How does NATO respond to the threat of nuclear weapons?

  • 28 Apr. 2021 -
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  • Last updated: 28 Apr. 2021 15:05

Jessica Cox, Director of Nuclear Policy, explains NATO’s nuclear deterrence measures.

How does NATO respond to the threat of nuclear weapons?

Since NATO was founded more than 70 years ago, nuclear weapons have been the foundation of the Alliance’s collective security. Today, nuclear threats have not gone away. That is why NATO still keeps nuclear weapons: because nuclear deterrence is still necessary and its principles still work.

Questions and Answers with Jessica Cox, Director of Nuclear Policy

1. Why does NATO still have nuclear weapons?

To put it simply, we still have nuclear weapons because nuclear deterrence continues to be necessary and effective. It sends a strong message to potential adversaries – that they will not achieve their objectives by resorting to even the limited use of nuclear weapons in a conflict – by demonstrating NATO’s capability and resolve to impose unacceptable costs greater than any intended gain and, in short, that any nuclear attack against NATO Allies would not succeed. It also reassures Allies of the strong transatlantic commitment to collective security, which is demonstrated by NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements in which European and North American Allies together share the risks and responsibilities of nuclear deterrence. A world where Russia, China, North Korea and others have nuclear weapons, but NATO does not, is not a safer world.

2. What are some of the recent developments that make nuclear deterrence still necessary for NATO?

In recent years, Russia has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, has threatened nuclear use against NATO Allies, and is developing a range of new types of nuclear weapons, such as hypersonic missile systems and nuclear-powered nuclear-armed cruise missiles, to intimidate the Alliance.  These developments are more troubling considering Russia’s large arsenal of theatre-range dual-capable missile systems, able to reach any European city within minutes.  These systems, as well as Russia’s non-strategic nuclear warheads, are not subject to any arms control limitations.

At the same time, China is also investing heavily in order to make its nuclear arsenal more diverse and sophisticated. North Korea is continuing its nuclear expansion apace. And Iran continues to make headlines for its nuclear developments.

NATO does not want an arms race. That’s why we maintain our nuclear posture at the lowest possible level of forces, and we have unilaterally reduced the size of our nuclear weapons stockpile by around 90 per cent since the Cold War. Allies also call on both Russia and China to join new arms control agreements that contribute to strategic stability globally.

3. Who is in charge of nuclear decision-making in the Alliance?

NATO’s nuclear deterrent is under firm political control. And Allies consult regularly to ensure our capabilities are safe, secure and effective. The Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), chaired by the NATO Secretary General, is the forum where NATO member countries participate in the development of the Alliance's nuclear policy and in decisions on NATO's nuclear posture, regardless of whether or not they themselves maintain nuclear weapons. The policies that are agreed upon therefore represent the common position of all the participating countries.


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