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The growing nuclear debate in Europe

The renewed tensions between the US and Russia have recently increased.  This has prompted a renewed focus on both Russia and the US’s nuclear posture. Related is the doctrine for the use of such weapons. Renewed discussion of Russia’s nuclear war fighting doctrine has called the Russian doctrine an “escalate to de-escalate” approach. We must consider what this mean in concrete policy terms, and whether it is an accurate description of Russia’s nuclear doctrine? 

Given increased concern in NATO about Russian nuclear deployment and its ongoing deployments along the Ukrainian border we must consider US nuclear modernization’s status.  It is the US nuclear guarantee that has safeguarded Europe since the end of World War II. 

This is not the first time that NATO has sounded the alarm about Russian versus US nuclear weapons in Europe.  During the Carter administration the same concerns were raised.  This resulted in the intermediate ballistic missile modernization decision.  NATO deployed ground launch cruise missiles and modernized US Pershing missiles to a Pershing II configuration which could reach Moscow from Germany.  It took political fortitude to stand up to both the Russian threat and the political unrest that it caused in Western Europe.  Eventually (during the Reagan administration) the two sides agreed to the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) arms control treaty.  This treaty reduced the size of the nuclear threat in Europe.  The resultant complacency in NATO Europe lasted until the last several years.  It is disappearing quickly now and NATO is again calling for increased US nuclear capability to provide for deterrence through presence.

The doctrine “escalate to de-escalate” first surfaced in the summer of 2015. The core idea behind “escalate to de-escalate” is, simply, that Russia is now willing to engage in a limited nuclear war in order to win—that is, end—a conventional conflict.  The concept was brought forward when Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, invoked “escalate to de-escalate” during a testimony to the House Committee on Armed Services: “Russian military doctrine includes what some have called an ‘escalate to deescalate’ strategy—a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use.” 

The went on to say: “We think that this label is dangerously misleading. Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”

This is the essence of the concept and probably it’s fallacy.  The concept is based upon a Russian reading of determination and resolve in NATO Europe.  The Russians must believe that NATO would rather quit than become deeply involved in a nuclear conflagration.

The concept of using low-yield nuclear weapons to change the status of a conventional conflict is not new, neither to Russia nor the US. A 2019 Defense Department guidance on Nuclear Operations discussed the possibility of limited nuclear war: “Employment of nuclear weapons can radically alter or accelerate the course of a campaign. A nuclear weapon could be brought into the campaign as a result of perceived failure in a conventional campaign, potential loss of control or regime, or to escalate the conflict to sue for peace on more favorable terms.”

During the cold war those of us serving on the East-west German border were trained to operate is such an environment.

Russia, in a 2020 defense document, stated that it will only consider the nuclear option under two circumstances: 1) as a retaliatory measure against the use of nuclear weapons or other WMDs, or 2) when “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”

The debate is ongoing whether “escalate to de-escalate” is a reasonable doctrine, but the existence of that debate influences the increasing concern in NATO.  It also will have an influence in the nuclear weapon modernization debate that is gaining steam in the congress.

The US’s budget cycle is just getting started, but already Democrats and Republicans are in a fight over whether to curb or continue the current trajectory of spending on nuclear weapons modernization.  Democrats have offered bills and urged the president to cut nuclear weapons programs, while Republicans are publicly pressing to continue programs that mostly began during the Obama administration.  The budget fight will certainly look at many newly started weapons modernization efforts:

  • Submarine launched low yield nuclear war heads
  • The new ICBM missile (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD))
  • The Army’s long-range missile and artillery systems

The defense budget will most likely not increase under the Biden regime and therefore nuclear weapons may be on the table with both force size and other modernization efforts that were begun during the Trump administration.  (The Army is already expressing concern about rumors of force cuts.)

The Biden administration is going to be under pressure from NATO to modernize its theater nuclear forces and to deploy them to Europe (late 1970s déjà vu).  If the Russians do in fact take aggressive action against either the Baltic states or the Ukraine the whole issue of nuclear weapons and Russian doctrine may in fact become a reality not a strategic discussion.

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1 Comment

  1. Stewart Shanfield says:

    Another excellent informational commentary on an important issue facing the US and NATO.


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