NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and forces

  • Last updated: 11 May. 2021 08:34

Nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence, alongside conventional and missile defence forces. NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, it will remain a nuclear alliance.

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  • Credible deterrence and defence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities, remains a core element of NATO’s overall strategy to prevent conflict and war.
  • The credibility of NATO’s nuclear forces is central to maintain deterrence, which is why the safety, security and effectiveness of these forces are constantly evaluated in light of technological and geo-strategic evolutions.
  • NATO’s current nuclear policy is based on NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, as well as guidance from Heads of State and Government at the Summits in Wales, Warsaw, and Brussels.
  • The Nuclear Planning Group provides the forum for consultation on NATO’s nuclear deterrence.

  • NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy

    The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression. NATO’s current nuclear policy is based on two public documents agreed by all Allies:

    • The 2010 Strategic Concept
    • The 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review

    The 2010 Strategic Concept, adopted by Allied Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Lisbon in November 2010, sets out the Alliance’s core tasks and principles, including deterrence.  The Strategic Concept commits NATO to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, but reconfirms that, as long as nuclear weapons existNATO will remain a nuclear alliance. It also seeks to ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.

    The 2010 Lisbon Summit launched a Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR), which was endorsed by the Allied Heads of State and Government at the NATO Chicago Summit in May 2012.  The DDPR stressed that the fundamental purpose of Alliance nuclear forces is deterrence, which is essentially a political function. While the Alliance focuses on the maintenance of effective deterrence, political control of nuclear weapons will be kept under all circumstances and nuclear planning and consultation within the Alliance will be in accordance with political guidance.

    NATO continues to affirm the importance of nuclear deterrence in light of evolving challenges.  Allies reiterated this principle at the 2014 Wales Summit, the 2016 Warsaw Summit, and the 2018 Brussels Summit, where Heads of State and Government declared that the goal of Allies “is to continue to bolster deterrence as a core element of our collective defence and to contribute to the indivisible security of the Alliance.  Following changes in the security environment, NATO has taken steps to ensure its nuclear deterrent capabilities remain safe, secure, and effective.  As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” 

  • Nuclear consultation

    The key principles of NATO’s nuclear policy are established by the Heads of State and Government of the 30 members of the Alliance. The development and implementation of NATO’s nuclear policy are the responsibility of the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). The NPG provides the forum for consultation on all issues that relate to NATO nuclear deterrence.  All Allies, with the exception of France, which has decided not to participate, are members of the NPG.

  • The role of NATO’s nuclear forces

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    The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear forces is for deterrence. Nuclear weapons are unique and the circumstances under which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote. Furthermore, any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict. However, should the fundamental security of any NATO Ally be threatened, NATO has the capabilities – both nuclear and conventional – and the resolve to impose costs on the adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve.

    Strategic nuclear forces

    The strategic forces of the Alliance, and particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies. The independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France have a deterrent role of their own and contribute significantly to the overall security of the Alliance. These Allies’ separate centres of decision-making contribute to deterrence by complicating the calculations of any potential adversaries. In other words, should an adversary decide to attack NATO, they must not only contend with NATO’s decision-making, but also make a judgment about decision-making from the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, and France.

    Dual-capable aircraft

    NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture relies on nuclear weapons forward-deployed by the United States in Europe, as well as on the capabilities and infrastructure provided by Allies concerned. A number of NATO member countries contribute a dual-capable aircraft (DCA) capability to the Alliance. These aircraft are central to NATO’s nuclear deterrence mission and are available for nuclear roles at various levels of readiness. In their nuclear role, the aircraft are equipped to carry nuclear bombs in a conflict and personnel are trained accordingly.

    The United States maintains absolute control and custody of their nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe, while Allies provide military support for the DCA mission with conventional forces and capabilities. Nuclear sharing arrangements play a vital role in the interconnection of the Alliance and remain one of the main components of security guarantees and the indivisibility of security of the whole Euro-Atlantic area.

  • Evolution of NATO’s Nuclear Policy

    Nuclear deterrence has been at the core of NATO’s mutual security guarantee and collective defence since its inception in 1949.  The very first NATO Strategic Concept (1949) referenced the requirement to “ensure the ability to carry out strategic bombing promptly by all means possible with all types of weapons without exception.”  The United States subsequently committed nuclear weapons to NATO in July 1953, with the first American theatre nuclear weapons arriving in Europe in September 1954.  NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, which were already in place by the time negotiations for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) began in the 1960s, were codified by the United States and the Soviet Union as a precursor for the final agreed NPT text.  The United Kingdom has also extended its nuclear forces, including its current single submarine-based system and Continuous At-Sea Deterrent, to the protection of NATO Allies since 1962.

    NATO seeks its security at the lowest possible level of forces and is fully committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Since the height of the Cold War, it has unilaterally reduced the size of its land-based nuclear weapons stockpile by over 90 per cent, reducing the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and its reliance on nuclear weapons in strategy. This position is made clear in both the 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review. 

    Since progress on arms control and disarmament must take into account the prevailing international security environment, at the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO leaders recognised that conditions for achieving further disarmament were unfavourable given Russia’s aggressive actions and military build-up in recent years.  During the 2018 Brussels Summit, Heads of State and Government once again affirmed NATO’s long-standing commitment to nuclear deterrence, stating that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”