hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 7 December 2015

Triple Track: NATO Nuclear Deterrence is sad not M.A.D.

Alphen, Netherlands. 7 December. Seventy-four years ago today the United States Pacific Fleet was struck by a ‘bolt from the blue’, as the Imperial Japanese Navy sank much of the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor. During the Cold War the US strategic community was constantly exercised by the threat of a nuclear ‘bolt from the blue’ from the Soviet Union.  In the years after the Cold War it appeared that the threat of nuclear mutually assured destruction or M.A.D. had been cast into history. However, with Russia now rattling nuclear sabres almost weekly nuclear deterrence is back on the strategic agenda. What got me thinking about M.A.D.-ness was an excellent conference I attended last week at the NATO Defense College in Rome entitled, “The Future Deterrence Requirements of the Alliance”.  What struck me was not the similarities that exist between the Cold War and today, but rather the differences. What was also clear to me is that NATO nuclear deterrence has become sad not M.A.D?

NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and posture is close to failure. Paradoxically, it is a failure made all the more likely by the weakness of NATO’s conventional forces in preventing the kind of limited war with big weapons strategy for which the Russians are now daily preparing. Let me explain. The distance from the border of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to that of Belarus is at best 60kms (40 miles) across Poland and Lithuania. If Russia wanted to seal the Baltic States off from the rest of NATO Moscow would first close that gap. Having established a fait accompli with conventional military force Moscow would a) order forward deployed NATO forces out of the Baltic States; and b) threaten the use of its burgeoning and treaty-illegal short and intermediate range nuclear forces to prevent any kind of NATO response – conventional or nuclear.

In such circumstances it is hard for me to believe many Alliance political leaders would be willing to go to war, let alone American, British and French leaders unleash their strategic nuclear weapons. In effect, Russia would have applied to effect nuclear superiority, and in so doing proven to further effect a key dictum of Sun Tzu; that the ‘best’ wars are built on an irresistible fait accompli, just like Crimea.

Deterrence theory, and all the associated wonkery that goes along with it, relies on an essentially simple premise; that in the event of war an adversary can never be sure that the attacked would not resort to the use of nuclear weapons and quickly and has the will, capability and intent so to do. In NATO’s case the theory is adjusted to include the nuclear defence of the territory of allies, not just the three NATO nuclear weapons states. When I look at the political classes of all three NATO nuclear states I simply no longer believe that NATO leaders would resort to the use of such weapons if faced with an essentially limited war on NATO’s eastern flank.  And, if I do not believe it I am pretty damned sure Moscow does not believe it.

My doubts over the credibility of NATO’s nuclear deterrent posture are manifold. NATO does not in fact have any nuclear weapons and has no political consensus over their role or use. The US nuclear arsenal is having to play a multipolar deterrent role the world over which leads to a very different strategic calculus than the bipolar strategic symbiosis that existed for much of the Cold War. France has a robust nuclear policy and some ‘sub-strategic’ nuclear forces.  However, its limited sub-strategic air-based nuclear force would be unable to penetrate an increasingly sophisticated Russian air defence system. The British (being the British these days) are about to spend some £31bn on a new “Successor” strategic nuclear system whilst British political leaders (and not just Jeremy Corbyn) repeatedly imply they would never use it. 

My sense is that neither Britain nor France would conceive of using nuclear weapons unless as a response to nuclear use by an enemy, and for all the rhetoric to the contrary, neither power would use such weapons unless their own soil had been so attacked.  And it is that problem of decoupled proportionality that is rendering to my mind NATO’s nuclear deterrent posture ‘incredible’.

Paradoxically, the nuclear capabilities assigned to NATO are more than enough to deter against a nuclear attack by a major power, and yet are utterly unusable in the event of the nuclear-fringed conventional threat Russia poses. Even in the case of a nuclear strike by a state like Iran I find it hard to see that any of the three NATO nuclear powers would respond in kind to the use of one or two first generation warheads, even against a NATO ally.       

In effect, NATO’s conventional and nuclear deterrents are also in danger of becoming ‘de-coupled’ with no credible ‘escalation’ on offer from the use of conventional forces to the use of nuclear forces. It is ‘de-coupling that is reinforced by the strange estrangement from NATO of the Alliance’s three nuclear weapons’ states. The US sees NATO very much as a side-show. The British talk NATO but never match words with deeds. The French have only just re-entered the NATO integrated command structure and remain NATO-sceptics, in the same way the British are EU-sceptics.

Worse, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group is kept at the margins of policy planning precisely because NATO’s 28, soon-to-be 29, nations cannot agree about whether to deter Russia or debate with Russia. As for NATO’s fabled ‘dual-capable aircraft’, most of which belong to the Alliance’s non-nuclear states, these are legacy systems that whilst capable of carrying nuclear weapons would no longer get through Russia’s air defences. Indeed, ‘NATO DCA’ is either outdated, incapable, or both. As for missile defence it is the wrong system, defending inadequately against the wrong people, incapable of being upgraded to defend against a Russian threat (whatever Moscow says), paid for by an American taxpayer who it will not defend!  In other words NATO missile defence does not fly strategically, politically, or technically.

However, the real danger posed by NATO’s conventional and nuclear decoupling is the danger that the nuclear use threshold will fall by mistake if the choice is surrender or nukes. By deploying short and intermediate range nuclear systems Russia is implying that it has already lowered the nuclear threshold, intimidating its neighbours with implied and applied irrationality.  Indeed, much of what is today called the Gerasimov doctrine (after the Chief of the Russian General Staff) looks much like the Ogarkov doctrine of the early 1980s which also implied a warfighting use for nuclear weapons.

So, how does NATO defend the Baltic States and indeed other allies? A senior American friend recently warned me against implying the Baltic States are indefensible. He is right. To my mind the Baltics must be defended. However, if a credible defence is to be established such a defence must be placed in its proper strategic context. First, NATO must protect both its eastern and southern flanks. That means conventional forces in sufficient strength to deter, prevent and interdict on both flanks. Second, to defend the Baltic States, NATO conventional forces in sufficient strength must be forward deployed to the region to act as a trip wire to further Alliance escalation in the event of Russian aggression.  In other words, NATO needs a forward deployed NATO forward deterrent. Third, the Russians must not be allowed to plan an attack that joins Kaliningrad to Belarus at little or no cost. Kaliningrad must be considered a NATO target for conventional forces in the event of Russian aggression – even if Russia deploys Iskander M and other nuclear systems to the enclave.

However, it is NATO’s ability to escalate conventionally that is most in need of attention if NATO deterrence is to be restored to credibility. Behind the Spearhead force agreed at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit powerful conventional forces must be deployed forward that increase the risk to Moscow of even the most limited of incursions. At the very least this would need a NATO force that looked something like the Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force of the past which combined both mass and manoeuvre.

Therefore, to restore credibility to NATO’s deterrent posture next year’s Warsaw Summit should enshrine a new triple-track approach.  Track one would involve the reinvigoration of the conventional and nuclear deterrents of the Alliance. Specifically, the three Alliance nuclear weapons states would publicly re-commit to the credible maintaining of NATO as a nuclear alliance (and mean it). Track two would see the 26 other NATO nations re-commit to enhancing their conventional forces as part of a reinvigorated NATO non-nuclear deterrent, with the stated aim to keep the threshold for nuclear use high. Track three would see the Alliance put forward new arms control proposals designed to lessen tensions between Russia and the Alliance via an initial redeployment of both nuclear and conventional forces, but only in the event of a change of policy in Moscow.

Nuclear weapons are scary and most western liberal politicians and indeed peoples would rather not think about them. However, in the world into which NATO is moving the more the West's conventional military power is eclipsed by illiberal power the more NATO will rely on nuclear weapons, 

We do not want to wake up to another Pearl Harbor! We must make sure we do not!

Julian Lindley-French           


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