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Guest Blog: Paul Ingram on NATO Nuclear Policy


Paul Ingram is Executive Director of the British-American Security Information Council (BASIC), a think tank with offices in London and Washington, D.C., devoted to helping achieve a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.  Ingram offers this contribution to NPF in response to Dr. Ford’s March 30, 2011, posting on “NATO, ‘Nuclear Sharing,’ and the “INF Analogy.”  Ford’s response to Ingram’s essay appears below.

Chris Ford’s proposal for a dual-track approach, explicitly along the lines of Alliance strategy over intermediate forces in the 1980s, when cruise missiles were deployed in Europe to force the Soviets into negotiations that may have led relatively rapidly to the ground-breaking INF agreement, holds some merit within its own frame. The factors that led to the INF agreement are complex – these things always are. To explain them in simple terms is to miss the point. The deployment of cruise would certainly have featured, alongside reforms initiated by President Gorbachev, conversations he would have had with President Reagan, Reagan’s rhetoric on the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), increasing economic and social pressures in the Soviet Union, ideological debates, the relaxation of restrictions on movement of peoples, and any number of other factors. Nevertheless, the point is well made. Certainly, if one is serious about negotiating with the Russians in a manner where assets from both sides are traded to achieve a new balance at lower levels of deployment, such an approach could prove successful by introducing a factor that would have meaning to the Russians when NATO’s existing deployments of theatre nuclear weapons in Europe hold little value (I would say negative value, more later). Of course, equally, new deployments proposed by Chris could backfire and lead to further arms racing. It is certainly likely to play into Russian perceptions that the West is a competitor who will take advantage of Russia’s strategic weakness, an attitude that is prevalent in certain circles, but one that is harmful to our relations with Russia and one that we would do well to counteract if possible.

That I guess is the risk calculation that needs to be further assessed. But more than that, it should also be acknowledged that this approach is based upon a number of assumptions around the nature of the relationship we have with the Russians, assumptions that I have found reflected in any number of conversations with officials from across NATO. There is a prevailing attitude that whilst the Cold War has officially ended, Russia remains more a strategic competitor than a partner.  We may play (uncomfortably) alongside them when it comes to action on the Security Council, but we still spend many billions a year on nuclear weapons primarily to balance Russia strategically.  This article, alongside the official approach, assumes that if we did not continue this balance the Russians would simply exploit any advantage. In short, they need to be kept in their place.

This response seeks to surface the way in which people within these debates too often talk past one another. There are important disconnects that we have to account for in the different groups that have influence over outcomes in the debate over deployment of theatre nuclear weapons (NSNWs) in Europe. Within the discourse in NATO it strikes me that the upper hand is currently held by those who take the strategic security balance most seriously. While there are indeed spats behind closed doors over such issues as the possibility of trading such deployments for missile defense in order to maintain coupling the United States in Europe and in achieving some level of strategic burden-sharing, NATO muddles through and we achieve a compromise in which reductions are in some way linked to Russian reductions.

Chris is absolutely right about the Alliance being in a poor negotiating position in attempting to negotiate on tactical nuclear weapons, though he understates this weakness. Put it this way, if you were sitting in Moscow right now and of the mind that NATO is a strategic competitor and potential threat, would you not see the deployment of NATO’s TNW in Europe as a positive asset? After all, they are a significant cause of NATO division, have a time-bomb ticking under them when it comes to future investment decisions over the replacement of the dual capable aircraft, and present a next-to-insignificant threat to Russia. The Russians realize that the chances of these weapons being used against them whilst NATO possesses other more capable systems is next to zero. If I were a hard-nosed Russian I’d be wanting that situation to continue – I certainly wouldn’t want to negotiate what I perceived as valuable assets away (whatever they may be) in order to improve the situation for NATO cohesion and comfort.

I said earlier that I thought the group taking strategic concerns most seriously had the upper hand within NATO, but there is another group, and that is the German public, who indirectly through their representatives, may in the end unravel the nuclear sharing practices by resolutely refusing to invest in any new aircaft. And this largely boils down to beliefs summarized not as pacifism, but rather a belief that the Cold War has ended, in beliefs in draw-down, in global regimes that reduce the salience of nuclear weapons, and lock countries into commitments that reduce and then eliminate nuclear weapons. It is a narrative that involves a more benign view of the possibilities of reconciliation with Russia, but it is also about an approach that seeks to achieve a sustainable security. It includes an assumption that you don’t achieve direction of travel by always engaging in threats or building up leverage for the next negotiation in a manner that leaves one's negotiating partner feeling vulnerable beforehand and that seeks to achieve maximum security at others’ expense.

This, of course, is seen by strategists as naïve, and exists outside their frame of reference. For one to step into the other’s frame in order to engage with it on the terms of the other is to give a great deal up and face the possibility that one’s own preferred way of looking at the world is simply not respected by those we seek to engage with. But such an approach is necessary is we are to overcome what I describe often as the dialogue of the deaf. Unfortunately, outcomes have rarely been determined by attempts such an engagement.

In this case, at a time of tough budgetary choices and growing anti-nuclear sentiment, it is likely that the German public hold many of the trump cards. The German government will hold on to their nuclear capable Tornado bombers only for so long (perhaps a decade), and the replacement [Eurofighter] Typhoon aircraft are very unlikely to be nuclear capable (they could be modified, but this may involve giving US technicians access to commercially sensitive information, and would involve an explicit budget line likely to be opposed by the Bundestag).  These are hard political realities that cannot easily be dismissed by strategists bemoaning the idealistic nature of the Germans.  One diplomat from another NATO state said to me recently something along the lines of “thank God the Germans don’t have nuclear aspirations, but it is giving us tremendous headaches.”

The current compromise in NATO that makes further reductions in theatre nuclear weapons contingent on the results of negotiations with Russia seeks the best of both worlds but instead falls between stalls and will fail.  Chris Ford’s piece on INF recognizes this, but his response – to build up NATO’s capacities in areas that will concern the Russians – I believe makes a great deal of sense within its own frame, but runs too great a risk of harming an important relationship with Russia, entrenching views and creating a new arms race.  NATO has more than enough assets already in its bargaining bag with Russia to exact cooperation, should it choose to include them – namely missile defense, conventional capabilities, novel technologies surrounding strategic conventional missiles on the drawing board, and greater collaboration over security talks including assurances to Russia.  One’s reaction to all of this might in the end depend upon whether you see this as an inevitable long-term competition for ultimate dominance, given the nature of the Russians, ourselves and the systems of interaction we find ourselves in, or whether you see opportunities in transcending this perceived inevitability by changing the rules of the game.  Or perhaps I’m being closed minded by putting it in this binary way?

-- Paul Ingram


Thanks to Paul Ingram for his thoughtful response to my earlier piece.  The suggestion I made in that essay (“NATO, ‘Nuclear Sharing,’ and the ‘INF Analogy’” [March 30, 2011])  of building up a conventional prompt-strike capability and using it to “balance” Russian NSNW is indeed not one without risks – nor without costs.  (That was true of NATO’s INF counter-deployment as well, though in that case things turned out quite well.)  My hunch is that the biggest potential “showstopper” for such a plan wouldn’t be the risks Paul suggests of playing into Russian threat perceptions, however, but rather the unwillingness of timorous European leaders to provide either the money or the political willpower necessary to make such a plan succeed – especially in the face of the inevitable blustery complaints and possible saber-rattling that would issue from Moscow right up until the very moment a deal was reached.

In response to Paul’s response, however, I should probably clear up one thing: I am not an obsessive over Russia’s NSNW numerical advantage.  I certainly don’t like the Russian advantage, and think it’s important to reduce the Russian numbers.  Fundamentally, however, I don’t think that particular imbalance is catastrophic.  (I agree with the point Elbridge Colby made, in his own earlier NPF essay [“Guiding Principles for the New Nuclear Guidance” (April 11, 2011)] that “there is no objective military need for U.S. forces to match Moscow’s in number or type – we have our own set of targets, they have theirs.  As long as our forces can fulfill their missions, their numerical relation to Russia’s is immaterial.”)  Despite the numerical differences, the aggregate nuclear status quo vis-à-vis Moscow is not particularly disadvantageous to the United States or its allies at this time, and the overall balance of military power between the two countries is not “broken” from either a U.S. or a NATO perspective.  Russia periodically rattles its nuclear saber at our Eastern European allies, but so far the alliance has remained sound despite such problems.  (How we handle the future of “nuclear sharing” issues within NATO could affect this, but things seem alright so far.)  Especially if we contemplate further U.S. reductions, it is in our security interest to reduce Russia’s numerical preponderance in the NSNW arena – and it still is, ceteris paribus, a good thing to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in existence – but I don’t think strict parity is a requirement.

It is actually the opponents of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe that are most unhappy with the nuclear status quo, insofar as they seek to remove America’s remaining weapons from Europe – in some cases, perhaps, whether or not Russian NSNW numbers also come down.  That’s why I am intrigued by Paul’s comment that the biggest nuclear problems right now are within the Alliance, and that Russia may actually like NATO being divided against itself over American NSNW.

In Paul’s description, NATO’s NSNW debates both result from and illustrate a basic divergence between geopolitical worldviews, with a traditional “strategic” mindset now being challenged by an appeal to “sustainable security” in which negotiating partners should be made to feel secure and comfortable by concessions made “beforehand” – that is, before formal negotiations actually commence.  In fact, Paul sees German public opinion as being so taken with this latter logic (if that’s the right word) that Berlin is liable to preempt a collective Alliance NSNW decision by simply opting out, as it were, of “nuclear sharing” by allowing its dual capable aircraft (DCA) capabilities to disappear.  At a time of “tough budgetary choices and growing anti-nuclear sentiment,” Paul writes, it is thus “likely that the German public hold many of the trump cards.”

And it’s possible he’s right.  As I noted in my earlier NPF essay, I do fear the Alliance-corrosive effects of such procurement policy unilateralism – particularly, though perhaps not exclusively, by the Germans.  On its face, the Alliance might face a troubling choice between the incompatible preferences of two key groups of NATO partners, in which a decision to favor either party could have worrisome implications for Alliance solidarity and redound to the advantage of actual or potential adversaries.  I don’t want to overplay the challenges of the nuclear choice, for – as I noted in my earlier essay – the NSNW issue is only one part of the much bigger dynamic whole that is NATO.  Might there be ways for NATO to answer this challenge short of adopting the “INF option” of seeking NSNW negotiations after undertaking some kind of countervailing deployment?

The most logical answer to NATO’s problems of being divided internally over NSNW basing and potential future threats from Russia, of course, is simply to adjust the cast of characters involved in Alliance “nuclear sharing” arrangements.  If some of the more pacifist and/or anti-nuclear Western European governments want to suspend their participation in such “sharing,” but some Eastern members – nervously looking east to a Kremlin that used to rule them with a brutal hand, still seeks to bully them, and sometimes practices actually nuking them – think that contingency planning for wartime “nuclear sharing” contributes to their security, the obvious answer is to shift NATO nuclear capabilities to those Eastern states.

Such a shift in nuclear weapons basing is presently against NATO policy, of course.  Even if consensus could not be reached on a new distribution of capabilities, however, a shift in weapon basing may not be the only way to address this problem.  Adjusting DCA basing may be another.  If Germany, for instance, allows its DCA capability to atrophy, what would prevent, say, Poland, or one of the Baltic states, from itself purchasing dual-capable aircraft?

Even if the U.S. weapons themselves remained based in more westerly locations – which they should, absent Alliance agreement on a change – this might prove rather useful. Perhaps the development of such an “Eastern option” for DCA capabilities, for instance, would finally be something with which we could usefully bargain if we want to take a diplomatic swing at the Russian NSNW problem.  Even were we to fail to get much negotiating traction with Russia, however, we would probably still have strengthened deterrence, for a shift in DCA locations might actually make NATO’s nuclear policy more credible than before.  (An Eastern state more directly threatened by Russia – or Iran, for that matter – would be more likely to use “shared” weapons in time of war, and would surely feel more reassured by its Alliance relationship on account of having its own role in “sharing” than were it to continue to depend so much upon a grumpily nucleophobic Germany.  If a new DCA-possessor maintained its aircraft at a higher state of readiness than today’s notably leisurely NATO DCA standard, moreover, this might more than make up for the impact on operational readiness of needing first to fly west in order to upload wartime ordnance.)

Acquiring such an “Eastern option,” moreover, would presumably be something that an Eastern NATO member could do “unilaterally” – albeit with U.S. cooperation, of course, since what would be at issue is the aircraft’s ability to carry U.S. weapons. After all, if Germany can get out of the DCA business without Alliance agreement, why could not Poland or a Baltic state get in on its own initiative?  (In fact, such a shift might be an appropriate and enjoyably piquant response to ideologically-driven German DCA unilateralism – which, indeed, the mere availability of such an “Eastern option” might help deter.)

Anyway, that’s just food for thought.  Many thanks to Paul Ingram for contributing so thoughtfully to this NPF dialogue.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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