NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and forces
Nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence alongside conventional and missile defence forces.
- NATO’s nuclear policy is based on NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review.
- The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear forces is deterrence.
- Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of NATO’s overall strategy.
- Nuclear weapons are a core component of the Alliance’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.
- The Nuclear Planning Group provides the forum for consultation on NATO’s nuclear deterrence.
More background information
NATO’s nuclear policy is based on two public documents agreed by the Heads of State and Government of all 29 Allies:
- The 2010 Strategic Concept
- The 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review
The 2010 Strategic Concept, which was 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 there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance:
“The greatest responsibility of the Alliance is to protect and defend our territory and populations against attack, as set out in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. […]
Deterrence, based on an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities, remains a core element of our overall strategy. […] As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. […]
We will 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 set in train work on 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 reviewed NATO’s overall posture in the light of the Strategic Concept:
“The review has shown that the Alliance’s nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defence posture.
While seeking to create the conditions and considering options for further reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to NATO, Allies concerned¹ will ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance. That requires sustained leadership focus and institutional excellence for the nuclear deterrence mission and planning guidance aligned with 21st century requirements.”
The fundamental purpose of Alliance nuclear forces is deterrence. This is essentially a political function. The Alliance will focus on the maintenance of effective deterrence. Political control of nuclear weapons will be maintained under all circumstances. Nuclear planning and consultation within the Alliance will be in accordance with political guidance.
1. i.e. all members of the Nuclear Planning Group
The key principles of NATO’s nuclear policy are established by the Heads of State and Government of all 29 members of the Alliance.
For those countries that are members, the Nuclear Planning Group (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.
All NATO members, including potential new members, are members of the Alliance in all respects, including their commitment to the Alliance's policy on nuclear weapons, and the guarantees which that policy affords to all Allies.
UK MOD - Crown Copyright 2012
Nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence, alongside conventional and missile defence forces.
The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.
Strategic nuclear forces
As stated in the 2010 Strategic Concept:
“The supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States; the independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, which have a deterrent role of their own, contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies.”
A number of NATO member countries contribute a dual-capable aircraft (DCA) capability to the Alliance. These aircraft are available for nuclear roles at various levels of readiness – the highest level of readiness is measured in weeks. In their nuclear role, the aircraft are equipped to carry nuclear bombs and personnel are trained accordingly.
The United States maintains absolute control and custody of the associated nuclear weapons, while Allies provide military support for the DCA mission with conventional forces and capabilities.
NATO leaders touched on these issues at the Warsaw Summit in July 2016:
“NATO's nuclear deterrence posture also relies, in part, on United States' nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and on capabilities and infrastructure provided by Allies concerned. These Allies will ensure that all components of NATO's nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective. […] The Alliance will ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies concerned in their agreed nuclear burden-sharing arrangements.”
It is made clear in both the 2010 Strategic Concept and the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR) that NATO is committed to arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.
The Strategic Concept states that:
“NATO seeks its security at the lowest possible level of forces. Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation contribute to peace, security and stability, and should ensure undiminished security for all Alliance members.”
NATO has unilaterally reduced the size of its land-based nuclear weapons stockpile by over 95 per cent since the height of the Cold War.
As regards the reductions, the DDPR reads:
“Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has dramatically reduced the number, types, and readiness of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and its reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO strategy.
[…] NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia, taking into account the greater Russian stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons stationed in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
In the 2016 Warsaw Summit declaration, NATO leaders stated that:
“After the end of the Cold War, NATO dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and its reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO strategy. We remain committed to contribute to creating the conditions for further reductions in the future on the basis of reciprocity, recognising that progress on arms control and disarmament must take into account the prevailing international security environment. We regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favourable today.”