NATO's nuclear sharing: A cold war anachronism that undermines the NPT

Author(s): Acronym Institute
31 December 2007

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Though the cold war ended nearly two decades ago, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) retains policies that promote the role of nuclear weapons and undermine the NPT. According to NATO's current Strategic Concept - up for review by 2009 - nuclear weapons provide the "supreme guarantee" of Alliance security.

Three NATO members - the United States, Britain and France - between them deploy more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. Six NATO members that are non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) parties to the NPT - Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Turkey and Greece - maintain "nuclear sharing" arrangements under which they could be given wartime use of some of the 480 American-owned and controlled nuclear free-fall bombs stored at US bases in their countries. In addition, despite serious concerns raised by Russia, the US wants to put bases on the territory of new NATO (former Warsaw Pact) members, Poland and the Czech Republic, for missile interceptors and tracking radar to support US ballistic missile defence (BMD) deployments.

It's time for a new NATO Strategic Concept, more appropriate to the 21st century. NATO needs to end nuclear sharing and work more closely with Russia to strengthen existing Treaties and withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

What does NATO nuclear policy entail?

NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept states that war prevention requires "widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements." As a consequence, the participating countries (with the recent exception of Greece) host US nuclear bases and tactical weapons on their soil; some of their aircraft are equipped to carry nuclear weapons and their pilots are trained to fly nuclear missions. Since Britain deploys its own nuclear weapon system, which is assigned to NATO, it does not participate in nuclear sharing per se, but hosts some US nuclear weapons at the Lakenheath airbase in East Anglia.

NATO nuclear sharing in the 1960s has been credited with persuading countries like Germany and Italy to give up their national nuclear weapons programmes and join the NPT. But it now stands in the way of more effective nonproliferation approaches and progress towards nuclear disarmament.

Breaching Articles I and II

NATO members hold that their nuclear sharing is in compliance with Articles I and II of the NPT, arguing that the arrangements predated the NPT and that "general war" would end the validity of the NPT. Both interpretations are open to challenge.

If any other NPT states tried to share nuclear weapons using similar arrangements, the NATO countries would be the first to condemn them for breaching Articles I and II of the NPT. Yet if they adopted the US/NATO interpretation of their NPT obligations, Russia could reintroduce nuclear weapons into Belarus for wartime use by Belarusian armed forces; or China could create nuclear sharing arrangements with North Korea. In effect, NATO has established and continues to maintain a privileged practice that it would not want others to emulate.

In 1985, the NPT Review Conference agreed as part of its Final Document that the Treaty remains in force "under any circumstances". Though not made explicit, this language was intended to constrain the NATO nuclear sharing policy. Since then, a growing number of NPT Parties, including more than 100 nations in the Non-Aligned Movement, have called on NATO members to transform their doctrine and policies to bring them into conformity with their NPT obligations.

Backdoor Proliferation in Wartime

NATO's nuclear sharing arrangements would amount to de facto proliferation in times of war. This is particularly destabilizing in the post 9/11 context: the US has declared a 'war on terror' and then changed military doctrines to provide for nuclear weapons to be used in