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10 April 2019

Old and new challenges show the need to bolster NATO's nuclear deterrent

Jessica Cox

JESSICA COX: The alliance's nuclear deterrent must remain credible


Nuclear deterrence has been at the core of NATO’s mutual security guarantee and collective defence since its inception 70 years ago. During the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, heads of state and government once again affirmed their long-standing commitment to nuclear deterrence, stating that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”  


The strategic nuclear forces of the alliance, particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies. The independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France have a deterrent role of their own and contribute significantly to the overall security of the alliance, including by complicating the calculations of potential adversaries. NATO's nuclear deterrence posture also relies on the United States' nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe and national contributions of dual-capable aircraft to NATO's nuclear deterrence mission. Additional supporting contributions by Allies ensure the broadest possible participation in NATO’s nuclear burden-sharing arrangements and further enhance the alliance’s commitment to its nuclear mission. 


The fundamental purpose of NATO's nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression. Allies have been clear that nuclear weapons are unique and the circumstances in which NATO might contemplate the use of nuclear weapons is extremely remote. That is why NATO maintains full political control over nuclear decision-making, meaning that choices about the use and employment of NATO’s nuclear capabilities will be taken by NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group. And the United States maintains absolute control and custody of the nuclear weapons forward-deployed to Europe as part of the nuclear burden-sharing arrangements.


NATO is also committed to seeking a safer world and to taking practical steps and effective measures to create the conditions for further nuclear disarmament, consistent with the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons.


Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has dramatically reduced the number of nuclear weapons stationed in Europe – by more than 85% from its Cold War peak  –  and its reliance on nuclear weapons in NATO strategy. Allies have repeatedly affirmed that we remain open to further arms control negotiations with the aim of improving the security of the alliance, taking into account the current security environment, and actively promoting measures to reduce risk and increase transparency.


Unfortunately, NATO’s security environment is changing rapidly, and looking forward into the next decade, we must adapt to new competitors, new challenges, and new technologies.


Russia is rapidly expanding the size and diversity of its nuclear arsenal, deployments of dual-capable missile systems, and belligerent actions in the European theatre. It has deployed new missiles in Europe in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which are road-mobile, hard to detect, nuclear capable and cut the warning time to just minutes. Last March, President Putin also announced new nuclear weapons developments, specifically designed to target Western defenses and undermine extended deterrence.


At the same time, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are expanding their nuclear arsenals. Although France, the United Kingdom and the United States have all made significant nuclear reductions since the end of the Cold War, the pace of disarmament has slowed in recent years. The most notable non-proliferation win within the last decade – preventing Iran from “going nuclear” – is fragile at present. And the rise of the “nuclear weapons ban” movement, which culminated in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, threatens to undermine the strong and effective non-proliferation regime established by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.


As NATO looks to the future, we must not only adapt to new geopolitical challenges, but also contend with a time of unprecedented technological change. The introduction of artificial intelligence and autonomy, and increasing reliance on space and cyber domains all have the potential to transform large sectors of our society in unprecedented and tremendously positive ways. But the advancement of new technologies also poses inherent risks to nuclear deterrence and the way we conduct our nuclear business. We have to be clear-eyed about the challenges, make smart decisions about business practices, and make substantial investments in protecting critical capabilities. And we have to continue to work to attract the best and brightest of the next generation of experts to the nuclear mission to manage this transition.


As NATO marks 70 years since its founding, both old and new challenges make clear the need to bolster our nuclear deterrent. As a means to prevent conflict, NATO must take steps now to ensure our nuclear deterrent remains credible. It will be a constant process to stay ahead of new threats and emerging technologies – one that requires significant and sustained investment to ensure the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear forces.

Jessica Cox is Director of Nuclear Policy at NATO.

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