NATO, Nuclear Security and the Terrorist Threat

Over the past two decades, no geopolitical space has undergone as dramatic a transformation as that between the Atlantic and the Urals. During the Cold War, a devastating conventional and nuclear war on the European continent was a very real possibility; today, no state faces this type of deliberate existential threat.

Despite these positive developments, the two largest powers in the region — the United States and Russia — still possess thousands of nuclear weapons each, and over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear inventory. Many of these nuclear arms remain deployed or designed for use within the Euro-Atlantic region, including small tactical nuclear weapons — a terrorist’s dream — deployed in numerous states throughout the Euro-Atlantic zone.

The reduction and elimination of this Cold War nuclear infrastructure is the largest piece of unfinished business from a bygone era, and should be moved to the policy front burner.

Today, urgent security steps relating to nuclear weapons security are essential for both NATO and Russia.

If we don’t address this issue with urgency, we may wake up one day to a 1972 Munich-Olympics scenario, with a masked terrorist waving a gun outside of a nuclear warhead bunker somewhere in Europe. This time the hostages could be millions of people living close by.

Beginning on Friday, NATO leaders will meet in Lisbon for three days to adopt a new Strategic Concept — the document that sets out the fundamental purpose, tasks and strategy of NATO.

The role of nuclear weapons in NATO security policy — including whether to endorse the continued deployment of an estimated few hundred air-delivered U.S. tactical nuclear weapons at six bases in five European countries — is reportedly one of the last issues still under discussion.

In two articles I co-wrote with George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger, the four of us said that these smaller and more portable tactical nuclear weapons — currently uncovered by arms control — are inviting acquisition targets for terrorists.

For this reason, we proposed starting a dialogue, including within NATO and with Russia, on consolidating their own weapons to enhance their security, and as a first step toward careful accounting and eventual elimination of these weapons.

Given the complexity of this issue for many NATO members, the differing views regarding the continuing political utility of these weapons and a curious absence of leadership from key countries, it appears unlikely that NATO will achieve such clarity in Lisbon.

Instead, NATO is likely to adopt least common denominator language in the Strategic Concept, all under the mantra, “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”

More time will probably be needed for NATO to sort out key political questions, including alternatives to U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, to assure and involve NATO allies, as well as a strategy for engaging Russia regarding its estimated stockpile of a few thousand tactical nuclear weapons. At Lisbon, NATO leaders should make this a priority as part of a thorough and expeditious review of NATO’s nuclear posture.

The burden of proof during this review should not only be on those who are advocating change, but also on defenders of the nuclear status quo.

They should be pressed to answer this question: What is the rationale for continuing the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe for the next two decades, in particular when it will cost many millions of dollars in new NATO spending for improvements in nuclear storage facilities, tactical nuclear weapons and the replacement of aircraft currently used to deliver NATO’s nuclear bombs?

All this comes at a time when European defense spending is under extreme pressure — witness the recent dramatic cuts in defense spending announced by Britain — and NATO looks to adapt its security policies to meet new threats.

Leaders should also keep in mind this central point, which would always be central in the mind of any adversary: NATO will remain a nuclear alliance in the absence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, given that NATO includes three states — the United States, Britain and France — each with significant strategic nuclear forces and each committed to NATO’s collective defense.

In the meantime, NATO could take additional essential steps regarding the security of these remaining weapons — an issue highlighted in a 2008 U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Security Review, which concluded that most sites in Europe with tactical nuclear weapons were lacking in security.

At Lisbon, NATO should state that: As long as U.S. tactical nuclear weapons remain deployed in Europe, all of NATO has a stake in their security; all of NATO also has a stake in the security of Russian tactical nuclear arms; and Russia has an equal stake in the security of NATO weapons as well as their own. The United States, NATO and Russia got in to this dilemma together; they need to get out together.

This security imperative should drive NATO and Russia to move without delay to adopt a series of steps that will improve the security of tactical nuclear weapons now, and pave the way for further consolidation, reduction and elimination of these weapons throughout the Euro-Atlantic zone.

These steps would be focused on security, transparency and confidence-building, and they should not require a new treaty or even a formal agreement.

These joint measures could include:

• A threat assessment, focused on how terrorists might seek to penetrate sites where tactical nuclear weapons are located and gain access to a nuclear bomb;

• A security assessment, focused on identifying necessary improvements in site security in light of the terrorist threat;

•A recovery exercise, where NATO and Russian forces would work together to recover nuclear material stolen by a terrorist group;

• A site visit to a NATO and Russian base where tactical nuclear weapons are located to encourage improved security and build confidence;

• A commitment not to locate tactical nuclear weapons with operational units in the field; and

• A declaration of the total number of tactical nuclear weapons located in the Euro-Atlantic region.

There is every reason for NATO and Russia to work together on these issues now — before a nuclear Munich.

Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former U.S. Senator from Georgia.