Modernizing NATO’s Nuclear Capabilities Must Outweigh Industrial Base Considerations

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has one essential purpose: collective defense. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observed recently, all the issues that at times divide members of the Alliance, even taken in total, cannot outweigh this one mission:

What I can say is that we have seen, throughout the history of NATO, differences between NATO allies on different issues, including trade issues; but we have always been able to avoid these differences [undermining] the unity of the Alliance when it comes to the core task of NATO — that we protect and defend each other.

What the Secretary General identified as NATO’s core task is as important today as it was when the Alliance was founded on April 4, 1949. Then, the danger was from a massive Soviet conventional military presence in Eastern Europe and Germany. Today, the threat is from a smaller Russian military, but one that has substantially modernized air, naval and ground forces.

This new Russian military is designed to conduct short, rapid conventional offensives under the umbrella of an integrated air defense system, whose reach extends into much of NATO airspace. Supporting this new conventional military is a massive arsenal of long-range rockets, ballistic and cruise missiles and advanced strike aircraft.

But Moscow’s military modernization effort has not stopped with improving its capability for conventional conflict. Russia is upgrading and even expanding its entire nuclear arsenal, including all its strategic nuclear forces and its massive inventory of land, air and sea-based low-yield nuclear weapons. Nuclear-capable Iskander theater missiles have been deployed to Kaliningrad. Russian leaders have repeatedly sought to intimidate NATO by threatening the first use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict.

The Alliance is responding to this clear and growing danger. Almost a year ago, President Trump called on the Alliance to invest more in defense. At the time, only five nations – the United States, GreeceBritainEstonia and Poland - were meeting NATO’s target of spending 2 percent of their respective GDPs on defense.

In response, several member states, including Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal and Hungary, immediately increased their defense budgets. Others have plans to do so in their next defense budgets. Although most NATO members are still well short of the desired target, they are on a path that will allow them to reach this goal in the not-to-distant future.

Increased expenditures on defense are an important indicator of a nation’s commitment to its security and to that of collective defense. More important is how those resources are spent. NATO members need to reverse more than two decades of disinvestment in their militaries and acquire modern, combat-capable forces. In order to ensure it possesses a credible deterrent to conflict, NATO needs to make strategic investments in virtually all mission areas.

Given the central role played by nuclear weapons in Moscow’s planning for potential conflicts as well as its current attempts at political intimidation, nuclear deterrence must be the first priority of NATO modernization. Only a credible threat of nuclear retaliation based on the capability for extended deterrence can offset the Kremlin’s efforts to gain political advantages by brandishing its nuclear saber, as well as deny Moscow any chance of a swift, painless military option against the Alliance.

The U.S. is taking steps to ensure that its nuclear forces are modernized. There are programs underway to replace all three legs of the strategic triad. The only deployed theater nuclear system, the B-61 gravity bomb, is being refurbished and upgraded. The recently released Nuclear Posture Review called for the development of two new capabilities: a low-yield warhead for the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile to ensure a prompt response option that can penetrate adversary defenses and a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.

NATO allies must also do their part to ensure the credibility of extended deterrence. The first step in this process is for the German Luftwaffe to choose a new aircraft as the replacement for its aging force of nuclear-capable Tornado strike aircraft, which are slated to begin retirement in the next few years.

In reality, there is only one choice available: the F-35. The current plan by the Joint Program Office is to begin deployment of a nuclear-capable variant of the F-35A by the early 2020s. The only other option, a variant of the Eurofighter Typhoon, would take years to design and produce and cost a great deal, given the limited size of a potential buy. Moreover, the Typhoon lacks the F-35’s advanced stealth features, avionics, electronic warfare systems and surveillance capabilities that make the latter a credible first day of the war nuclear weapons delivery platform.

Taking a leaf from Vladimir Putin’s playbook, some in Europe’s aerospace and defense industry have warned of dire consequences should Germany break with recent practice and acquire a limited number of F-35s to fulfill its commitments under NATO’s nuclear-sharing agreement.

The claim that buying the F-35 instead of a less capable European aircraft would end cooperation among European countries for future fighter programs is unbelievable in light of the sheer size of Germany’s defense budget and that nation’s continuing investments in European defense products.

More important, the Russian threat is too dire and the need to restore the credibility of NATO’s extended deterrent too pressing to tolerate industrial base arguments, however specious. NATO solidarity, the sanctity of the collective defense commitment and the need to prioritize modernization of the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent trump outdated demands to support European industrial production. The stakes involved are too great for such a small-minded approach to choosing the next nuclear-capable aircraft.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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