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Extended Nuclear Deterrence and Participation: Overcome Together, Don’t Go It Alone

With Pope Francis’ condemnation of nuclear deterrence, and the Holy See’s position in favor of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the Catholic Church has abandoned its interim tolerance of the strategy.

This change in attitude creates a conflict of conscience for Catholic-oriented members of the German armed forces, since Germany is committed to NATO and the NATO Alliance sees its ultimate guarantee of security in the threat of using nuclear weapons to deter an attack. These weapons are mainly those of the United States, but also of the smaller, autonomously acting nuclear powers – the United Kingdom and France. In addition, Germany – like Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands – is committed to “nuclear sharing”. This means that American atomic bombs are stored in these countries and can be used in defense by national fighter pilots, once authorization is given by the U.S. president.

The German Commission for Justice and Peace has published a detailed justification of the change in attitude by the Catholic Church, in a position paper entitled “Outlawing Nuclear Weapons as the Start of Nuclear Disarmament”. The Commission focuses mainly on the unjustifiable consequences for the civilian population of using nuclear weapons, which are in violation of international humanitarian law and at the root of ethical concerns.

These arguments are not new, but this is an opportunity to reopen a public and transparent discussion about nuclear deterrence – a topic long absent from public discourse – especially as these are questions of existential importance. However, the many dimensions of this complex issue must be weighed up to enable responsible political decisions and provide individual guidance.

Historical roots of nuclear deterrence

During the Second World War, civilian populations were exposed to large-scale enemy aerial bombardments. While these were initially accepted as the “collateral damage” of attacks on military targets, the targets of “strategic bombing” later on in the war included the arms industry, transport infrastructure and urban civilian populations. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 marked the terrible climax of Allied “strategic” aerial warfare, but also its end. Its purpose was to force the enemy to surrender, not only by destroying the war economy and disrupting logistical lines of communication, but also by demoralizing the civilian population through high losses to such an extent that even an authoritarian regime had to give up.

However, historical judgment remained divided over the extent to which air strikes of this kind actually decided the outcome of the war, and whether this strategy was ethically and politically justifiable – especially since they were obviously a serious violation of international law. During the Korean War (1950-53), the first signs became apparent that the civilized world would shy away from a war of this kind in the future. The concept of “self-deterrence” was born, and with it the question of whether threatening such a strategy would credibly deter war anymore. Especially in the English-speaking world, however, the previously unimaginable effects of area bombing and a few “superweapons” were remembered as a means of waging war that promised victory without high military losses on the battlefield.

With the onset of the Cold War in Europe, this interpretation gained new political significance. The West, led by the United States and Great Britain, feared that the Soviet Union together with its allies could use its huge conventional superiority to overrun Western Europe. But it did not seem politically or economically justifiable to station enough conventional forces in Western Europe to establish a military balance there. In this context, recourse to the threat of nuclear escalation seemed to be a strategic solution that would deter an attack and maintain peace. The first nuclear strategy of the United States and Great Britain was therefore to threaten to destroy the enemy’s population centers (“counter-city” targeting) in response to an attack.

Initially, the NATO strategy assigned only a “tripwire” function to conventional armed forces.1 They were supposed to clearly identify an attack and briefly delay it before the Allied nuclear powers responded with massive nuclear strikes against the enemy’s industrial and population centers, as well as the political leadership. However, this thinking had to be revised once it became clear that the Soviet Union was also capable of threatening Western Europe with short and medium-range nuclear weapons. Since then, it has been a Western European and especially a German concern to avoid a nuclear war on the potential battlefield in Central Europe, as well as the destruction wrought by conventional mobile warfare.2

Consequently, NATO had to strengthen its conventional forces in order to repel an attack as far “forward” as possible, and limit or if necessary contain the need for a nuclear escalation. Although the establishment of the Bundeswehr from 1955 onward significantly improved the conventional position of the NATO Alliance, it did not resolve the fundamental dilemma. Nonetheless, NATO relied on U.S. nuclear weapons having the potential for “escalation dominance”, meaning that the USSR would be unable to achieve any significant military advantages before its losses reached an intolerable level.3 To be able to conduct the escalation in stages and crush conventional attacks without immediately triggering a nuclear inferno, “tactical” nuclear weapons were assigned to conventional armed forces. These could be used against military targets on the battlefield and in the Communications Zone up to the Soviet border.4 Strategic nuclear forces were now also focused on military targets such as the command system, communication routes, central logistics and the enemy’s air and missile forces (“counter-force” doctrine).

However, by the time the Cuban Missile Crisis ended in 1962, and with the Soviets developing intercontinental missiles, it became evident that this strategy had reached its limits. The Soviet Union was on the way to achieving nuclear parity with the United States. It was now able to keep the United States’ core territory under nuclear threat even without geographically advanced medium-range missiles. With the development of survivable components in the strategic nuclear “triad” – land-based intercontinental missiles (ICBMs), sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy combat bombers with intercontinental range – the Soviet Union now had a strategic “second-strike capability” like the United States. This means that even when the attacker has triggered a “first strike”, the country hit still has enough strategic nuclear weapons to be able to annihilate the attacker’s heartland too. From now on, NATO’s escalation concept had to be formulated under conditions of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Conceptual dilemmas of “enhanced nuclear deterrence”

NATO responded to these strategic changes by adapting its military strategy and strengthening its conventional forces. The 1968 “flexible response” strategy envisaged a three-stage concept for deterring an attack.5 First, “direct defense” would seek to repel an attack close to the border and avoid a nuclear escalation if possible. If the enemy continued the attack, NATO threatened “deliberate escalation”, i.e. selective “first use” with limited nuclear strikes to end the war (“intra-war deterrence”). If the enemy were to escalate further, they would be threatened with a “general nuclear response” by the NATO nuclear powers and their allies.

Accordingly, deterrence meant credible communication of the military capability and political will to successfully repel an attack (denial), or inflicting incalculable and unacceptable costs on the attacker that would be out of all proportion to any advantages gained from the military aggression (punishment). This was based on the assumption that the enemy would recognize the intention and act rationally.

Since the late 1960s, nuclear parity and the strategic second strike capability of the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) have posed an almost insoluble dilemma for NATO’s escalation concept. Firstly, it is a dictate of reason that both nuclear powers have to avoid a strategic exchange of nuclear strikes against their core territories (“sanctuaries”) and their critical military and civilian infrastructure, as this would result in mutual destruction. Since that time, mutual deterrence of the strategic “first strike” has been the main task of the “strategic triad”. On the other hand, the United States and NATO have stuck to the concept of “extended deterrence”, i.e. the threat of selective nuclear escalation with the use of “tactical” but also longer-range nuclear weapons, in order to deter a conventional attack on Western Europe. However, the Soviet conventional armed forces were also equipped with numerous “tactical” nuclear weapons. In addition, Soviet medium-range missiles and long-range bombers could pose a nuclear threat to Western Europe.

NATO’s nuclear planning was thus faced with the task of formulating a deterrence concept that threatened a potential attacker with the risk of intolerable costs, while also declaring its own risks of a nuclear escalation to be limitable or acceptable in such a way that the threat of escalation would not be undermined by obvious self-deterrence. Yet when NATO’s political guidelines for nuclear operational planning were drawn up, the differences in interests between the U.S. as a nuclear power and the states of the “Central Europe battlefield” became clearly apparent. While the United States for obvious reasons sought to avoid an early strategic escalation, Germany and its immediate neighbors feared that deliberate escalation could trigger a nuclear escalation spiral and develop into a regionally limited nuclear war at the expense of the Central Europeans.6

In the absence of any clear solution to this dilemma, the Alliance opted for a strategy of ambivalence that emphasized the incalculability of the risks to an attacker, but disregarded the likely unacceptable consequences of a nuclear escalation for the Allies. In their view, it was neither possible nor necessary to agree on a specific, pre-planned escalation model in the event of a conventional attack, provided that it was possible to keep the enemy in the dark and burden him with the incalculable risks of further escalation. This in turn relied on NATO having a large number of options available, and the assumption that the enemy could not predict the Alliance’s response. The Alliance’s “escalation dominance” was to be maintained in every conceivable scenario and thus deter the potential aggressor.7

Given this situation, the United States kept a broad arsenal of different “tactical” (substrategic) weapons available for NATO in Europe, from anti-submarine weapons and anti-aircraft missiles to nuclear shells for the artillery, short-range missiles, and free-fall bombs that could be used by “dual-capable” combat aircraft. At the same time, NATO was also allocated a number of strategic nuclear weapons for planning purposes. Germany in particular attached importance to the fact that selective first use sent a political signal that nuclear escalation could not be limited to the Central European battlefield. Germany therefore called for the conceptual integration of strategic for­ces at an early stage.8 The United States, on the other hand, emphasized the need to use tactical nuclear weapons if necessary to defeat an attack in Central Europe and on NATO’s European flanks. They should not only be available for “selective escalation”, but also be used in the event of a “general nuclear response”.

The compromise concept of not committing to anything but preparing everything eventually resulted in the provision of more than 7,000 U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe,9 of which 5,000 were stored in West Germany. To calculate the required number of warheads, the various delivery systems had to be taken into account as well as their regional availability, their operational distribution, and the need to form a reserve to compensate for any losses.

The Soviet Union also provided around 3,000 “tactical” nuclear weapons for its stationed forces in Europe.10 In addition, it threatened Western Europe with medium-range missiles. The Soviet military strategy in the event of war was to go on the offensive with rapid and deep attacks. They assumed that the use of nuclear weapons was inevitable. This is what created the dilemma in NATO’s escalation concept: while the concept might limit NATO’s own first use, the enemy could act reciprocally, thus knocking holes in the defense and continuing the attack. At any rate, the enemy’s reaction was as unpredictable as NATO’s escalation concept, and the danger of destroying the “battlefield” could not be dismissed. It was difficult to see how the war could be stopped if the enemy operated according to the same logic as NATO.

In France’s view, only the threat of strategic strikes against critical targets in the aggressor’s heartland was (and still is) capable of deterring regional nuclear war.11 Although this was not ruled out under NATO’s strategic concept, it was highly unlikely unless the U.S. was prepared to risk American cities to save German cities. On the other hand, Soviet offensive forces could be defeated militarily if the U.S. was also unscrupulous enough to destroy the battlefield of Central Europe. The question was how credible the Soviet leadership considered the one or the other option to be.

This is where the “decoupling debate” originates. It revolves around (Western) European fears of no longer being protected by U.S. strategic nuclear weapons when the United States had to prioritize its own survival interests. This debate intensified at the end of the 1970s following the deployment of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles, and finally led to the NATO Double-Track Decision of 1979. Consequently, from 1983 onward, the U.S. began stationing 108 Pershing II medium-range missiles and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK.12 They were able to hit critical targets in the Soviet heartland beyond Moscow. But since the 1967 Harmel Report, NATO had also offered détente: dialog and arms control.13

In response to NATO’s change of strategy, France withdrew from the Alliance’s military integration and nuclear planning in 1967, and has since pursued an independent nuclear strategy. West Germany maintained its status as a non-nuclear state, and took a different path. Driven by the concern that in the event of an attack on the Federal Republic, the U.S. would escalate too soon, too late, on too small a scale, on too large a scale, or not at all, it sought a say in nuclear planning primarily by means of “nuclear sharing”.14 U.S. nuclear warheads were assigned to hundreds of German delivery vehicles – fighter planes, anti-aircraft missiles, artillery pieces, short-range missiles and Pershing 1a medium-range missiles. In peacetime, they were guarded by American custodial teams; but in the event of a conflict they could be used by German units if authorized by the U.S. president. As a result, German delivery vehicles could cover not only the German “battlefield” but also the Soviet-controlled glacis up to the Polish-Soviet border, with fighter bombers and – the only country apart from the United States to have them – Pershing 1a missiles.

“Nuclear sharing” pursued several objectives:

  • to tie the United States to Germany, since U.S. troops and nuclear weapons would have been directly affected in the event of an attack, and their deployment and use seemed inevitable;
  • risk and burden sharing in the Alliance, especially since Germany also shared responsibility for the use of nuclear weapons and was a potential target area due to its geographical location;
  • securing a special role for Germany in NATO’s nuclear planning alongside the U.S. and UK as nuclear-weapon powers;
  • the creation of an additional risk for Soviet armed forces, as it remained unclear at what point American weapons would be authorized for use via German delivery systems;
  • and not least a “second key” for Germany for the use of nuclear weapons on and from German soil, since despite their operational assignment to NATO in the event of war, the delivery systems were ultimately under the authority of the German chancellor, not the U.S. president. This meant that the chancellor could also prevent “German” nuclear operations.

Changes in the political ­environment and missed ­opportunities

Initiated by President Gorbachev’s reform policy and the West’s offer of dialog, the end of the Cold War offered the opportunity to reduce the military threat and replace confrontation with future security cooperation. Its first tangible expression was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of December 1987 between the United States and the Soviet Union, which prohibited the possession, production and testing of land-based intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 km. In May 1991, all of the approximately 2,700 ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in this category were dismantled, with intrusive verification measures.15 That same year, the bilateral Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) limited the number of deployed strategic delivery systems to 1,600, with a maximum of 6,000 nuclear warheads.16

The INF Treaty was followed in 1990 by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty), which reduced and limited key categories of conventional military equipment in Europe. It created a military balance between the two blocs at that time, and led to the elimination of around 50,000 treaty-limited weapon systems by 1996. Russia and Germany bore the main burden of the reductions.17 Further reductions, including voluntary ones, followed until the turn of the millennium. The number of dismantled weapon systems rose to over 100,000.

The unification of Germany, the Paris Charter of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and its conversion into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the withdrawal of Russian troops from Central Europe and the Baltic States, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of the Soviet Union marked the historical paradigm shift. The likelihood of an Alliance conflict had diminished, and with it the need to keep a large number of nuclear weapons ready for a nuclear escalation. Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan agreed that a nuclear war could never be won, and must never be fought.

In 1991/92, the presidents of the United States and the Soviet Union / Russia agreed to withdraw their tactical nuclear weapons (almost) completely from the stationing countries and to reduce their numbers considerably without any treaty agreements. However, the U.S. still retained around 600 free-fall bombs in the “nuclear sharing” countries, partly due to German reservations.18 To date, the number of stationed nuclear weapons is thought to have fallen to 150, of which about 20 are in Germany.

Although NATO’s strategic concept19 from now on stressed that the option of nuclear use was very distant under the given circumstances, it stuck to the principle of nuclear deterrence and never formally gave up the first-use option.

This stance also played a role in NATO’s eastward expansion, which from 1999 to date has led to the accession of 14 countries in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Moscow’s concerns that NATO troops and American nuclear guarantees were moving closer to Russia’s borders, destroying the CFE Treaty’s concept of balance and jeopardizing the goal of security cooperation, were taken into account by the Alliance in the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. Initially, this considered only three accession countries and gave an assurance that there would not be any additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces in those countries. There was also no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. Furthermore, there was a commitment to adapt the CFE Treaty to the new situation, to strengthen the OSCE with the aim of creating a common space of security without dividing lines, and also to foster closer security cooperation between NATO and Russia.20

Despite these renewed efforts to preserve the strategic balance of interests through declarations of restraint, Moscow after the turn of the millennium feared that the U.S. had started a new geopolitical zero-sum game to Russia’s disadvantage. The initial reason for this was the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, and its announcement that it would set up a strategic missile defense system in the continental U.S., in Europe and at sea. The Kremlin saw this as an attempt to undermine Russia’s second-strike capability in the long term. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Kremlin had expressed its solidarity and supported the Afghanistan mission, but in 2003 it condemned the intervention in Iraq, as it did also in the case of the Kosovo and Libya interventions (1999/2011), as a violation of international law and a departure from the rules-based world order.

Although the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (Adapted CFE Treaty) was signed by all States Parties to the CFE Treaty, it was ratified by only four, including Russia. The U.S. exerted pressure in the Alliance to prevent the ratification of the Adapted CFE Treaty, while at the same time pushing ahead with NATO’s eastward expansion, stationing troops in Romania and Bulgaria, and finally pressing for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. This led to a radical change in policy in Moscow. At the end of 2007, Russia suspended its participation in the “old” CFE Treaty, whose concept of balance had become obsolete. The closer the U.S. moved its military presence to the Russian borders, as in Georgia, the more nervously Moscow reacted, and lent its support to separatist regimes in the post-Soviet territorial conflicts. The Georgian attack on Tskhinvali and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in August 2008 heralded a low point in relationships with the West.21

For a while, the “reset” policy initiated by President Obama in 2009 succeeded in re-establishing constructive relations with Russia. In 2010, further reductions in strategic nuclear weapons were agreed in the New START treaty, which permits a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads for up to 700 strategic delivery systems. A further 100 delivery vehicles can be kept in reserve. The treaty expires in February 2021. It can be extended for five years. But President Trump is hesitant and wants to involve China first.

The year 2014 marked a profound new paradigm shift in relationships between the West and Russia. On the assumption that a successful Maidan uprising would lead Ukraine into the Western camp, and that the U.S. could extend its military presence to the Don and the bases of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, Moscow annexed Crimea in violation of international law and supported rebels in eastern Ukraine. The justification given by Moscow of having to protect Russian compatriots fueled latent fears especially in the Baltic States and Poland. To deter similar Russian tactics on its north-eastern flank, NATO took military countermeasures.22 It stepped up air and maritime surveillance, strengthened its rapid reaction forces, and stationed limited combat contingents in the Baltic States, Poland and Romania. Since then, the issue of nuclear guarantees has been back on the agenda, and so the dilemmas of Cold War escalation theories have returned.

Current political and conceptual considerations

Today’s political and military situation is not comparable with that of the Cold War. The enlarged NATO extends geographically 700 to 1,000 km further east than in 1989. It is conventionally superior to Russia as a whole, even if Russian troops enjoy operational advantages over the Baltic countries. But Moscow has tied up forces in Ukraine and Syria, is compelled to support its few allies, and has reduced its military budget following a reform of its armed forces. It cannot and does not want to risk an alliance war with global consequences, yet fears strategic destabilization through missile defense and the “Prompt Global Strike” system, and is advancing the arms race with its own arms projects.

While the operational need for a NATO nuclear first use remains very small, the dilemma of the escalation logic of “extended deterrence” has become more acute. The geographical glacis that separated NATO from Russia during the Cold War has disappeared. Nuclear operations would have to take place either on Alliance territory or on Russian territory. But nuclear attacks against the “sanctuary” of a nuclear superpower carry a high risk of a reciprocal counter-strike against the attacker’s territory. It is true that the arms control agreements SALT I/II, INF, START I, SORT and New START as well as unilateral reductions in substrategic weapons have reduced the number and variety of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia to around 20 % of the stockpiles they possessed at the height of the Cold War. Yet both sides still have more than 6,000 warheads each, of which some 3,800 are in active service. This is about 91 % of the global nuclear weapons stockpile.23 The “bottom line” of a mutually assured destruction capability has not fundamentally changed.

Consequently, several American experts and government officials have drawn the conclusion that the U.S. needs to be capable of conducting and winning a regionally limited nuclear war, while at the same time deterring strategic escalation. This conclusion takes into account Western analysis that Russia could be tempted to secure any gains from an attack by means of a limited nuclear escalation.24 To nevertheless ensure the credibility of “extended deterrence”, “low-yield” warheads should be available for strategic and substrategic delivery systems so that the impacts of nuclear operations can be limited. In this context, the United States’ 2018 Nuclear Posture Review announced the development of such warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and sea-launched cruise missiles. The B61-3/4 free-fall bombs that are intended for nuclear sharing also allow variable detonation strengths. The current modification to the B61-12 version increases the precision and standoff capability of the bombs, which are also stationed in Germany.25 Although it would be difficult to justify the operational necessity of using nuclear weapons, there is an increased danger in a crisis that a limited nuclear war will be considered possible, and conducted at the expense of allies. This results from the national interests of the United States in avoiding an annihilating strategic exchange of strikes, and yet implementing extended deterrence in the event of a conflict.

The danger of nuclear proliferation is much more prominent today than it was during the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, the nuclear powers France and China as well as the potential nuclear powers South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Brazil signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Nearly all countries of the United Nations (UN) have now joined the treaty. But new nuclear powers have arisen which are not party to the NPT: India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Iran is also suspected of enriching fissile material in order to gain a nuclear option. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or “Iran Deal” of 2015 put a stop to this option and placed Iran under unprecedented IAEA monitoring activities. With President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, the conflict has intensified again.26

Not only the cases of Iran and North Korea show that the NPT has come under pressure. This is not just about escaping from the nuclear order to assert regional claims to power, or deter feared interventions. Many UN countries are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the stagnation of nuclear arms control, the renewed qualitative arms race, the resurgence of nuclear deterrence in military doctrines, and continuing inequality in the community of states. This is the main motive behind the new nuclear weapon ban treaty (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, TPNW) which justifies the ban mainly on grounds of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear operations.27

It is hard to deny that militarily “effective” nuclear operations to restore deterrence in a war situation and possible reciprocal actions would have terrible impacts on the civilian population, and grossly violate the international law precept that the harm caused during military attacks must be proportional. However, it could be that it is precisely these dreadful consequences of an escalation which, if threatened, could deter war.

Conclusive proof does not seem possible. Nevertheless, the revived theories about options for limited nuclear warfare should be vigorously opposed. In a conflict scenario, they could lower the threshold for a limited first use even against an equal nuclear power, and set in motion an incalculable spiral of escalation – which would be mainly at the expense of the regions involved. The modernization of the B61 bombs and the concept of nuclear sharing should also be reassessed in this light.

The German discussion on this subject must not be confined to the question of a successor model to the elderly Tornado fighter-bomber, which also has to perform many other tasks.28 Rather, it must be established whether and to what extent Germany can influence the U.S. nuclear doctrine and the American president’s authorization decisions, for example through NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). This group also includes countries that do not have nuclear-capable aircraft (known as dual-capable aircraft [DCA]) and do not station nuclear weapons. The NPG discusses the role of nuclear weapons in the Alliance’s strategic concept, and holds a vote in the event of conflict. However, it has no say over the American nuclear doctrine and the president’s authorization of nuclear weapons.29 This decision lies solely with the U.S. president, and his first commitment is to the vital interests of the American people.

Yet a responsible policy will also have to take into account the interests of European and Alliance cohesion. However much the logic of escalation is called into doubt, it cannot be denied that especially the Central and Eastern European Alliance partners firmly believe that the existence of American nuclear weapons in Europe serves their interests, and that nuclear sharing by Germany in particular, as a key state and logistical hub, binds the United States to Europe. Given the current crisis, German withdrawal from nuclear sharing would encourage the smaller sharing states to follow suit, but would alienate the NATO flank states and thus lead to a split in Europe and further destabilization of the European security order. A forward deployment of nuclear weapons in NATO’s frontline states, in violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, could not be ruled out.30 Russia would view this as a provocation and react.


The admonishing reference to the likely humanitarian consequences of nuclear operations is legitimate; from the point of view of the church and international law it is also necessary and ethically imperative. But any politically responsible position adopted by Germany must not ignore the consequences of unilateral withdrawal from nuclear sharing. The TPNW ban on membership of a nuclear alliance is currently incompatible with Germany’s leading role and responsibility for stability and solidarity in Europe. German policy should not only set normative goals, but must weigh up different values and act with concrete, effective and responsible steps, without losing sight of the goal of overcoming the logic of nuclear escalation.

To achieve this, German policy must first prevent further political and military destabilization in Europe. Second, it must oppose concepts that seek to promote the option of limited nuclear war and, within the Alliance, advocate limiting the role of nuclear weapons in the strategic concept. Third, it must preserve the integrity of the NPT and work to prevent a splitting of the NPT community of states into two opposing camps: one that continues to seek its security in the U.S. nuclear guarantee, and another that doubts the nuclear powers’ willingness to disarm, and supports a competing ban treaty. Germany should therefore adopt the role of a bridge-builder and driving force for the renewal of nuclear and conventional arms control.

In this context, the New START treaty must urgently be extended, as otherwise it will expire in eight months. This would allow time to negotiate a successor treaty that defines future strategic stability and takes account of new technological developments as well as other key actors. To prevent land-based medium-range missiles being stationed in Europe again following the end of the INF Treaty, conditions for a moratorium should be examined. Above all, the aim should be to de-escalate conflicts within and outside of Europe, and promote stabilizing arms control agreements in order to further reduce the role of nuclear weapons in Europe’s security. Even a renewed commitment to the declaration by Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan would send an important political signal: a nuclear war can never be won, and must never be fought.

1 Cf. German Federal Ministry of Defense (1970): Weißbuch 1970 zur Sicherheit der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und zur Lage der Bundeswehr. Bonn, p. 27; NATO Informationsabteilung (ed.) (1971): NATO. Tatsachen und Dokumente. Brussels, pp. 99 f.; overview in Walpuski, Günter, Verteidigung+Entspannung=Sicherheit. Texte und Materialien zur Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik. Bonn-Bad Godesberg 1973, pp. 15-22.

2 Cf. German Federal Ministry of Defense: Weißbuch zur Sicherheit der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und zur Lage der Bundeswehr. 1969, p. 20; 1970, p. 40; 1975/76, pp. 21, 26 f., 87; 1979, p. 124; Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt (MGFA) (ed.) (1975): Verteidigung im Bündnis. Planung, Aufbau und Bewährung der Bundeswehr 1950–1972. 2nd ed., Munich, pp. 180 f.; BMVg Fü H II 3 (2019): “Führungsrichtlinien für den Einsatz von Atomwaffen v. 18. Juli 1966.” In: Nübel, Christoph (ed.) (2019): Dokumente zur deutschen Militärgeschichte 1945–1990. Bundesrepublik Deutschland und DDR im Ost-West-Konflikt. Berlin. Document 87, pp. 375-383.

3 On the strategic problem of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) see Lutsch, Andreas (2020): Westbindung oder Gleichgewicht? Die nukleare Sicherheitspolitik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland zwischen Atomwaffensperrvertrag und NATO-Doppelbeschluss. Berlin/Boston, pp. 69-94; on escalation dominance cf. also Kahn, Herman (1965): On Escalation. New York.

4 Van Cleave, William R. and Cohen, S.T. (1978): Tactical Nuclear Weapons: An Examination of the Issues. New York, in particular pp. 55-63; MGFA (1975), pp. 47 f., 175 f.

5 NATO document MC 14/3 of January 16, 1968, adopted by the Military Committee on September 13, 1967 as MC 14/3: Overall Strategic Concept for the Defense of the NATO Area; cf. also MGFA (1975), p. 181; Nübel, Christoph (2019), document 91 (“Flexible Response” und Bundeswehr), pp. 393-403; cf. also Stratmann, K.P. (1981): NATO Strategie in der Krise? Militärische Optionen von NATO und Warschauer Pakt in Mitteleuropa. (Internationale Politik und Sicherheit, vol. 5.) Baden-Baden, pp. 59 ff.

6 Lutsch, Andreas (2020), pp. 345-360, 388 ff., particularly pp. 346-350, 355-357, 389-390; Nübel, Christoph (2019), document 114 (“Vorläufige Richtlinien für den defensiven taktischen Ersteinsatz von Atomwaffen durch die NATO” – Ihre Bedeutung für die BRD), pp. 515-520.

7 Cf. Lutsch, Andreas (2020), pp. 358 f..

8 Cf. Lutsch, Andreas (2020), p. 348, footnote 14. 

9 Cf. Lutsch, Andreas (2020), p. 357 with footnote 63.

10 In total, in all strategic directions, the USSR had about 21,700 tactical nuclear warheads, of which 6,700 were for army forces, 3,000 for air and missile defense, 7,000 for the air force, and 5,000 for the naval and naval air forces. Zagorski, Andrei (2011): Russia’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Posture, Politics and Arms Control. Hamburger Beiträge zur Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik. IFSH vol. 156. Hamburg, p. 16, table 2; cf. also Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abg. Dallmeyer u. a. und der Fraktion der CDU/CSU – Drucksache 9/653 – July 30, 1981, annex A. 

11 “Speech of the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron on the Defense and Deterrence Strategy”, February 7, 2020,; cf. also Tertrais, Bruno (2019): French nuclear deterrence policy, forces and future. Paris, January 2019, pp. 31-39. (accessed May 28, 2020).

12 Lutsch, Andreas (2020), pp. 736 ff.

13 MGFA (1975), p. 182.

14 MGFA (1975), pp. 176-177; in detail in Lutsch, Andreas (2020), pp. 368-373, 379-401, 407-432.

15 Cf. Richter, Wolfgang (2018): “Der INF-Vertrag vor dem Aus. Ein nuklearer Rüstungswettlauf könnte dennoch vermieden werden.” SWP-Aktuell 2018/A 63, November 2018. (accessed May 28, 2020).

16 Kimball, Daryl and Reif, Kingston (eds.) (2019): “U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agreements at a Glance. Fact Sheets & Briefs.” February 2019, (printed) p. 2. (accessed May 28, 2020).

17 “Schlussdokument der Ersten Konferenz zur Überprüfung der Wirkungsweise des Vertrags über konventionelle Streitkräfte in Europa und der Abschließenden Akte der Verhandlungen über Personalstärken” (of May 31, 1996). In: Zentrum für Verifikationsaufgaben der Bundeswehr (2006): Vertrag über konventionelle Streitkräfte in Europa (KSE-Vertrag) – Textsammlung. Vol. 2. Geilenkirchen, pp. 29 ff.; cf. also Richter, Wolfgang (2019): “Erneuerung der konventionellen Rüstungskontrolle in Europa. Vom Gleichgewicht der Blöcke zur regionalen Stabilität in der Krise.” SWP-Studie, July 2019, p. 14. (accessed May 28, 2020).

18 Kimball, Daryl and Reif, Kingston (eds.) (2019), (printed) p. 5.

19 NATO (2010): “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.” (Active Engagement, Modern Defence.) November 19, 2010, nos. 17-19, 26.

20 “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation”, Paris, May 27, 1997, Section IV. Political-Military Matters. (accessed May 28, 2020).

21 For an overview, see Richter, Wolfgang (2019), pp. 33 ff.

22 NATO (2014): “Wales Summit Declaration”. Press release 120/2014, September 5, 2014, nos. 8, 16-23. (accessed May 28, 2020). NATO (2016): “Warsaw Summit Communiqué”. Press release 100/2016, July 9, 2016, nos. 36-41.; NATO (2018): “Brussels Summit Declaration”. Press release 74/2018, July 11, 2018, nos. 6, 47. (accessed May 28, 2020).

23 Cf. the table in Davenport, Kelsey and Reif, Kingston (2019): “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance. Fact Sheets & Briefs.” (accessed May 28, 2020).

24 U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense (2018): Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) 2018, pp. 8, 30, 53 f.; Colby, Elbridge (2018): “Against the Great Powers: Reflections on Balancing Nuclear and Conventional Power.” In: Texas National Security Review, November 27, 2018. (accessed May 28, 2020); Loukionova, F.A. (2017): “The Evolving Russian Concept of Strategic Deterrence: Risks and Responses.” In: Arms Control Today no. 47 (6), pp. 15-20; Congressional Research Service R45861 (2020): “Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization.” Updated January 2, 2020. pp. 3-7 “Russian Nuclear Doctrine.” (accessed June 7, 2020).

25 U.S. Department of Defense (2018), pp. X ff., XIV, 22-23, 34-35, 48 f., 54 f., 61.

26 Cf. Azadeh, Zamirirad (2020): “Die Atomvereinbarung mit Iran. Gegenstand, Genese, Gefahren.” May 15, 2020. (accessed May 28, 2020).

27 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. UN General Assembly A/CONF.229/2017/8 of July 7, 2017, Preamble, Article 1 1. (a) – (g).

28 Cf. Vogel, Dominic (2020): “Tornado-Nachfolge: Fähigkeiten und Anpassungszeiträume sind entscheidend”. SWP-Aktuell no. 36, May 2020. (accessed May 28, 2020).

29 Cf. Lutsch, Andreas (2020), pp. 368 ff., 407 ff.; 485 ff.; “Nuclear Planning Group (NPG).” Updated May 27, 2020. (accessed June 7, 2020).

30 Cf. Pifer, Steven (2018): “US Nukes in Poland are a truly bad idea”. May 18, 2020. (accessed June 7, 2020). (On May 15, 2020, the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, had suggested relocating the B61 bombs from Büchel to Poland.)


Colonel (ret.) Wolfgang Richter

Colonel (ret.) Wolfgang Richter is a member of the Security Policy Research Group at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (The German Institute for International and Security Affairs). Until 2009, he was Head of the Military Division of the Permanent Mission of Germany to the OSCE, Vienna, previously, among others, Head of Division for Global and European Arms Control at the Federal Armed Forces Verification Centre (Zentrum für Verifikationsaufgaben der Bundeswehr). This was preceded by assignments as a paratrooper officer and in the general staff, among others at the Federal Ministry for Defense (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, BMVg) and NATO Headquarters, Mons (Belgium).

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All articles in this issue

The End of the "Interlude" – Nuclear Deterrence in the Light of Roman Catholic Social Teaching
Heinz-Günther Stobbe
Waiting for Armageddon: Theological and Ethical Aspects Of Nuclear Deterrence
Drew Christiansen SJ
The Relevance of the Heidelberg Theses today
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Exposing Flaws in the Logic(s) of Nuclear Deterrence as an International Security Strategy – a Feminist Postcolonial Perspective
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We Are the Bomb: Opaque Financial Flows and Unwitting Involvement in Nuclear Armament
Robin Jaspert
Extended Nuclear Deterrence and Participation: Overcome Together, Don’t Go It Alone
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Nuclear Arms Control, Disarmament and Nonproliferation Regimes in Deep Crisis
Tom Sauer
"No Way Out": Nuclear Weapons Remain An Important Factor in International Politics
Michael Rühle
Russian Nuclear Weapons: Reason or Feelings?
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China’s Nuclear Strategy in a New Geopolitical Environment
Sven Bernhard Gareis


Markus Bentler Burkhard Bleul