NATO and Nuclear Sharing


nato-logoThe concept of the US, with such an impressive nuclear arsenal, sharing its nuclear weapons with non-nuclear states seems to completely defy the original aims of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Is it perhaps alarming then, that a significant international military alliance with twenty-eight members, two of which are nuclear weapon states, subscribes to such a theory?

The United States has had a nuclear presence in Europe since the 1950’s. In spite of this, several ideas were proposed in the 1960’s to develop a separate NATO nuclear force that could be shared amongst non-nuclear states. These however, never came to fruition, as non-nuclear NATO members were happy to rely on the security of the United States’ weapons to ensure their nuclear deterrence was maintained.

NATO substantially heightened the use of weapons sharing during the Cold War; an estimated 7000 non-strategic US nuclear weapons were maintained by NATO at the height of the military tensions with the USSR. As prominent members of NATO, the United States feared the consequences of a growing Soviet nuclear arsenal, as it posed a threat to the US and its European allies. America believed Europe would now look to the Soviets to provide nuclear deterrence. Their response was to deploy even more nuclear weapons in to Europe in order to maintain the military alliance.

Currently, NATO’s unique system on nuclear sharing provides between 160 and 200 nuclear stored inside 6 air base vaults across Europe and Turkey. Despite making up for less than 2% of the 11,500 nuclear weapons currently based on the planet, these nuclear weapons have become some of the most hotly debated today.

This is hardly new; NATO’s policy of US nuclear sharing has raised much controversy since its beginning in the 1950’s. The European public feared that the result of such proliferation, on that scale, would be the threat of nuclear war in Europe.

Differences over nuclear policy didn’t just stem from external parties. As the Cold War progressed a major source of disagreement developed internally within NATO; how would the increasing amount of tactical nuclear weapons be used in the event of a Soviet attack? This problem, along with a host of other contentious issues, was addressed by the formation of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) in 1967, which gave allies the chance to be consulted on the use of nuclear weapons

Additionally, as the Cold War came to an end and with the fall of the USSR many European state officials started to question the presence of US nuclear weapons in their countries. The debate was split, with some members of NATO, Germany and Greece in particular, actively opposing the continued use of weapons sharing. They argued US nuclear weapons serve no purpose during peace time.

Greece felt so strongly about the issue that in 2001, it replaced its fighter jet with one that was incapable of carrying B61s, forcing the US to withdraw its nuclear weapons.

The Greek argument is a logical one, by removing all US nuclear weapons in Europe NATO would publicly prove its dedication to one of its core values, maintaining international peace and eventual nuclear disarmament.


In 2010 NATO announced a ‘Deterrence and Defence Posture Review’ (DDPR), prompting anti-nuclear groups to call for the removal of US Nuclear arms from European soil. Although support for denuclearisation existed, (the Dutch parliament, for example, argued nuclear weapons were no longer needed to guarantee NATO’s security) the DDPR result disappointed those hoping for change; no plans were made to remove US nuclear missiles from Europe.

But what if the United States was no longer willing or able to provide its nuclear guarantee to NATO? In recent years a debate has emerged over a potential ‘common’ European nuclear deterrent. First suggested in 1992 by Jaques Delors, President of the European Commission, he argued that European nations should develop their own collective nuclear defence policy, using French Nuclear forces. Any desire from European nations to move away from NATO and the United States’ nuclear umbrella has stemmed mostly from a money saving, collaborative perspective or that a European deterrent would receive more support than national programmes. However, whether or not a European deterrence (to essentially replace nuclear sharing) is even viable is very much up for debate. Issues regarding what kind of governing body would be in charge of such weapons and who would be responsible for launching them remain, while a reluctance to abandon the American nuclear guarantee continues to exist amongst European NATO members who simply don’t wish to ‘rock the boat’. Ultimately the prospect of a European nuclear deterrent to replace the NATO’s remains highly unlikely, while the continued future of NATO and its reliance on a US nuclear guarantee appears inevitable.

Josh Graham and Ellie Harris.


Howorth J. and Menon, A. (1997) ‘The European Union and National Defence Policy’. London: Routledge

White, T.O and Ogilvie-White T. (2012) ‘On Nuclear Deterrence: The Correspondence of Sir Michael Quinlan’. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies

Cottey, A and Wallace H. (2007) ‘Security in the New Europe’. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Cahen, A, (1989) ‘The Western European Union and NATO: Building a European Defence Identity within the Context of Atlantic Solidarity’. London: Brassey’s (UK)

Schulte, P. (2015) ‘NATO’s Protracted Debate over Nuclear Weapons’. In Von Hlatky, S. and Wenger, A (Eds.) ‘The Future of Extended Deterrence: The United States, NATO, and Beyond’ (PP 107 – 134). Georgetown University Press



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