NATO

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sharing Coming Under Increased European Scrutiny

As the rivalry between the United States and Russia shows no sign of abating, a number of different elements of the strategic arms stability framework have come under significant stress. Several key treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, have even broken down. At the same time, Washington and Moscow are doing their best to maintain or improve their nuclear posture in order to maintain a credible deterrent.

This renewed focus on nuclear arms capabilities is also affecting one of the less overt elements of the U.S. nuclear force. While initially a secret agreement, it is now common knowledge that the United States stores tactical nuclear weapons in several European countries under what is known as “nuclear sharing.” Currently, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey host U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on their soil. But this practice, which helped the United States improve and extend its nuclear umbrella over Europe during the Cold War, is increasingly coming under scrutiny.

Initially, nuclear sharing agreements were (secretly) reached with several European NATO allies with very specific goals in mind. One of the most obvious advantages of forward-deploying air-delivered nuclear weapons was that such weapons could be deployed faster in case the Cold War turned hot. In fact, the air forces of the countries hosting them were even trained and certified to deliver the nuclear warheads with their own aircraft, though they still required U.S. approval to activate the devices.

In what sounds counterintuitive at first glance, the United States also saw nuclear sharing as a way to actively support nonproliferation. The idea was that by providing certain allies access to U.S. nuclear weapons, it would discourage them from seeking their own nuclear capabilities. The nuclear sharing agreement itself is not considered a breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty because technically the arms are still under U.S. control, guarded by U.S. personnel, and would only be released to allies once nuclear war has been initiated and the value of the nonproliferation treaty becomes negligible.

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About the author

Sim Tack

Global Analyst , Stratfor