Junior Ambassadors Program 2018 - Nicholas Barile

Averting the Unthinkable: A Tactical Nuclear Weapons Reduction Framework for Europe

by Nicholas Barile


Much concern has been expressed within the Atlantic community over the unraveling of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In February 2017, reports surfaced that Moscow deployed the SSC-8 Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) in violation of the INF agreement. Many have argued that without its own missiles to bargain with, NATO lacks leverage to incentivize Russia to remove the offending missiles. This has led several security partners - including the United States - to consider returning GLCMs to NATO airbases.

Yet an "eye for an eye" GLCM retaliatory deployment would be exceedingly costly, as well as strategically unwise for the delicate security environment. Policymakers should instead expand their focus to other types of nuclear weapons systems that can be used as effective bargaining chips.

NATO policymakers should seek out nuclear weapons systems that are already possessed by NATO member states and within NATO’s jurisdiction. To this extent, arms control efforts should expand to tactical nuclear bombs and short-range missiles deployed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains (ATTU) - using the ATTU definition set forth in the Conventional Armed Forces Treaty of 1990.

NATO is in a unique position to negotiate a reduction of these weapons in the ATTU region, given that many are hosted by European member states on NATO airbases. Air facilities at Kleine Brogel, Büchel, Aviano, Volkel, and Incirlik currently host B61 low-yield bombs. American and European negotiators should initiate dialogues with Russian officials that explore reducing the number of B61s in exchange for corresponding withdrawals of nuclear weapons from Kaliningrad and other Russian bases west of the Urals.

Moscow's tactical weapons include the Kh-101 cruise missile, which can be equipped with a nuclear warhead and carried by a variety of Russian airborne platforms. In addition, Russia has moved a short-range ballistic missile system to Kaliningrad - the Iskander-M - capable of holding targets in Berlin and Warsaw at risk.

NATO and Russia share a common interest in removing tactical nuclear weapons from the ATTU theater. For one, the vulnerability of these bases creates a "use it or lose it" incentive during a potential crisis. Furthermore, many of these warheads could be carried by stealth aircraft. This is a surprisingly understudied variable that has been introduced into the European deterrence equation, and one that creates an additional need to regulate air-delivered nuclear weapons within the ATTU region. The short flight time from a base such as Kaliningrad, combined with the difficulty of detecting stealth aircraft, means that tactical nuclear weapons in the ATTU region create unwanted uncertainty in an already fragile security situation.

The parties should thus consider a tit-for-tat reduction of NATO's B61 airbases in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian tactical nuclear weapons systems in the ATTU region. For instance, NATO might offer to withdraw B61s from Incirlik Air Base in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian Iskander-Ms from Kaliningrad.

Once an agreement is reached, existing frameworks can be applied to ensure compliance. The number of permitted "Open Skies" flights within ATTU should be increased - though existing restrictions on airborne sensors should prevail. On-site inspections to Kaliningrad and NATO nuclear sharing bases should also be facilitated. In the interests of transparency, NATO and Russia should issue bi-annual reports of the number of tactical nuclear weapons deployed within the ATTU region. Not only will these reports improve trust between the parties, but they will also serve as a system for tracking the reduction in tactical warheads in Europe.

If NATO and Russia can address the threats posed by American and Russian tactical warheads, there exists the useful possibility of cooperation "spilling over" to other actors and weapons systems. For instance, since the UK retired its stockpile of aircraft-delivered nuclear bombs, France has remained the only European Union member state to possess an independent air delivery capability. Were Paris to shift towards an exclusively sea-based deterrence posture (in exchange for meaningful concessions from Moscow), NATO and Russia may eventually be able to declare the ATTU region free of land and air-based nuclear weapons altogether - a positive development for a European security environment that is long overdue for cooperative risk reduction.

An agreement reducing tactical nuclear weapons between the Atlantic and the Urals is by no means a silver bullet. It is rather a pragmatic first step towards a more comprehensive arms control framework for contemporary Europe.


Nicholas Barile ist Bachelorstudent der Politikwissenschaften am Haverford College in den USA.