NATO faces a challenge to modernize and sustain its nuclear posture and missile defense deployments in Europe at a time of declining defense budgets on the one hand and expanded threats on the other. The threats from Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa are serious and growing from both ballistic missile arsenals and nuclear programs.
At the same time, there are political pressures within NATO pushing for the adoption of a “zero nuclear” posture as well as efforts to delay significantly U.S. and allied missile defense and nuclear modernization deployments. This comes as threatening countries adopt military and political doctrines that emphasize the use of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as instruments of state power.
Ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are weapons of terror, coercion, and blackmail. Hamas rocket attacks on Israel are meant to terrorize the population; Hezbollah and Iran threaten the coercive use of thousands of rockets against the U.S. and allied interests in the Gulf in response to any action taken to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program. Meanwhile, North Korea launches missiles and explodes nuclear devices while demanding oil and food ransoms in return for “blackmail promises” to end such demonstrations of state power. Of the 31 countries with ballistic missiles in their arsenal, nine are suspected of possessing—or do possess—nuclear weapons, broadening the threat considerably.
In short, such weapons have diplomatic, political, and military dimensions that must be taken into account when assessing NATO policy in both arenas.
Gathering Missile Threats
Missile threats to NATO come primarily from ballistic missiles deployed in Russia, Syria, and Iran. Current Iranian missiles are thought to have a range of about 1,200 miles, capable of striking most of Eastern Europe, but there remains a debate as to when Iran will also have a missile with the range to strike London, Paris, or New York. A study of global missile threats by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center last year assessed that Iran “could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”
And while the U.S. and NATO have repeatedly emphasized that NATO defenses against Iranian or other rogue state missiles in no way can affect Russia’s central strategic missile force, Russia has continually threatened America’s European allies with Askander missiles launched from Kaliningrad. Additionally, with its violation of the INF treaty, Russia could again have medium range missiles with which to target Eastern and Central Europe. Finally, Russia is the top arms supplier to both Iran and Syria. Syrian missiles primarily threaten Turkey, or NATO’s “southern flank,” but Syria’s cooperation with North Korea and Iran could quickly change that assessment.
The Middle East is indeed, as author Robert D. Kaplan explained, “locked in a deathly geographical embrace of overlapping missile ranges.”
While the U.S. is seeking to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons in defense policy, Russia has adopted a policy to expand the role of nuclear weapons, including the first use of “multiple preventive strikes.”
Analyst Guy Roberts notes, “Russia will triple its strategic missile production between 2011 and 2015. Russia is deploying new silo-based and mobile ICBM and a new ballistic missile submarine with a new type of ballistic missile. By 2018, Russia plans to deploy a new heavy ICBM, which reportedly can carry 10 to 15 nuclear warheads. New advanced warheads are being deployed, including low yield warheads. Russia today enjoys more than a 10-1 advantage in tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons. While the U.S. pushed the reset button with Russia on cooperation and partnership, Russia’s military doctrine identifies NATO as a primary danger.”
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based think tank Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) said, “The Russian authorities understand the country is doomed to be the kind of power that needs military might. ‘Soft power’ doesn’t work for us. We need people to be afraid of us, and we seem to be unable to find a proper substitute for military power.'”
NATO Nuclear Strategy: Combining Old and New
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Department official Elaine Bunn laid out what could be referred to as the “traditionalist” deterrent policy. A credible “nuclear umbrella” has been provided by a combination of means including the strategic nuclear forces of the U.S. Triad and non-strategic nuclear weapons currently forward deployed in Europe in support of NATO.
Former White House nuclear expert Frank Miller explained the policy in a similar manner. “NATO is clear in its strategic concept that NATO needs a forward-based nuclear deterrent. And at the Chicago Summit of 2012, two years later, NATO came out and said, yes we need nuclear weapons forward. What was said in 2012 and 2010 still holds.” Miller then got to the guts of the issue. “And again, when you look at newer members of the alliance whose borders touch on Russia, who are targeted by Russia in exercises, who listen to Russian pronouncements saying, ‘Once you build that ballistic missile defense site you have become a nuclear target,’ it’s obvious that forward-based systems have an enormous political value of reassurance to the alliance. And…you’re not going to give in to those guys particularly in the wake of what’s going on in the Ukraine and the INF cheating and the SS-26.”
So the real issue is how to maintain and strengthen deterrence. Given Russia’s 10-1 dominance in tactical nuclear weapons in the “European theater,” it hardly makes sense for the U.S. to give up its 400 nuclear warheads in Europe carried on tactical air assets in the hope that somehow this will make Moscow reduce or eliminate any significant portion of its 4,000 to 5,000 theater or tactical nuclear munitions. But while we pursue with our allies the traditionalist approach to deterrence in Europe—modified by a reduction in warhead types and overall strategic force levels not seen since the Eisenhower administration, and some 90% below levels reached at the height of the Cold War—we must also think about what Professor Paul Bracken says is “How to Prevail in the Second Nuclear Age.”
New nuclear powers—Iran and North Korea being the most prominent—either have acquired or are seeking nuclear weapons and, says Bracken, are “seeking to make them center pieces of their global aspirations.” Bracken likens today to 1948. “The vocabulary and distinctions of a nuclear crisis haven’t been invented yet. Counterforce and counter-value, deterrence, second strike surviving forces, are undiscovered in 1948. By 1958 all of them will be widely used, and institutionalized into U.S. forces and plans.”
Thus while traditional deterrence remains critical, it is incomplete. The Proliferation Security Initiative, nuclear forensics, missile defense, economic and trade sanctions, and securing loose nuclear materials, among other initiatives, are all critical to reducing nuclear dangers, but are supplements, not substitutes for current deterrence strategies.
Thus the U.S. and its allies must maintain, sustain, and modernize nuclear deterrence while seeking better ways to deal with the continued spread of nuclear weapons. It would be easy to assume that a deal delaying or eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be sufficient to avoid the dangers that Bracken and others foresee. But as we have noted earlier, the Russians have a nuclear doctrine that emphasizes the early use of nuclear weapons and, as nuclear expert Mark Schneider noted in testimony before Congress, have threatened the U.S. and its European allies some 15 times since 2009 with the use of nuclear weapons.
And yes, there is the relative decline in NATO member defense spending, although some Eastern European allies are ramping up their investment in defense, most notably Poland. But the U.S. readily acknowledges its own policy of automatic spending cuts or “sequestration” is going to seriously harm our security and that of our allies, yet there remains only a small—but growing—effort to end such a policy in the near term. We are thus asking Europe to do more (good) while we are doing less (not good.)
Missile Defense Framework
The underlying framework of NATO’s embrace of missile defense is to avoid the coercive or blackmail capabilities of missile-armed states by wrapping countries that want to be bound to NATO in a missile defense cloak. In a 2011 conversation I had with former Czech President Vaclav Havel, he told me that a missile defense cooperative effort with the U.S. and NATO would forever end the idea of Russian hegemony over what used to be referred to as “captive nations.” Thus at the November 2010 Lisbon Summit, the Alliance declared that “NATO will maintain an appropriate mix of conventional, nuclear, and missile defense forces. Missile defense will become an integral part of our overall defense posture.”
NATO Nuclear and Missile Defense Deployments
The Obama administration started 2009 with the elimination of two key European missile defense deployments—in Poland and the Czech Republic—while simultaneously calling for a world with zero nuclear weapons. But five years later it is pursuing a relatively robust nuclear modernization effort in Europe while also calling for missile defense deployments not only in Romania and Spain, but also in Poland and Turkey.
The alliance is supporting the B-61 modernization, which will become the sole nuclear gravity bomb in the U.S. inventory and will be carried by NATO deployed dual-capable aircraft (e.g., F-15E, and in the future F-35), as well as the B-2 bomber and the Long Range Strike Bomber. This would result in five types of warhead designs in place of the twelve unique warhead types in today’s active nuclear weapons stockpile.
In the missile defense area, senior U.S. leaders believe NATO members—specifically Norway, Poland, Germany and Netherlands—need to upgrade their current missile defense systems. With sensors, more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries, and by adding a missile defense capability to NATO ships. The administration’s 2015 budget request asks for more funds for missile defense radars, integrated missile defense work, and test targets.
Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) have proposed additional funding for tactical missile defense in Central Europe, including the possibility of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system for Romania. Admiral Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted recently, “Aegis Ashore sites in Poland and Romania are designed to counter long-range ballistic missiles that may be launched from other nations outside the Euro-Atlantic area against our European NATO partners.” The House recently added nearly $100 million for more Standard Missile production. Additional theater systems could be part of a package that includes either a two stage GBI or Aegis Ashore in Europe that could shoot down Iranian missiles aimed at London or New York, but would have no capability against strategic Russian rockets.
In the absence of such a capability against long range rocket threats from Iran, for example, it is imperative for the United States to build an additional site or sites on the East coast and equally important to combine the deployment of Aegis Ashore interceptors and appropriate radars (including those looking south) to deal with both long range and maritime missile threats. This requirement was echoed by the House in the recently passed defense bill, as it also required a mutual defense agreement (MDA) to consider whether the Aegis Ashore deployments in Poland and Romania could be partially reconfigured to also deal with the threat from cruise missiles, as well as requiring MDA to test the Aegis ashore capability against intermediate-range ballistic missiles no later than the end of 2015.
And lest we forget, our northern ally is an integral part of NATO. There, two former Canadian Liberal defense ministers, David Pratt and Bill Graham, are calling on Ottawa to get on board with a North American ballistic missile defense system. “It continues to be the missing link in terms of Canada’s defense posture,” Pratt said.
The Nature and Purpose of American Military Power
NATO’s pursuit of both missile defense deployments and nuclear deterrent modernization is welcome. In the initial reaction to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, there is at least a recognition that such violations of law cannot be divorced from the larger issue of whether or not Moscow intends to adopt “rule of the gun” diplomacy.
As Dr. Henry Kissinger warned many years ago, “A free standing diplomacy is an ancient American illusion. History offers few examples of it. The attempt to separate diplomacy and power results in power lacking direction and diplomacy being deprived of incentives.”
Missile defense and nuclear modernization are two critical tools for the NATO alliance to keep the peace on the continent of Europe, which it has done with remarkable (not perfect) success for nearly three quarters of a century. As we face the challenges of an aggressive Russia and its allies, there is hope that we will find the wisdom to “provide for the common defense” as our constitution so requires and as a result keep the peace for which NATO was founded.
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Peter Huessy is the President of GeoStrategic Analysis and Senior Defense Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. This article was originally published in InFocus Quarterly.