The Wrong Move: Adding Nuclear Weapons to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

U.S. Air Force crew chiefs and other maintainers from the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron prepare U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base. Mo., March 19, 2011.

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kenny Holston

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U.S. Air Force crew chiefs and other maintainers from the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron prepare U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers at Whiteman Air Force Base. Mo., March 19, 2011.

Despite the wishes of two key Congressmen, more nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe is a bad idea.

You may have missed it, but last month two key members of Congress asked the military to move additional U.S. nuclear weapons and dual-capable aircraft into Eastern Europe.

Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, sent a joint letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry advocating the addition of new sites in Eastern Europe for the deployment of additional U.S. nuclear weapons and dual-capable aircraft.

In their letter, the two chairmen extend a Russian statement claiming its sovereign “right” to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea to an “intention” to do so. They also assert Russian “moves to deploy nuclear-capable Iskander short-range ballistic missiles as well as nuclear-capable Backfire bombers in the illegally occupied territory [Crimea].”

There is no evidence that Russia has taken or is preparing to take any of these actions; but the letter alleges that they pose a new military threat to U.S. allies and our forces in Europe, and that the U.S. must respond “to change President [Vladimir] Putin’s calculus.” 

Declared U.S. policy is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security, not to employ them in hopes of intimidating a hostile head of state.

Fortunately, nuclear weapons have played no overt role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea or its ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine. And while the U.S. and its European allies must react, introducing a nuclear confrontation into the already dangerous situation is more likely to cause Putin to respond in kind than to change his calculus. Declared U.S. policy is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security, not to employ them in hopes of intimidating a hostile head of state.

Russia’s possible deployment of nuclear weapons in Crimea would provide it little, if any, additional military capability. In fact, Russian dual-capable weapons in that area are not a new development; Russia’s naval fleet in the Black Sea has had a nuclear capability since well before the conclusion of the Cold War. Additionally, if Russia were to locate Backfire bombers in Crimea, which would require extensive upgrading of the Gvardiesky airbase, it would provide no additional reach to Western Europe or vicinity. Why overreact to a militarily ineffective provocation even if it should occur?    

For whatever deterrent value they may provide, the U.S. already has some 200 B-61 nuclear bombs based in Europe, along with dual-capable aircraft to deliver them. Deploying additional tactical nuclear weapons to Europe would escalate tensions between NATO and Russia while providing no additional security to our allies or to U.S. forces deployed there. As noted by then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, our tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe have no uniquely military function that cannot be provided by our other nuclear weapons.  

Deploying additional U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to Europe would make them more vulnerable to a Russian preemptive attack, even with conventional weapons, in the event of an escalating crisis. Also, it is well-known that Russia possesses a far larger stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons than the U.S. has in its inventory. Russia could be tempted to employ its tactical nuclear weapons superiority to take out the U.S. weapons deployed in Europe in the mistaken belief that it could confine the conflict to Western Europe. 

(Related: Obama’s Trillion Dollar Nuclear Weapons Gamble)

In addition, the role of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in allied NATO countries has been a topic of contention for years. Some East European allies welcome the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe for symbolic assurance of their security, while some Western European allies oppose their presence as unnecessarily provocative and dangerous. Following a determination that our nuclear sites in Europe were not secure, the United Kingdom actually insisted on the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from its territory. While Russian aggression has quieted calls for removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe, the addition of more nuclear weapons to NATO countries would cause a serious split in the alliance.

Moreover, preparing additional sites in Europe to accommodate tactical nuclear weapons would require a significant financial commitment at a time of budget austerity with far higher priorities for scarce resources allocated to defense. Given the concern over budget caps and sequestration, syphoning defense dollars from conventional priorities to provide funds for this unnecessary and expensive proposal gives new meaning to the definition of “counterproductive.”

Deploying additional U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and more dual-capable aircraft in Europe provides no advantage: It would be an expensive initiative that would add nothing to our security, divert funds from higher priority defense expenditures, likely provoke Russia to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea, increase the possibility of nuclear war, and be divisive amongst our NATO allies.   

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