NATO and nuclear weapons: a challenge across Europe

It’s time to take nuclear weapons out of Europe. As NATO reaches 60, NATO needs to get the message that we don’t need nuclear weapons and neither does NATO. Designed for the cold war, nuclear weapons are worse than irrelevant in the current security context. Even within the military, such weapons are increasingly perceived as “so last century”, militarily inappropriate and a massive drain on resources which the military claim are needed for conventional wars.

Even at the height of the cold war, the only members of NATO to possess nuclear weapons were the USA and UK (whose weapons, from 1958 onwards, have been more or less under US control). While in theory both UK and US nuclear weapons are part of NATO's nuclear arsenal, when it comes to deployment, each state (the UK in theory, but not in practice) assumes command responsibility. While France is a NATO member, its nuclear weapons are independent of NATO.

There are signs of change. Even though the US, UK and France have each started developing new nuclear weapons systems, each was condemned for their continued proliferation in 2008 by the majority of non-nuclear weapons states party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In Europe both Germany and Norway have been pressing for a comprehensive review of arms control policy, and within European states hosting US nuclear weapons, there is increasing political and public opposition. In February Obama announced the prioritisation of nuclear weapons reduction, seeking to de-escalate old cold war tensions, and suggesting that both the US and Russia aim to reduce their warheads to 1,000 in the post 1991 US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) negotiations due to open later this year.

Activists can fruitfully engage with these developments. As NATO hits 60 there are signs that it will, in April, begin to revise the Strategic Concept - its policy on nuclear weapons. There are also indications that both the US and European host states are looking for an opportunity to remove US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, without losing face on either side.

US nuclear weapons are hosted by Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey under the NATO Strategic Concept; this arrangement is known as “nuclear sharing”. There are probably a maximum of 350 US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. B-61 “gravity bombs” are held at Kleine Brogel airbase in Belgium, Buchel in Germany and Volkel in the Netherlands. Italy hosts between 70 and 90 weapons at Aviano and Ghedi Torre; another 50-90 are located at the Incirlik airbase in Turkey. Until they were withdrawn in July 2008, there were more than 110 at Lakenheath in the UK. With the exception of Turkey, these bombs in theory can be delivered by either US or host nation pilots and aircraft.

Under international law “nuclear sharing” is unlawful. The NPT prohibits nuclear weapons states (NWS) like the US from transferring nuclear weapons – including the direct or indirect control of nuclear weapons – to non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) like Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey; it also prohibits NNWS from receiving such weapons. The US argues that this doesn't violate the NPT, because they made the agreement long before the NPT came into force. But even in the US, there is little support for this position; according to a recent poll over half of US citizens considered that nuclear sharing could be a violation of the NPT and that it should end.

Similarly few “host” nations have much enthusiasm for nuclear sharing. While the German government has officially stated that it will continue to host US weapons for the “foreseeable future”, according to the NGO BASIC this policy could be up for debate quite soon when the German government has to decide whether to replace the Tornado aircraft (which currently deliver the B-61s), with the Typhoon Eurofighters; reportedly the government informed the parliament in 2004 that it did not intend to certify the Typhoons to carry nuclear weapons.

According to Hans M. Kristensen, over 70 percent of Germans and Italians want their country and Europe to be nuclear free; more than 63 per cent in Belgium and the Netherlands oppose sharing; the figure is over 88 percent in Turkey, following massive public opposition to the hosting of US forces in the Iraq war. Any of these states could at anytime opt out of this arrangement with the US, as Greece, South Korea and Japan, have already done, (see

In the UK at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, a massive building programme is equipping the UK to build a successor to Trident. The UK’s system, from the missile bodies (leased from the US), to the US companies which run Aldermaston for the UK government (Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering) down to the level of targeting is subject to US control. Since the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement Aldermaston has developed nuclear warheads with partner installations in the US: recent reports confirm that Aldermaston is now assisting the cash-starved US Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, under the guise of developing what the UK calls its High Surety Warhead.

In France, even though Sarkozy in 2008 announced a reduction in plane-based tactical nuclear weapons, new M-51 long range missiles equipped with new warheads will be ready for deployment from 2010. There are also signs that France’s current nuclear strategy may change, as Sarkozy hints of a mutual approach on nuclear policy with Britain, conceiving of both nuclear arsenals for the “defence” of Europe.

Time to act

Even NATO admit they're not planning to use their nuclear weapons. NATO’s current Strategic Concept states: “NATO's nuclear forces continue to play an essential role in war prevention, but their role is now more fundamentally political, and they are no longer directed towards a specific threat.”

The argument that nuclear weapons prevent war was lost long ago. While the US and UK may aspire to another “political” generation of Trident long-range ballistic missiles, there is no political rationale for tactical nuclear weapons. Even under Bush the Pentagon was considering the possibility of scaling down or ending their deployment in Europe. According to BASIC’s recent analysis, “the Obama Administration … will look to test opinion [on withdrawal] across the Alliance beyond only the host states before making any significant changes.” With political pressure, their removal could become a reality, and the case needs to be made before the US produces its promised new Nuclear Posture Review in late 2009 or early 2010. Both the US and European governments need to get the message.

It’s also time to prevent NATO from revising its policy on pre-emptive nuclear attack. While “first use” has been US doctrine since their 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, so far this has been resisted by NATO, but pressure for change – including from ex-military chiefs - has been mounting since early 2008. We need to ensure NATO rejects US doctrine and holds the existing position.

In the 1980s a massive anti-nuclear movement across NATO member states succeeded in getting rid of both US Pershing and Cruise missiles. 2009 presents an opportunity to get rid of the remnants of the cold war and take US nuclear weapons out of Europe, a first stage in dismantling NATO’s nuclear arsenal. The next stage will be to stop the next generation of Trident nuclear weapons being developed in the UK and the deployment of France’s new weapons system (and if Sarkozy’s overtures are to be believed their addition to Europe's nuclear arsenal). We have the opportunity to rid Europe of weapons of mass destruction, let's use it.

Sian Jones
Sian Jones is an activist with Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp(aign),