Nuclear Posture Review to Reduce Regional Role of Nuclear Weapons

The Quadrennial Deference Review forecasts reduction in regional role of nuclear weapons.

By Hans M. Kristensen

A little-noticed section of the Quadrennial Defense Review recently published by the Pentagon suggests that that the Obama administration’s forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in regional scenarios.

The apparent reduction coincides with a proposal by five NATO allies to withdraw the remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

Another casualty appears to be a decision to retire the nuclear-armed Tomahawk sea-launched land-attack cruise missile, despite the efforts of the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission.

New Regional Deterrence Architectures

Earlier this month President Barack Obama told the Global Zero Summit in Paris that the NPR “will reduce [the] role and number of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” The reduction in numbers will initially be achieved by the START follow-on treaty soon to be signed with Russia, but where the reduction in the role would occur has been unclear.

Yet the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) published earlier this month strongly suggests that the reduction in the role will occur in the regional part of the nuclear posture:

“To reinforce U.S. commitments to our allies and partners, we will consult closely with them on new, tailored, regional deterrence architectures that combine our forward presence, relevant conventional capabilities (including missile defenses), and continued commitment to extend our nuclear deterrent. These regional architectures and new capabilities, as detailed in the Ballistic Missile Defense Review and the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review, make possible a reduced role for nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” (emphasis added)

There are two parts (with some overlap) to the regional mission: the role of nuclear weapons against regional adversaries (North Korea, Iran, and Syria); and the role of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

Rumors have circulated for long that the administration will remove the requirement to plan nuclear strikes against chemical and biological weapons from the mission; to limit the role to deterring nuclear attacks. Doing so would remove Iran, Syria and others as nuclear targets unless they acquire nuclear weapons. A broader regional change could involve leaving regional deterrence against smaller regional adversaries (including North Korea) to non-nuclear forces and focus the nuclear mission on the large nuclear adversaries (Russia and China).

An immediate consequence of the new architecture appears to be a decision to retire the nuclear Tomahawk sea-launched land-attack cruise missile (TLAM/N). According to a report by Kyodo News (see also report by Daily Yomiuri), Washington has informally told the Japanese government that it intends to retire the weapon. The 2009 Congressional Strategic Posture Commission report had recommended retaining the weapons, but neither the Pentagon nor the Japanese government apparently agreed.

Nuclear Tomahawk To Be Retired
The Obama administration has informally told the Japanese government that the nuclear Tomahawk cruise missile will be retired. The retirement appears to be part of a new regional deterrence architecture that enables a reduction of the role of nuclear weapons.

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A Nuclear Withdrawal From Europe?

The other part of the regional mission concerns the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe, where the U.S. Air Force currently deploys 150-200 nuclear bombs at six bases in five NATO countries. Some of the TLAM/Ns also are earmarked for support of NATO, but are stored on land in the United States. The weapons are the last remnant of the Cold War deployment of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons to deter a Soviet attack on Europe. Similar deployments in the Pacific ended two decades ago and pressure has been building for NATO to finally end the Cold War.

Three of the five NATO countries that currently host the U.S. nuclear bombs on their territories are expected to ask for the weapons to be withdrawn, according to a report by AFP.

A spokesperson for the Belgian Prime Minister said that Belgium, German, and the Netherlands, together with Norway and Luxemburg, in the coming weeks will formally propose within NATO that “that nuclear arms on European soil belonging to other NATO member states are removed.”

Presumably, some coordination with Washington has taken place. Otherwise, if the NPR does not recommend a withdrawal from Europe, the five countries’ initiative will from the outset be in conflict with the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, which NATO likely will follow.

The European initiative would help the Obama administration justify a decision to withdraw the weapons from Europe by demonstrating that key NATO allies no longer see a need for the deployment. Extended nuclear deterrence would continue, as the QDR language underscores, but with long-range strategic weapons as it is done in the Pacific.

Other than the forthcoming NPR, the political context for the European initiative is NATO’s ongoing review of its Strategic Concept, scheduled for completion in November.  The Obama administration might not want to preempt that review, so an alternative could be that the NPR concludes that the U.S. sees no need for the continued deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe but leaves it up to NATO’s new Strategic Concept to make the formal decision. In that case, the initiative by the five NATO countries could serve to formally start that process within NATO. (see comments by U.S. NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder)

Whether that means a complete withdrawal from Europe now, a decision to end the NATO strike portion (a controversial Cold War mission that assigns nuclear weapons for delivery by Belgian, Dutch, German, and Italian aircraft) and consolidating the remaining weapons at one or two U.S. bases in Europe, or something else remains to be seen. But a reduction rather than complete withdrawal would achieve little.

Heated Debate

The debate over the deployment in Europe is in full swing, recently triggered by the new German government’s decision to work for a withdrawal.

A paper by Franklin Miller, a former top-Pentagon official in charge of the deployment in Europe, and former NATO head George Robertson calling the German position dangerous was rejected as old-fashioned thinking on the New York Times’ opinion pages by Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany’s former foreign deputy foreign minister and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, and Ulrich Weisser, a former director of the policy planning staff of the German defense minister.

And suggestions by some supporters of continued deployment that Eastern European countries oppose withdrawal have suffered recently with Poland’s Prime Minister Radek Sikorski calling for the reduction and elimination of non-strategic nuclear weapons, and a report from the Polish Institute of International Affairs in March 2009 that appeared to question the need for the nuclear deployment.

Status of U.S. Nuclear Deployment in Europe

The U.S. Air Force currently deploys an estimated 150-200 U.S. nuclear bombs in 87 aircraft shelters at six bases in five countries, a reduction from approximately 480 bombs in 2001. The breakdown by country looks like this:


Click image to download larger pdf-version.

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Additional Background: History of U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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8 Responses to “Nuclear Posture Review to Reduce Regional Role of Nuclear Weapons”

  1. Catherine M Kelleher February 22, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    We all have hope that this will be so. Many British voices as well pushing for change. Surprising that there are no words from Canada, the traditional supporter of TNW withdrawal? Why not also push for the elimination of the small remaining British and French TNW that are in storage?

    Reply: Good question about Canada, since it proposed something similar with Germany in 1998 and has supported a withdrawal on several occasions since. Britain, to my knowledge, no longer has non-strategic nuclear weapons. France calls its ASMP and ASMP-A cruise missiles strategic, even though their range (300 km and 500 km, respectively) could be considered non-strategic; they would if they were Russian. HK

  2. JohnM February 22, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    [Edited] Two questions in reference to the Korean peninsula:
    1. What does the withdrawal of Tomahawks mean for the US nuclear umbrella over South Korea? Does this mean the umbrella that would remain would consist only of US-based ICBMs?
    2. If your blog reporting means that no non-ICBM n-weapons would remain in position near the peninsula or even anywhere in the Pacific Ocean, doesn’t this mean the US (presumably with South Korean concurrence) has effectively downgraded the threat of North Korea’s nuclear capability? At the level of rhetoric, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the US and South Korea have always emphasized missile defense as a sufficient deterrent and have never or only little emphasized the necessity of a US nuclear deterrent. Interesting by the way that Blair’s national intelligence assessment describes North Korea’s nukes as a “deterrent,” but to what is not mentioned, although the answer seems obvious.

    Reply: When the nuclear Tomahawk is retired, the US nuclear umbrella in the Pacific will consist of sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on submarines (SSBNs) patrolling in the Pacific, land-based ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and long-range bombers. There is also a smaller force of tactical fighter-bombers with nuclear capability, but it is unclear how that will be affected by the NPR. The whole point of the new regional deterrence architecture – and we have yet to see how the NPR will describe it – seems to be that the US and its allies believe they have sufficient and more appropriate non-nuclear capability in the region to deter small nuclear attacks, and that the overwhelming capability of the remaining long-range nuclear forces provide the “ultimate” security guarantee to the extent anything can. HK

  3. Ian Anthony February 23, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    “Whether that means a complete withdrawal from Europe now, a decision to end the NATO strike portion (a controversial Cold War mission that assigns nuclear weapons for delivery by Belgian, Dutch, German, and Italian aircraft) and consolidating the remaining weapons at one or two U.S. bases in Europe, or something else remains to be seen. But a reduction rather than complete withdrawal would achieve little.”

    From the European perspective my impression is that there is a willingness to debate this issue with an open mind during 2010, including among officials from what could be considered Allies in an exposed position. The starting gun on that debate has been fired but I agree that the outcome is unpredictable.

    The Sikorski article cited in the blog essentially makes elimination conditional on a bilateral agreement with Russia — which will not be easy to secure.

    I wonder if your “something else” option may turn out to be the right one — a commitment to work with Russia for agreement to eliminate during the life of the next NATO strategic concept (about 10 years) together with a pledge to revisit the issue at that point (when some of the military-technical issues related to delivery systems will become more acute for the Allies anyway).

  4. William February 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    You suggest that “The Obama administration might not want to preempt” NATO’s Strategic Concept review. If the NATO countries already know they want our weapons out, why should the administration wait for full withdrawal?

    Reply: The White House in fact made that very point to me today (see also US NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder’s comments made today); that it wants to be sure that whatever policy is decided has complete NATO backing. The five countries behind the latest initiative may be important, but they only represent a small portion of NATO. There is probably a (very) large quiet majority and then a few that are reluctant to support withdrawal. I think the doubters can be swayed by a focused diplomatic effort and the majority will probably follow Washington anyway.

    Now, here’s the danger: suppose Europe is waiting for the Nuclear Posture Review to make a decision, and the Obama administration is so focused on repairing ties with NATO that it is waiting for Europe to make a decision. Then this unique window to change NATO’s nuclear posture might close and we’ll be stuck in nuclear status quo in Europe for another decade. Someone has to take the lead, now! HK

  5. Distiller February 24, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    Though the “retraction” of the remaining B61 from Europe into CONUS is to be welcomed, a total abandonment of tactical nuclear capability (as suggested by Ms. Kelleher) would be a grave mistake, as it would open the door to blackmail and large-scale conventional warfare.

    In the long(er) run the question of creating an own tactical, as well as strategic nuclear capability will come on the table for the Europeans. A possible withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from European soil would be one important step for the European “sicherheitspolitische Selbstfindung”, the process of creating, formulating and executing a coherent European security policy.

    Reply: I don’t see why a abandonment of tactical nuclear weapons “would open the door to blackmail and large-scale conventional warfare.” What blackmail would be possible absent tactical nuclear weapons given an arsenal of thousands of long-range nuclear weapons and an overwhelming conventional capability? What adversary in what situation can we realistically expect would reason: “Aha, now the B61s are gone so here are my demands”?

    Nor do I see why abandonment of tactical nuclear weapons would “open the door to…large-scale conventional warfare.” Again, what is the scenario? What potential adversary would see a gain from large-scale conventional warfare based on the knowledge that the tactical nuclear weapons had been retired, and be willing to ignore thousands of long-range nuclear weapons and an overwhelming conventional capability that has been demonstrated three times since the end of the Cold War?

    I know those were some of the hypothetical scenarios some people were entertaining during the Cold War when domination of the world was a stake. But I’d be interested in hearing what those two credible scenarios would look like today. HK

  6. Distiller February 25, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Reply HK: I see it as a problem of granularity. With only strategic nuclear weapons available – where is your nuclear threshold? A 5/10kT warhead fired “over the bow” might be used as a last warning or to protect/close your flanks, with a 100/400kT warhead that’s not a viable option. No to speak of the fact that the use of even a single warhead LGM-30 would be a major headache vis-a-vis the other major nuclear powers.

    Blackmail like the threat of invasion (the large scale conventional warfare scenario, e.g. China in the WestPac), also the risk of an enemy use of tactical nukes against U.S. or Allied invasion forces without even the theoretical option to hold the enemy at risk or actually retaliate with battlefield nukes – who in the White House would be willing to use strategic warheads just because U.S. forces invading foreign soil or based in a far-away theatre have been nuked?

    Scenarios? China in the WestPac mostly, in the longer run, in a number of naval/amphib scenarios. Or the need for a rapid and secure disarming strike against a minor nuclear power with hardened facilities (Pakistan anyone?). Or a desperate lunatic in North Korea sending his panzers over the the border. Predictions are hard, especially if they concern the future …

    I’m thinking already for 15 years that the absence of nuclear warheads for ATACMS, Standard (and the demise of SRAM II) and such systems is a mistake because it limits the options on all levels. The operational flexibility of the air-dropped B61s is rather limited anyway.

  7. Thomas Borgsmidt February 28, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Nobody WANTS nuclear weapons: They are expensive, not only in construction and delivery system, but they are cumbersome as well: The means to protect them, attack them and so on. A reduction of one Russian SSBN will cut the requirement for at least one US SSN.
    Both the USA and Russia need these budgetdrains – a world economic crisis takes care of wanton waste of money.

    There is a common interest to reduce the force levels to the minimum level required to maintain the capability.

    What are these capabilities?
    Starting with SSBN’s. There are indications, that the ability of submarines to remain undetected has deminished over the last decade – dramatically – furthermore the polar icecap is melting, which means surface patrols north of Greenland.
    If Russia plans to have 10 boats – it will mean the ability to keep 2 times 3 boats at sea at any one time (taking old british figures for availability).
    ICBM’s in siloes have the disadvantage of having a position precisely known to the enemy. My personal guess is, that the major role of the B-2 Spirit is to knock out ICBM’s before they fly. The score of these aircraft is probably what is needed to eliminate ICBM’s with F-22 flying fighter sweeps to ensure penetration of air-air defences en route.
    Finally bombers – apart from a gap between Canada and Northern Norway it is more than doubtfull if big heavy Russian bomber are at real threat to North America – F-22′s at Elmendorf i Alaska is something you just not escape. Finally SDI should take care of the odd ICBM, that in the fog of war escapes destruction on or under the surface.
    Basically the advantages are on the american side and the Russians know it – which means giving up an expensive luxury is that more easy, as the effect is limited.
    No for strategic nuclear weapons it is not the US/Russian rivalry: It is China – to be quite honest – I think the Indian nuclear programme is directed against China, not Pakistan.

    For tactical and mobile platforms i Europe: Well to a large extend nukes are outdated.
    Nato has gained, what it did not have during the cold war: A strategic depth matching the Russian ditto. This means, that the concentration of an operational reserve is not quite as vulnerable as it were. From the other side of the sandtable: With the reductions in conventional forces in Russia the big fat targets – best dealt with by nukes, well they are not there anymore: Futhermore the feared imminent breakthrough to Antwerp is – due to strategic depth – not an operation; but a campaign.
    Finally: The oomph of a nuke – to compensate for poor accuracy – is not needed when you have bunkerbusters, that count the number of walls it passes. 1000lb of explosives in the generals bathroom goes a long way to make his day less tedious.

  8. Politics March 6, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    What do you think the political ramifications will be of withdrawing TNWs from Europe? Given the politics behind the NPR, does the current political climate make it feasible?

    Reply: I think there would be many ramifications from a withdrawal, none of which would be detrimental to NATO. Completing the withdrawal of Cold War tactical nuclear weapons from Europe has huge significance for the ability to close the chapter on that period. It would also mean an end to the Cold War practice of nuclear weapon states deploying nuclear weapons outside their own borders. It would end the unnecessary burden on NATO’s military infrastructure, which has to be focused on real-world conventional missions. And it would end the illusion in NATO that the US security guarantee requires weapons do be deployed in Europe. A partial consequence would also end the untenable practice of non-nuclear signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty being assigned strike missions with nuclear weapons, something that is inconsistent with the nonproliferation standard Europe and the United States are trying to impress upon the world.

    If you by “the politics behind the NPR” refer to a pressure by some to retain weapons in Europe, then I’d say that it is my impression that it is not a question of if the weapons will be withdrawn but of when and how it will happen. HK

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