PAX recommendations to the 2022 NPT RevCon: nuclear sharing within NATO

In the run up to the tenth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which is scheduled to take place in early 2022, we will post a series of blogs in which we provide recommendations to States Parties for the upcoming Review Conference. In this blog, we will focus on the role of nuclear weapons within the NATO alliance. PAX urges non-nuclear weapon states with bilateral or alliance security assurances to declare that their national security is not reliant on nuclear weapons and urges NATO governments to remove the American nuclear weapons from their territory. In this blog, we will further illustrate why NATO states should no longer host U.S. nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons in Europe & the Netherlands

NATO states hosting U.S. nuclear weapons have an important role to play in the broader disarmament efforts. Currently, there are five NATO states (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) that together host around 100 U.S. nuclear weapons.* The Netherlands hosts around 10-15 of these nuclear weapons. In addition, Dutch defense policy continues to make combat aircrafts and pilots available for the dropping of B61 nuclear bombs in the event of war and thus prepares for and consents to the use of nuclear weapons by the Dutch military. The continued stationing of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear weapon states, as well as the training of their military to use these weapons, demonstrate preparation to violate Articles 1 and 2 of the NPT which prohibit any transfer of nuclear weapons to NNWS. Furthermore, it violates agreements made during the NPT Review Conference in 2010 to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, an outcropping from the previous agreement in 2000 for “further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons.”

The costs and risks

Some NATO countries, including countries participating in nuclear sharing agreements, have expressed concerns about the security risks, credibility, and financial and political costs of current NATO security policies. In a report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), experts argue that the US nuclear weapons in Europe serve no military purpose, while they do increase the risk of nuclear incidents, blunders, or terrorist incidents.

Firstly, the presence of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe serves no military purpose as these weapons are mounted onto aircrafts which do not possess the range to leave NATO’s territory. A deterrence policy is only effective if the “opponent” knows that the weapons can be used against them. The only opponent to be proposed is outside European airspace, which means that a fighter plane with a B61 bomb must refuel once or a few times to reach its target, which would be hard to mask from the opponent.

Secondly, the presence of nuclear weapons in Europe increases the risk of nuclear incidents, accidents, or terrorist incidents. It is plausible, for instance, that a possible opponent would want to eliminate the so-called “second strike capabilities” by disabling the air bases where the American nuclear weapons are stationed. Due to this, the air bases run an increased risk of being targeted by (nuclear) weapons. Furthermore, the air bases could become a target of groups that aim to disrupt or gain access to the facilities or nuclear weapons. This problem is further exacerbated by existing security concerns. In 2009, a group of activists was able to enter a suspected NATO storage site in Belgium and walk around freely for over an hour before they were detected by security. A study conducted by the U.S. Air Force in 2008 also showed that most air bases in Europe did not meet U.S. Department of Defense security requirements at the time. 

Although the U.S. and NATO have since made efforts to improve the physical security of nuclear weapons stored in Europe, recent research by Bellingcat uncovered existing deficiencies in security. They discovered that U.S. service members had created several flashcards on multiple online learning apps that contained sensitive information about security protocols regarding US nuclear weapons and the bases at which they are stored. Until the flashcards were taken down shortly before their article was published in May 2021, these flashcards were publicly visible and could be found by simply searching for terms publicly known to be associated with nuclear weapons. Additionally, Bellingcat also found a picture posted on Facebook by someone associated with the U.S. military that featured a group of soldiers posing in front of a hangar at the Dutch Volkel Air Base together with, most likely, a trainer B61 nuclear bomb. This picture and the flashcards should never have been publicly available and present a serious breach of security practices. 

Lastly, the worsening of the global security environment, rising tensions among nuclear-weapon states, aggressive behavior by Russia and China, and the modernization (and in some cases, expansion) of nuclear weapon stockpiles are increasing the risks of nuclear weapons being used, and exacerbating the existing threat of nuclear weapons to NATO member states and their populations. Despite this, NATO continues to rely on nuclear deterrence. But, according to ICAN, “even supporters of that policy are starting to recognise that the evolving security challenges described in the NATO 2030 Reflection Group report – such as terrorism, emerging and disruptive technologies, cyber, hybrid, and “grey zone” warfare – are not amenable to deterrence.” Thus, current developments are increasing the risk of nuclear weapons being used while at the same time further questioning the utility of these weapons. 

Not an allied obligation

When the Dutch government talks about nuclear weapons, it often refers to their allied obligations, meaning the obligations that their NATO membership entails. The adherence to the nuclear weapons task is, however, not an obligation within NATO, but an individual political choice. The treaty that forms the basis for NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty (1949), does not mention anything about nuclear weapons. The third Article of the treaty mentions that States Parties “will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack,” but nowhere does the treaty specify this to include nuclear weapons. In fact, NATO members never described NATO as a ‘nuclear alliance.’ By continuing to host nuclear weapons on their territories, NATO members continue to act contrary to NATO’s mission as set out in the North Atlantic Treaty, and contrary to its Strategic Concept of 2010, in which it resolved “to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Additionally, there are also countries within NATO that do not allow nuclear weapons on their territory during peacetime, such as Denmark and Spain. Iceland, Denmark, and Norway have also closed their ports to naval vessels capable of carrying nuclear weapons. France has never participated in NATO’s nuclear planning group and does not make its nuclear weapons available to the alliance.

Furthermore, there also exists historical precedent for ending hosting agreements: the US has already removed its nuclear weapons from England, Greece and Canada in the past. This illustrates that NATO has been flexible in the past about countries changing their national policies in relation to nuclear weapons. The reliability of NATO states should therefore not be harmed by the termination of the host sharing agreements. Furthermore, experts argue that NATO’s status as a nuclear alliance does not depend on the presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe. The strategic capabilities of the alliance, particularly those of the United States, are how NATO itself describes its security guarantee.

Especially at a time when the world seems to be heading for a nuclear arms race, this decision can push the global disarmament debate in the right direction by showing that there are NATO countries that are serious about working on nuclear disarmament and the role of nuclear weapons in national policy.

Public opinion and the Dutch parliament 

Additionally, a YouGov poll conducted among the citizens of four European countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany) illustrated that a large number of people within the host nations is strongly in favor of the removal of US nuclear weapons from their countries. The survey results show a clear rejection of nuclear weapons by those Europeans living closest to US nuclear weapons, and who would be most likely to be a victim of nuclear weapons accidents or an attack on the air bases that store the nuclear weapons. NATO states should pay attention to the opinion of their citizens and forge a new NATO security that rejects nuclear weapons, in line with the democratic wishes of their citizens. 

Furthermore, political support for the deployment of nuclear weapons within Europe remains weak, especially in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, where the issue has been a frequent subject of debate, including in the parliaments. Many politicians and political parties have, over the years, pledged their support for the removal of the weapons. The Dutch House of Representatives has already urged the Dutch government several times to play a more active role in the international disarmament debate. Despite this, the government does not appear to be implementing, for instance, the Voordewind motion of April 2016, in which the government is requested to work with the United States on the “phased disposal of the Dutch nuclear task.” Ploumen’s motion of November 2018, asking the government “to do everything they can to enable an international dialogue with the nuclear armed states about a comprehensive, verifiable abolishment of nuclear weapons conform article VI of the NPT” also does not appear to be implemented, as the Netherlands remains committed to its nuclear weapons task within NATO.

There is no legitimate justification for the continued deployment of nuclear weapons within the Netherlands and other NATO states. Therefore, PAX urges the five host nations (the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Turkey) to declare that their national security is not reliant on nuclear weapons and explain that this policy adjustment is a result of an increased understanding of the catastrophic consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. NATO governments should acknowledge their responsibilities under the NPT and declare their willingness to eliminate the role of nuclear weapons in NATO and support the removal of American nuclear weapons stored in Europe so that the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Turkey can be in unquestionable compliance with all their treaty obligations.

The removal of American nuclear weapons from Europe reduces the chances that these countries will become a military target of preventive or retaliatory attacks. Furthermore, it reduces the chance that nuclear weapons will be used and thus counteracts a possible humanitarian and ecological disaster. Finally, the removal of these American nuclear weapons from Europe can serve as a confidence-building measure that illustrates the will of states to proceed to disarmament. Especially at a time when the world seems to be heading for a nuclear arms race, this decision can push the global disarmament debate in the right direction by showing that there are NATO countries that are serious about working on nuclear disarmament and the role of nuclear weapons in national policy.

* Within NATO, there are also three nuclear-armed states: France, the United Kingdom and the United States. In a later blog, we will discuss why these and other nuclear-armed states should end their modernization programs and contribute to nuclear disarmament. The focus of this blog, however, is on NATO member states that host U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory and why this practice of nuclear sharing within NATO should be eliminated. This article is partly based on the Dutch report: “Een wereld zonder kernwapens: waar staat Nederland?” (2019)