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NATO Charts a New Direction

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This week NATO charted in detail a new direction for the strategic alliance. Secretary General Rasmussen laid out the strategic concept NATO will follow in the future along with a detailed and highly secret report on NATO responses to a wide variety of war scenarios. Details of the two reports are just now starting to reach the public and significant questions are being raised around the world.

The biggest issue appears to be the deployment of US nuclear weapons throughout Europe. Most Americans don’t even know that they have somewhere between 200 and 400 nuclear bombs with American flags stamped on them sitting on US bases in Europe. Apparently European governments do know about the nukes and some aren’t too happy about it. While both France and Britain already have their own nuclear arsenals and don’t mind the US having a few spares in Europe, Germany appears to be leading the denuclearization group of alliance members.

The nuclear bombs in question are the medium-to-small variety, often called tactical nukes because they are meant for use during large-scale combat operations. The bulk of American nuclear weapons in Europe are reported to be B-61’s that fit onto a wide variety of US military planes, as well as many varieties of European fighter jets. The nukes were a main pillar of any NATO defense strategy against an overwhelming tank superiority that the now-past Soviet Union held over NATO.

While early reports are that Germany is pushing for NATO to move towards nuclear disarmament, it is widely reported that many alliance members do not support that position. It is much more likely that Germany is pushing to become a nuclear-free country, including banning US nukes on US bases inside Germany. This doesn’t mean that the B-61’s will be going home however. Early reports have long-nervous Balkan countries happy with the new “response to threats” package NATO prepared; likely meaning an increased US presence in those countries. While that may not include tactical nuclear weapons, it’s doubtful such a main pillar of defense would be removed from Europe and NATO entirely. There simply isn’t a viable alternative against thousands of aging, but hard to stop, Russian tanks.

NATO’s strategic concept moving forward will also likely include some vague hope of nuclear disarmament; something US president Obama dreams about. However it is very unlikely NATO has any plans to formally engage nuclear powers around the world to make nuclear disarmament a reality. France has openly stated it is not interested in NATO discussions that would impact its sovereign control of nuclear weapons. Britain hasn’t been so direct; however, it is also very unlikely to entertain NATO countries having the ability to limit its nuclear deterrent. Of course the US wouldn’t even consider any other group of countries directing its military size or scope, so ultimately NATO having any significant role to play in world nuclear disarmament isn’t very likely.

A much more subtle issue slowly emerging from NATO’s new direction is the use of force by the alliance around the world in pre-emptive strikes without UN approval. It appears that NATO will expressly retain the right to do exactly that; something that Russia and a multitude of other countries are concerned about. This is clearly taking NATO beyond its traditional role of a defensive alliance, and into more of a military police force outside UN control; something started by the 1999 NATO-led attack on Yugoslavia. It is still unclear how many alliance members fully accept this strategic direction, or if the concept will be extended far beyond Europe. Given the number of territorial disputes on the edge of Europe, from the Balkans to Moldova and Georgia, the issue of potential NATO military involvement is very significant. Farther from Europe, the ongoing issue of Iranian development of nuclear weapons may also be on the edges of NATO’s radar.

Even with these important strategic concerns being voiced already, Russia hasn’t even raised the missile shield issue that dominated Russia–NATO relations for the past year! President Obama’s withdrawal of missile bases in Eastern Europe calmed the issue somewhat last year, however US plans for ballistic missile interceptors simply shifted to Bulgaria, Romania and possibly Turkey. It is clear that the US fully intends to bring NATO into missile defense, with the new NATO strategic direction expected to include missile shield development and deployment. How Russia responds to this emerging strategic disadvantage isn’t entirely clear yet. Russia’s most likely response is a large-scale renewal of its aging nuclear missile stockpile. Other options are improved delivery systems such as submarines, air and possibly even space-based platforms. Any of these responses would lead the world farther away from nuclear disarmament and into a world-wide renewal of nuclear stockpiles.

Over the next few months, more and more details of NATO’s new strategic direction will become public. The future of European security that firmly rests on NATO is changing, taking hundreds of millions of Europeans and the rest of the world along with it. Whether those changes are good or not will be hotly debated, not only in Europe but around the world.

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About Noel Trotsky

  • “It’s doubtful,” you write about tactical nuclear weapons, that “such a main pillar of defense would be removed from Europe and NATO entirely. There simply isn’t a viable alternative against thousands of aging, but hard to stop, Russian tanks.”

    In what sense are NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons a viable option against thousands of Russian tanks?

    You refer later to Russia’s “aging nuclear missile stockpile.” (Apparently everything in Russia is aging!) Wouldn’t NATO’s use of tactical nuclear weapons against Russian tanks guarantee a counterstrike from Russia’s nuclear missile stockpile? Aging or not, all those birds with nuclear warheads flying around Europe would probably spoil Oktoberfest in Bavaria.

    The fact is, tactical nuclear weapons do not represent a viable option against any threat, real or imagined, in Europe. Those weapons are strategically obsolete. They belong in the junkyard, not in Bulgaria, Romania or Turkey.

  • Noel Trotsky

    Hi Alan, good to hear your thoughts!

    Tactical nukes are deployed around the world for a variety of reasons. Some are bunker busters meant to dig deep and eliminate underground facilities. Others are used to destroy large concentrations of heavy weapons such as tanks. Understanding modern warfare tactics is beyond me no doubt, but I understand where medium yield nukes fit and why there are thousands of these bombs all over the world.

    Russia’s nuclear stockpile is in fact aging. So much so that the US has been donating millions every year to assist Russia in decommissioning old missiles. It’s the same with Russian tanks and many other parts of the remaiming old Soviet military. I’m not sure why you don’t agree with this given that President Medvedev has started the largest military reorganization in Russian history because of it.

    I agree that any use of nukes would tragically change the course of human history. However I can tell you that military planners have developed many war simulations that include nuclear devestation. They want battlefield nukes to ‘win the war’ after any nuclear exchange, even if only a few percent of the world’s population survive.

    The missiles being proposed for Bulgaria, Romania and possibly Turkey are the anti-missile types used to defend against nukes. It is unclear where the US might reposition its B-61s if Germany doesn’t want them on US bases in Germany anymore.

  • You evaded my question. “In what sense,” I asked, “are NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons a viable option against thousands of Russian tanks?”

    Instead of answering, you tell me that “military planners have developed many war simulations that include nuclear devastation.”

    So what? All NATO has to do to render those simulations moot is to refuse to play the game. Instead of defending against decrepit Russian tanks with tactical nuclear weapons, dismantle our nukes, engage in robust international diplomacy, and rely on our strategic nuclear deterrent as a fallback.

    Isn’t that where tactical nuclear weapons would inevitably lead anyway? As soon as we strike their tanks with medium-yield nukes, Russia will up the ante by unleashing nukes of their own. And we would naturally respond with high-yield weapons. And naturally so would they.

    Medium-yield nukes in this scenario not only lack viability, they are a surefire stepping stone to the use of high-yield weapons by both sides. It’s madness.