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NATO nuclear adaptation since 2014: the return of deterrence and renewed Alliance discomfort


For most of the post-Cold War era, modernization for NATO has meant a reduced role for nuclear weapons and an enhanced role for crisis management policy and politico-diplomatic partnership. This NATO approach advanced cohesion among allies, some of which were politically uncomfortable with if not borderline opposed to nuclear deterrence. Allied comfort is now under siege, however. Russian military doctrine threatens the early use of nuclear weapons, and states such as Iran and North Korea expose fault lines in the nuclear arms control regime that in recent years has sought to further the full abolition of nuclear weapons. NATO finds itself challenged by the twin requirements of ensuring credible deterrence and meeting the concerns of Alliance members who thought reliance on nuclear weapons was a thing of the past.

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  1. See ‘Wales Summit Declaration Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales’, 5 September 2014, para. 22, at; also ‘Warsaw Summit Communique issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw, 8–9 July 2016’, NATO Press Release (2016) 100, 9 July 2016, at

  2. See Nuclear Posture Review (Washington: Department of Defense, 2018), at and Brussels Summit Declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, 11–12 July 2018, NATO Press Release (2018) 074, at

  3. See Record [1]. October 1953 was the date of National Security Council memorandum 162/2 instructing the Joint Chiefs of Staff to base their defence plans in Europe on the massive use of nuclear weapons.

  4. Secretary of Defence Clark Clifford, quoted in Leitenberg [2].

  5. See O’Neill [3], Figs. 1–4, p. 46; Kristensen [4].

  6. See Norris et al. [5].

  7. See Freedman [6]; Arbman and Thornton [7]; and U.S. Department of Defense, Soviet Military Power, 1981.

  8. France did not participate in this special meeting of ministers that led to the dual-track agreement.

  9. See Larsen [8]

  10. ‘London Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance’, Issued by the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council, 5–6 July 1990, para. 4, at

  11. ‘Final Communiqué’, NATO Defence Planning Committee and Nuclear Planning Group, 6–7 December 1990, para. 13.

  12. ‘Final Communiqué: Ministerial Meeting of the Defence Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Group’, NATO Press Release M-DPC/NPG-1 (1991) 87, 7 June 1991, para. 8. Emphasis added.

  13. For the U.S. Presidential Nuclear Initiative and Russia’s responses, see Larsen and Klingenberger [9], Appendices C and D, pp. 273–290.

  14. NATO Nuclear Fact Sheets [10]. para. 64.

  15. Quote from McGuire AFB website,, reprinted in Alexander and Millar [11], p. 190, endnote 8. President Bush declared in July 1992 that ‘…all of the planned withdrawals are complete. All ground-launched tactical nuclear weapons have been returned to U.S. territory, as have all naval tactical nuclear weapons’. George H.W. Bush, ‘Statement on the United States Nuclear Weapons Initiative’, 2 July 1992.

  16. NATO Handbook, pp. 54–55.

  17. The current arsenal strengths for both the UK and France are widely reported. See, for example, Cirincione et al. [12], ‘France’, p. 191; and Kristensen [13].

  18. Unofficial data on basing can be found in Kristensen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe, p. 8.

  19. NATO Handbook, p. 12.

  20. The three nos were originally announced by NATO’s Foreign and Defence Ministers in December 1996, and reiterated by the NATO Heads of State and Government at the May 1997 ‘Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation’. It repeated at the NATO-Russia Summit in Rome in May 2002, which established the NATO-Russia Council, and at the November 2002 Prague Summit. An important though implicit ‘fourth no’ was the NATO commitment to not build or reopen any closed Warsaw Pact nuclear weapons storage sites in new member states for use as potential future storage facilities. Interviews in Europe, March 2006.

  21. NATO’s Nuclear Fact Sheets, p. 13.

  22. ‘Joint Statement on Parameters of Future Nuclear Reductions’, Clinton-Yeltsin Summit, Helsinki, 21 March 1997, at

  23. There were differences in perspective on these two points which had been carried over from the debate over MC14/2, the strategy of flexible response, in the mid-1960s. Europeans generally supported the deterrence value of nuclear weapons, whereas the USA also considered the potential flexible use of tactical nuclear weapons in a warfighting sense.

  24. See Larsen [14]; also ‘Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons’, CRS Report RL32572, Congressional Research Service, updated January 2019, at

  25. The 1999 NATO Strategic Concept, repeating the nuclear paragraphs from the 1991 version of the NATO Handbook, included this phrase: ‘The presence of United States conventional and nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America.’ ‘The Alliance’s Strategic Concept, 24 April 1999, para. 42, available at

  26. ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’, adopted by the Heads of State and Government in Lisbon, 19 November 2010, available at

  27. Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, para. 12, NATO Press Release (2012) 063, Chicago, 20 May 2012, para. 8, available at

  28. Ibid., see footnote 27.

  29. ‘Remarks by President Barack Obama in Prague as Delivered’, White House Press Release, 5 April 2009, at

  30. 2010 NATO Strategic Concept.

  31. See Roberts [15].

  32. See Durkalec [16].

  33. See Putin [17]. Also see Putin’s 12 February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, at

  34. Ibid. It is apparent in retrospect that at the time very few Western observers recognized the menace or sincerity in Putin’s challenge to the existing international order.

  35. For a summary of Russian nuclear policy today, see Sokov [18]. Also see Persson [19] and Schneider [20].

  36. See Larsen and Kartchner [21].

  37. ‘Vladimir Putin’s Speech on 1 March 2018: Are you Listening, America?’ on ‘The New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond’ website at

  38. See footnote 26.

  39. ‘Wales Summit Declaration Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales’, 5 September 2014, para. 22, at

  40. See Larsen [22]. Also ‘The Shadow NATO Summit IV: NATO’s 360-Degree Approach to Deterrence and Collective Defence: Over-Stretched and Under-Powered?’ conference report, 9 July 2018, at

  41. Details of the conventional improvements made by NATO since 2014 are well covered by other authors in this Special Edition.

  42. Wales Summit Declaration, para. 50.

  43. ‘Warsaw Summit Communique issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw, 8–9 July 2016’, NATO Press Release (2016) 100, 9 July 2016, at See also Lasconjarias [23] and Kacprzyk [24].

  44. Warsaw Summit Communique, para. 6.

  45. Ibid., para. 53.

  46. Ibid., para. 53.

  47. Ibid., para. 54.

  48. Brussels Summit Declaration, see footnote 2.

  49. Ibid., para. 14. The 30/30/30 over 30 commitment is one for which member states agreed to provide from within their overall pool of forces, 30 major naval combatant ships, 30 heavy or medium manoeuvre brigades, and 30 kinetic air squadrons within 30-day readiness.

  50. Ibid., para. 33.

  51. Ibid., para 34.

  52. Ibid., para 44.

  53. Deterrence and Defence Posture Review.

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  55. Nuclear Posture Review Report (Washington: Office of the Secretary of Defense, April 2010), at

  56. Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence (Washington: Department of Defense, January 2012), at

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  58. 2018 NPR.

  59. 2018 NPR quoted in Durkalec, p. 18.

  60. Record, p. 68.

  61. These are not new perspectives. For an explanation of the use of such terminology, see Larsen [27].

  62. See Knorr [28].

  63. See Woolf [29]. Also see Lunn [30] and Shulte [31].

  64. For representative reporting on this modernization dilemma, see Goure [32].


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Larsen, J.A. NATO nuclear adaptation since 2014: the return of deterrence and renewed Alliance discomfort. J Transatl Stud 17, 174–193 (2019).

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