." So the prospect of imminent withdrawal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe is off the table.

Specifically, the NPR calls for:

  • Retaining the capability to forward-deploy U.S. nuclear weapons on tactical fighter- and heavy bombers; and
  • Proceeding with full scope life extension of the B61 bomb, the type of gravity bombs comprising the NATO nuclear arsenal in Europe.

These two decisions translate directly into NATO nuclear policy by:

  • Committing the United States to ensure the F-35 is upgraded to "dual-capable aircraft" status, meaning that it is outfitted to deliver tactical nuclear weapons, specifically B61 gravity bombs; and
  • Committing to extend the life – safety and security – of the somewhat antiquated B61 gravity bombs which form the entire arsenal of NATO’s U.S.-owned tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

The NPR softens these explicit decisions by noting, "these decisions ensure that the United States will retain the capability to forward-deploy non-strategic nuclear weapons in support of its Alliance commitments. These decisions do not presume the results of future decisions within NATO about the requirements of nuclear deterrence and nuclear sharing, but keep open all options." However, these decisions would not be so explicit, especially given the associated costs, without the intention of retaining current Alliance nuclear force posture for the remainder of any Obama administration.

The Alliance Debate

The NPR does not, however, prejudge the potential size of that arsenal, opening the door to an Alliance decision to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in Europe or to reduce the number of bases at which nuclear weapons are stored. In fact, the NPR affirms that the United Stats "will continue to seek to reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in the future." The administration must therefore still navigate some tricky terrain within the Alliance.

The U.S. policy with Allies has been to "listen, learn and lead." After much listening and learning, the nuclear debate is spinning out of control in Europe. Last fall’s German coalition agreement committed Berlin to pursue the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe, spawning a debate throughout the continent (see Germany Opens Pandora’s Box by Atlantic Council Board Director Frank Miller, Lord Robertson and Kori Schake). Numerous European political leaders, such as the Top Level Group delegation, have begun to press for unilateral NATO disarmament. Several NATO allied governments have called for a review of NATO’s policy. Protests have mounted in the vicinity of Kleine Brucke, the Belgian base widely believed to store nuclear weapons.

This debate is in large part a result of silence from the United States. In the past, Washington would have set the parameters for any Alliance discussion on nuclear issues before the discussion helping to steer the debate. In the absence of such a steer, the default is a slippery slope to unilateral NATO nuclear disarmament given the nature of European public opinion on nuclear issues.

As one senior administration official put it, we’ve finally decided to get to the "lead" part of the administration’s listen, learn and lead mantra. And not a moment too late. This NPR steers the NATO nuclear debate into a clear direction on the eve of major markers in the NATO decision-making process: NATO Foreign Ministers gather in Tallinn, Estonia April 22-23, where they have committed to have a debate on NATO nuclear policy; and the Albright-led Group of Experts will release its report on the new Strategic Concept in early May.

Nonetheless, President Obama’s Prague speech and the resulting year of silence, raised expectations among Europeans and then allowed a chorus advocating withdrawal to develop, complicating the administration’s task which is now to rein in NATO discussion.

Looking Forward

As NATO ministers gather in Tallinn, they should welcome the START agreement as well as the NPR – and they should be proud of NATO’s impressive record of post-Cold War reductions (90%) heading into the NPT Review Conference.

Looking forward, ministers should not be singularly focused on how to get U.S. nukes out of Europe – which number no more than 200 or so – but rather strategize on how to launch a new round of arms control that engages the Russians in increasing the transparency surrounding their 5000+ non-strategic nuclear arsenal, while seeking Moscow’s agreement to begin to reduce aggressively its arsenal. Indeed, the NPR commits the administration to pursuing further reductions with Russia, after ratification and entry into force of New START: "non-strategic nuclear weapons, together with the non-deployed nuclear weapons of both sides, should be included in any future reduction arrangements between the United States and Russia."

Focusing on 200 NATO nuclear weapons right now is like losing the forest for the trees.

Damon Wilson is the vice president and director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program. He formerly served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs, a senior aide to NATO Secretary Lord Robertson and worked on NATO nuclear policy at the State Department.

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