Ban military preparations to use nuclear weapons

Negotiations are ongoing in New York on the draft treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.  During the first read through, many states asked to address questions around the threat of use of nuclear weapons. An explicit prohibition on military preparations for use is a way to do so.

What are Military Preparations for the use of nuclear weapons and why should they be prohibited?

The nuclear weapons ban treaty should include an explicit prohibition on military preparations for the use of nuclear weapons. This would explicitly prohibit the concrete and tangible activities behind any threats to use nuclear weapons, including but not limited to:

  • air or refueling support for nuclear bombers
  • exercises in preparation for use of nuclear weapons
  • engaging in targeting or other nuclear war fighting arrangments.


The Chemical Weapons convention clearly prohibits military preparations for the use of chemical weapons

  1. EachState Partyto this Convention undertakes never under any circumstances:

(c) To engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons;

The nuclear weapons ban treaty should do the same. This accurately reflects the way weapons of mass destruction should be dealt with by the international community- ensuring that all aspects related to their use are effectively prohibited.

Impact on infrastructure

The inclusion of this prohibition could have an impact on the infrastructure necessary to maintain forward deployment capabilities. In meeting obligations of the instrument, the facilities that must remain certified to host nuclear weapons would no longer need to meet those standards.

This could have positive impacts on the five nuclear weapons host states as there might also be a reduction in the need for guns, guards and gates at some of the bases where US nuclear weapons are currently stored. They would not need to maintain current certification levels, and some have suggested that this might also apply to former facilities (in Canada, Greece and the UK) as well. Whether the bunkers themselves would need to be fully dismantled is a question for later consideration.

Impact on activities

The prohibition should also lead to the end of trainings that some air force personnel undergo to handle nuclear weapons. It would also require states that provide other military support for nuclear weapons use (air cover, refuelling, etc) or participate in annual exercises to prepare for the use of nuclear weapons. Not all of the NATO members participate in all of these activities. According to NATO International Staff it’s only about 17 members that provide over flight support for the possible use of nuclear weapons. Some of those provide air cover. Others provide refuelling. Only four NATO members provide dual capable aircraft.

Impact on other agreements

In some situations, additional bilateral negotiations might need to be undertaken on the Status of Forces Agreements, or Agreements for Cooperation for Mutual Defense Purposes related to deployment and transfer arrangements. Turkey is a bit of an outlier as it is commonly understood that the Turkish Air Force does not train to accept transfer of US nuclear weapons, as opposed to the Belgian, German, Italian and Dutch. It is unlikely that a ban treaty would require states to give up their Dual Capable Aircraft, as these planes are also usable for conventional missions, but a ban treaty should require modifications of the planes to prevent future nuclear weapons capabilities.

An additional democratic benefit is that the ban treaty would replace the secret practices around these agreements with a transparent, accountable and democratic practice in accordance with NATO ideologies.

Impact on political agreements

NATO’s most recent Strategic Concept (2010) continues the unique policies of nuclear forward deployment and of ‘nuclear sharing’, by declaring that the Alliance will “ensure the broadest possible participation of Allies in collective defence planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements”.[1] Nevertheless, the Strategic Concept is formulated carefully so it does not block change. In theory, the text would allow a nuclear weapon free NATO without contradicting the non-binding political agreement.

It is good to remember that NATO nuclear sharing practices are not enshrined in legal agreements (there is no reference to nuclear weapons in NATO’s founding document, the Washington Treaty) so changes to the core efforts and agreements that legally bind alliance members to each other’s collective security would need no adjustment.

Politically there would need to be a series of discussions inside of NATO to facilitate a transition away from the current nuclear sharing practices. The nuclear armed NATO members undertook an obligation (in 2010) to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security strategy and doctrines, and NATO’s non nuclear armed allies bear responsibility for demanding compliance with that agreement. NATO continues to assert “Arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation continue to play an important role in the achievement of the Alliance’s security objectives. Both the success and failure of these efforts can have a direct impact on the threat environment of NATO.[2] At the same time, the alliance reaffirms, “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” Clearly prohibiting military preparation for the use of nuclear weapons would compel NATO members to clarify on national and at the alliance level a shared public understanding of under what circumstances the use of nuclear weapons causing catastrophic humanitarian harm could be acceptable. Even proponents of a more ‘robust’ role for nuclear weapons across NATO reaffirm that “NATO should also underscore that all Allies continue to honour their international obligations and commitments, including on nuclear weapons.[3]

NATO member states have reserved the right to adopt independent national policies on nuclear weapons as long as the Alliance has existed. Some of these national positions already restrict participation in the nuclear weapons activities of the Alliance, without restricting these states from participating in the work of the Alliance more generally. States can also change their role in various planning groups, and have historically done so, including in the Nuclear Planning Group.

Attitudes and agreements will have to change inside NATO with a nuclear weapons prohibition, but the core principles of international cooperation and interdependent security across the alliance will not. A ban treaty will also bring greater international attention to and pressure on NATO nuclear sharing practices as contradicting norms on nuclear weapons. A ban treaty reaffirms existing legal obligations not to transfer or acquire nuclear weapons. Finally, a ban treaty supports a shift in nuclear weapons policy setting discourse away from instruments of stability and deterrence to the recognition of them as weapons of terror and instability.

[1] Active Engagement, Modern Defence – Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (2010), page 15:

[2]  NATO – Wales Summit Declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales. NATO. Available at: [Accessed September 11, 2014].

[3] Camille Grand, 2016. Nuclear deterrence and the Alliance in the 21st century. NATO Review. Available at: [Accessed February 20, 2017].