US Tactical Nukes and the Russian Threat to NATO Europe

By Zbigniew Mazurak

The Obama Administration is currently conducting a modest program to modernize the 180 American tactical nuclear weapons deployed at several bases in Europe. In response, pro-unilateral disarmament campaigners have launched a demagogical propaganda operation calling for these weapons’ unilateral withdrawal and scrapping. Naturally, they do not demand that Russia scrap its own tactical atomic weapons – absolutely not. They are perfectly fine with Russian atomic weapons’ deployment in and threat to Europe.

Unilateral disarmament advocates claim that:

  • Tactical nuclear weapons are “militarily irrelevant” because the Russian threat is supposedly conventional in nature;
  • They “divide” the alliance;
  • They starve NATO of the funding needed to reinforce its conventional capabilities;
  • They make progress towards world nuclear disarmament impossible; and
  • They have failed to deter Russian transgressions in Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.

An example of such a position was an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by two unilateral disarmament advocates, Hans M. Kristensen and Adam Mount (neither of whom is an atomic scientist or has served a day on active duty).

Let us take a look and assess their argument.

Firstly, US tactical nuclear weapons have not “failed” to deter the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. Neither the US nor anyone else had even tried to deter those invasions by any means. Neither the US nor anyone else had ever accorded its defense umbrella to either of these countries.

Does anyone in the Kremlin believe that the US would ever go to war (conventional or otherwise) with Russia over these two ex-Soviet republics?

Obviously not. Kristensen and Mount are thus chasing a strawman here.

Kristensen and Mount also allege that US tactical nukes in Europe starve NATO of monies needed to reinforce its conventional defenses – especially those of the very worried Eastern European states.

Yet NATO already enjoys an overwhelming conventional military edge over Russia – which Russia knows all too well. The West has more, and better, conventional weapons of every category than Russia.

Moscow is now trying to compensate for that weakness with nuclear weapons.

It is NATO’s nuclear deterrence capabilities that must be prioritized.

Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons against NATO if the Alliance reinforces its defenses of the Baltic states.

Thus, to be able to strengthen Central Europe’s conventional defenses, the Alliance must first have a reliable nuclear umbrella in Europe.

America’s tactical nuclear weapons are a vital – though much underappreciated – part of that umbrella.

By their very presence on European soil, they constitute living proof the seriousness of America’s defense commitment to Europe.

Contrary to Kristensen’s and Mount’s claims, the tactical nuclear bomb upgrade program will cost very little: only $10 bn over 5 years. This is a microscopic fraction of the US military budget ($612 bn foreseen for FY2016 alone under the newest National Defense Authorization Act).

It’s also a tiny fraction of what the US, Britain, and France spend on our respective conventional forces. (France’s nuclear deterrent costs only 11% of the nation’s defense budget.)

By contrast, Russia spends almost half of its equipment budget on its nuclear forces.

It is Kremlin, not the West, that is starving its conventional forces of funds – to its own detriment.

Which brings us to the most important point: the Russian threat to Europe’s (and America’s) security is primarily nuclear in nature.

Russia’s only trump card is its atomic arsenal, and the Russians know it.

As Vladimir Putin has openly admitted, “without nuclear weapons, Russia would’ve been a third-rate power.”

Putin sees every problem as a nail, because – unlike NATO – he only has a hammer in his toolkit.

But unlike Moscow’s conventional forces, its atomic arsenal is no joke – it is the largest on the planet, with 7,500 warheads. This includes 1,780 deployed on systems capable of reaching the US and thousands of tactical warheads deployed on regional delivery systems capable of striking targets throughout Europe.

These systems range from submarine-launched cruise missiles to attack aircraft to short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Against this Russian nuclear juggernaut, the U.S. only has about 180 tactical warheads deployed in Europe. Kristensen and Mount now call on the U.S. to scrap even that minimal deterrent.

They claim that the US should do this even “despite Russian belligerence.”

The West should do the exact opposite: modernize all of its nuclear deterrence forces (starting with B61 warheads) and grow them.

The Russian nuclear threat to Europe’s and America’s security is significant and central to the Russian approach.

Russia has openly threaten to aim and even use its atomic weapons against Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and all of NATO, and its strategic bombers have, on several occasions recently, practiced nuclear strikes against Western countries (including the US).

We will ignore the Russian nuclear threat at our peril.

Kristensen and Mount claim that tactical nuclear weapons in Europe divide NATO and that their host countries demand their withdrawal.

Yet, none of the host nations has ever made a serious effort or demand to Washington to do so (as opposed to PR stunts to placate their domestic Left). Moreover, Belgium, which is now searching for new fighters to replace its dual-capable F-16s, has made the requirement that the new fighters also be capable of carrying American tactical nuclear weapons – and openly favors the American F-35, which meets that requirement.

Finally, Kristensen and Mount claim that eliminating American tactical nuclear weapons from Europe would further the cause of global nuclear disarmament.

Doing so would not aide that cause one iota.

There is zero chance of a world without nuclear arms.

The world is moving in the exactly opposite direction: towards more nuclear weapons and more countries having them.

Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and India are all growing and modernizing their arsenals. Pakistan is, in fact, projected by the Carnegie Foundation to have 350 warheads by 2025.

Russia and China are increasing the number of their atomic warheads and of the missiles and aircraft carrying them – and developing ever-deadlier ones.

Israel is also modernizing and growing its arsenal, surrounded as it is by hostile neighbors.

And now, Iran and Turkey are also working (clandestinely) on atomic weapons.

There is zero chance of there ever being a world without nuclear arms – unless even more powerful weapons are developed and operationally deployed.

At which point the Western “peace” movement, including Messrs. Kristensen and Mount, will probably campaign against the West possessing them.


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