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NATO Nuclear Policies

What is NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 to provide its member states with an umbrella of collective security. NATO’s objectives are based on the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, which requires each member state to share the risk and responsibility of upholding international peace and security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter of 1945. Today, NATO is comprised of 26 member states from Europe and North America.  

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According to Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, an armed attack against a NATO member is considered an attack against all members. All members agree to assist the attacked state in individual or collective self-defense. For example, immediately after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, NATO declared external link the attacks to be an attack against all members. NATO has since contributed to the US-led global war on terror. 

The History of NATO’s Nuclear Policy

Nuclear weapons have formed part of NATO’s collective defense policy since its inception in the late 1940s. According to its pdf document defense doctrine of November 1949, NATO defense plans call for insuring “the ability to carry out strategic bombing including the prompt delivery of the atomic bomb. This is primarily a US responsibility assisted as practicable by other nations.”

NATO’s nuclear policy is based on the concept of nuclear sharing, which involves basing nuclear weapons on the territories of non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). Only three of the five nuclear-weapon states (NWS) as recognized by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are NATO members. However, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey all host nuclear weapons on their territory. These countries all belong to NATO and, according to the NPT, are all NNWS.

In 1954, NATO first deployed US nuclear weapons in Great Britain. In March 1957, NATO Supreme Commander General Norstadt confirmed the presence of US nuclear weapons in Germany. Nuclear sharing meant that the United States provided nuclear weapons and delivery aircrafts for deployment on the territories of its European NATO allies. While the weapons remained under US control at all times during peace time, the US President would authorize their use in case of war and hand them over for use by the host country’s military. In 1962, Foreign and Defense Ministers at the Spring Ministerial Session welcomed US confirmation that it would continue to provide nuclear weapons to its European allies. 

Nuclear sharing reached its peak in the early 1970s when NATO had 7,300 US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

It is estimated that NATO today deploys around 480 B61-3, B61-4, and B61-10 nuclear weapons at eight different bases in six countries. Germany hosts the largest number, 150 of these so called non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons at two, possibly three bases. US B-61 gravity bombs are stored in underground vaults in aircraft hangers. Each vault can hold up to four bombs, which are designed for aircraft delivery. The air force in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands still trains its personnel to fly planes carrying nuclear weapons. In continuation with NATO’s Cold War policy, the chain of nuclear command lies with the US military.

The Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) external link of 1966 continues to serve as a forum for Defense Ministers of both NWS and NNWS to review NATO’s nuclear posture and discuss nuclear matters. The NPG takes decisions on nuclear policy by consensus. 

Current nuclear policy

The policy of nuclear sharing is reflected in various NATO nuclear doctrines, and was most recently reiterated in the Strategic Concept, made public in 1999, which declared that nuclear weapons will remain in Europe indefinitely.

After the end of the Cold War, NATO proclaimed a reorientation of its defense mission to respond to new security challenges. With regards to its nuclear policy, NATO states external link:

In the new security environment, NATO has radically reduced its reliance on nuclear forces. Its strategy remains one of war prevention but it is no longer dominated by the possibility of nuclear escalation. Its nuclear forces are no longer targeted against any country, and the circumstances in which their use might have to be contemplated are considered to be extremely remote. 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 fundamental purpose of the nuclear forces that remain is political: to preserve peace and prevent coercion. NATO's nuclear forces contribute to European peace and stability by underscoring the irrationality of a major war in the Euro-Atlantic region. They make the risks of aggression against NATO incalculable and unacceptable in a way that conventional forces alone cannot. Together with an appropriate mix of conventional capabilities, they also create real uncertainty for any country that might contemplate seeking political or military advantage through the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction against the Alliance.

Nuclear Sharing in Conflict with the NPT?

The start of negotiations over the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1960s threatened the legality of NATO’s nuclear policy. The NPT, which entered into force in 1970, establishes international legally binding norms on arms control and disarmament for its near universal membership. All NATO members belong to the NPT, and official NATO documents refer to the obligations its member have under the NPT. No NPT agreements however mention NATO by name.

The NPT designates countries that tested a nuclear device before 1967 as NWS and therefore limits the number of NWS to five: China, France, Great Britain, Russia (inherited from the Former Soviet Union) and the United States. Countries such as India and Pakistan, which have conducted nuclear explosions since 1967 cannot accede to the NPT as NWS.   

Article I of the NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from NWS to other states:

  • “Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices.”

Article II requires NNWS not to receive nuclear weapons:

  • “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transfer or whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices.”

NATO argues that its nuclear policies are compatible with NPT obligations. In a 1968 US Senate hearing on the Draft NPT, the US announced external link that nuclear sharing does not “involve any transfer of nuclear weapons or control over them unless and until a decision were made to go to war, at which time the treaty would no longer be controlling.” This means that in war time the NPT would lose its legally binding status, and the use of US nuclear weapons by a NNWS, for instance any NATO member country, would be legitimized.

A fact sheet external link published by NATO in 1994 offers further arguments:
“The Alliance's arrangements for basing US nuclear gravity bombs in Europe are in compliance with the NPT. When the Treaty was negotiated, these arrangements were already in place. Their nature was made clear to key delegations and subsequently made public. They were not challenged.”

During the past 10 years, members of the NPT have repeatedly voiced their opposition to this line of argument, saying that most states were not informed about nuclear sharing when the NPT was negotiated. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, states parties for the first time proclaimed nuclear sharing a violation of Articles I and II of the NPT. NATO as well as non-NATO members pushed for clarification on the compliance issue, but did not achieve a breakthrough. Even though parties continued to press for language at subsequent NPT meetings, the Review Conference in May 2005 did not see further progress on this matter. 

Fading Commitment to Disarmament

Another obligation NATO members have under the NPT is to make systematic efforts towards disarmament. While NATO welcomed external link disarmament measures agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, recent communiqués exclude references to NPT disarmament commitments. The three NATO NWS, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, are still required to engage in systematic steps towards nuclear disarmament. 

The reduction of NATO deployed non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons has been a contentious issue at past NPT meetings. Non-strategic nuclear weapons in general include nuclear landmines and artillery shells, and warheads with a reach smaller than 5,500 km.  NPT states have proposed external link ways to further the reduction of such weapons that include the B-61 gravity bombs deployed by the United States in Europe. 

As recently as June 2005, however, NATO has refused to even consider discussing the possible withdrawal of these weapons. NATO Defence Ministers at their biannual June meeting issued a communiqué which reaffirmed “the fundamental political purpose of NATO's nuclear forces: to preserve peace and prevent coercion.” This announcement came after European politicians from Belgium external link and Germany called for the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from their states’ territories in April 2005.  On 15 July 2005, the Belgian Parliament adopted a second resolution external link calling for the removal of NATO weapons from Belgium. 

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