Nuclear deterrence for Europe (Part I - The problem)

There are three nuclear powers in NATO; United States, United Kingdom and United France.

The traditional Cold War view was that NATO's main nuclear deterrent to the Soviet nuclear might was the American arsenal which was capable of ending human civilisation several times over.
The British nukes were considered more of a national asset that extended British great power status claims to the post-Empire era and the French nukes were clearly meant as a national asset, France abstains to this day from NATO's (quite meaningless) nuclear planning group (it also extended their claim to great power status past their colonial empire disintegration, despite a weak army).
There were isolated statements about British and French nuclear power protecting all of (European) NATO, but this didn't change the perception or sentiment much.

Fast forward to 2019:

Now we've got an American president who may or may not be a Russian asset and certainly wouldn't consider risking nuclear attacks on his country by doing strategic nuclear strikes on Russia. Cabinet and Congress would take a while to depose him, and even if they did, they would certainly not destroy Russian cities in a retaliatory strike as a matter of principle if so far no American city was nuked. Such retaliatory strikes become less likely the more time people have to think (in my opinion).

Their Ballistic Missile Defence may protect them against small-scale tit-for-tat nuclear exchanges; Russia might not be able to respond to a single of its cities getting annihilated by doing the same to an American city, for a launch of a single or very few missiles might be defended against by BMD (and their stupid nuclear torpedo would be very slow to arrive). A nuclear exchange might step straight from battlefield nukes to total urban centres annihilation, even without the ingredient of Cold War craziness.
So in the end, the American nuclear umbrella over Europe isn't credible until 2021 at the very least. The American nuclear arsenal appears to join much of what other military power they have in the bin of what's outright useless and irrelevant for European deterrence and defence.

- - - - -

The British are in a bit of political disarray and a moment of extraordinarily weak political leadership. Brexit signals their intent to decouple from Europe and pretend that they're something of a mid-Atlantic island instead of an island almost in line of sight to the continent of Europe. The whole decoupling policy puts giant question marks behind their credibility as an alliance-wide nuclear deterrent.
Their only nuclear 2nd strike capability rests in Trident missiles in nuclear-powered submarines, of which typically one is hiding at sea while often all but one are in port. These nuclear warheads are a terrible choice for intervention on a battlefield. The submarine would give away its position with the launch (not necessarily a problem) and there are multiple warheads per missile.
A single such submarine might be able to kill about 20% of the Russian population in an hour (if the Russian cities weren't evacuated in time).* This doesn't change that it's unlikely that they would risk getting London and Birmingham nuked out of existence only because this happened to Berlin or Warsaw.

French Rafale with ASMP-A (big white missile on centreline pylon)
copyright Ministère des Armées

The French are traditionally national-egoistical, and many of their foreign policy attitudes and ideas are poorly aligned with the attitudes and ideas in the rest of Europe. Germany famously attempts to find common ground with France first in order to get the EU moving on major issues. The French never clearly stated or established as national ethos that their nukes are a deterrent that protects all of European NATO or all of the EU.
Their nuclear force consists of a rough equivalent of the British force (up to 64 submarine-launched ballistic missiles) plus 54 supersonic air-launched cruise missiles* (ASMP-A with each a single warhead capable of destroying a city or about one normally dispersed mechanised brigade in the field). The latter can as far as I know be employed by their small and not always available carrier aviation force, too.
Yet again, it's unlikely they would risk getting Paris and Marseilles nuked out of existence after the same happened to Warsaw or Berlin.

The end of the Cold War craziness took quite a bite out of the credibility of NATO's nuclear deterrence.

Part II follows next Saturday unless something outrageous happens.


P.S.: I know that I wrote more optimistically about the European nuclear deterrence in the past. It's a change of mind. 

*: All three nuclear powers (and also Russia) appear to have substantial stockpiles of nuclear warheads that are not deployed and thus not readily usable. Some of those warheads are temporarily disassembled for refurbishment. I neglect these reserve stockpiles for the purpose of this article. Their relevance as munitions for nuclear strike is very questionable because they could fairly easily be taken out by a first strike.


  1. The only logical conclusion is therefore that germany need its own nuclear capacity or another second strike capacity (biological and biochemical weapons would be the cheapest and most fearsome (for the enemy) option here imo). But as this is impossible because the current german (social) culture is pacifistic and weak to the core, this will not happen in any way.

    Therefore there is no solution for this problem as europe is an economic giant but an miliary gnome and (militarily) weak beyond ridiculousness.

    1. Sure why not let the Germans have chemical weapons. We can trust them with that. *nods head* "German culture is pacifistic and weak". Rather scary drunks, violent and loud. That they are currently not very (Ukraine) actively trying to start wars near them ought to be seen as good. That they have no compunction in lining up with Allies to do the same thing (1995,1999,2003,2014) is not so good.

  2. I am looking forward to your best efforts to describe a RATIONAL solution to the mess you have just described. Good luck, I think you're going to need it!!

    1. Expect nothing and you won't be disappointed.

  3. It's obvious that the best would be an Europe Union deterrence that would protect all countries in the alliance without ambiguity.

    The best but the more difficult to get.

    After that, maybe 20 years in the future France and UK citizens would start to think about the logical of having its own costly deterrence with another ready at hand.


  4. I am baffled that you have chosen to make an alarmist piece on nuclear deterrence, and amused that it has come to the fore again at a time when the limitation (too powerful for their targets, too unwieldy) of nuclear weapons become ever more apparent, and conventional missile deterrence appears to be the way forward (also a bad and destructive idea, to my mind, but increasingly more realisable - conceived in 80's)

    Finally, I believe you're missing the real nuclear worry Europe ought to have: low-yield battlefield weapons which would almost inevitably be used in case of the breaking out of WWIII. Hundreds of such warheads detonating per day over Central Europe would endanger the life of the populations living there significantly more than an infinitesimally improbable countervalue strategic strike on targets in the area. This distinction is to my mind, important, because it leads to one placing an emphasis on agreeing to reduce the conventional capabilities which might favour the breakout of such a scenario, over dangerous dreams of an "independent strategic deterrent for Europe" (read Germany) - as commented above. Such headlines have appeared recently in the German press. But why would the Italians, Spanish, Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Romanians etc. etc. agree to placing operational control of such weapons in German hands? If the Germans want to play silly power games, let them, but not in our name.

  5. Some may not see an issue losing Birmingham or London...

  6. Worth noting that the UK has staved off its massively neede defence reorg (read MASSIVE defence cut) by spending money from the rainy day fund. That rainy day fund is the saved moneys that had been set aside for the re-up of the nuke deterrent.

    Plenty of scuttlebutt coming out of the AWE (UK's Pantex type friendly happy smiley place full of niceness and loveliness) about the unbelievable state it is in.

    Bottom line, unless the US funds the re-up in its entirety I can't see it going ahead. That would be before what is going to happen in 20 days from now (not that I'm counting of course).

    Viewed in that light, disconnecting from intent, Europe should thank the French for their beautiful Gaulish stubbornness.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. The yanks provide B61 bombs to European air forces (see, Nuclear sharing). Look into the games around Germany planning for the phase out the Tornado and trying to get the Eurofighter NATO certified for nuke bombing.

      Why would the potential energy weapons be nuclear powered? The main obstacle to increased output from energy weapons is the fast delivery of energy, thats not something nuke generation can help with at all. In other words we need capacitor research not nuclear reactor research.

    2. Typhoons are not going to become B61 certified.
      The Americans made unacceptable demands regarding disclosure of Typhoon secrets in order to make F-35 a nuclear sharing must-have. Germany is not going to buy F-35s, political leadership has already overruled the Luftwaffe top brass on this.

    3. Guess Im naive, I wouldn't have thought there was much on a Eurofighter that the yanks hadn't hacked or reverse engineered. I know the ECM gear is pretty decent, but the Gripens is as well so I can't imagine the yanks are after that.

      Just give the nukes back to the yanks, they are of no operational use anyway. Make a show to Ivan and get to play the half way house.

      Just listened to about 4 hours from parliament play ring around the roses on brexit. Feel like gnawing my own arm off, regurgitating it, knitting it into a rope and hanging myself. I think there used to be a type of human being called, an adult? I remember something about that. A-Dult. What is a dult anyway? Probably nothing important.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Europe either hangs together, or it doesn't. The old chestnut about what does Portugal care about Latvia has been done to death.

      I tend towards fatalism. It will or it won't. Any attempt to alter the potential outcome is an unscaled modifier to an unquantifiable value. I would say that is worthless.

      The new Russian kit is mostly vaporware. Michael Kofman does a pretty good deconstruction on it. Worth a read. Can't see any of that altering the balance of terror. First strike is the goal, but it always has been. Its a bit like ABM, always seems closer than it is.

      I've got Russia falling back and growling for a while. There is scuttlebutt the Putin is up for the high jump, though hasnt there always been that? Maybe more so now though? Pension reforms. Russia's new right. Russia's israeli games? The strange Kadyrov leaks that are coming out?

      I say nukes are about signalling. So give every European one of those ACME style big black fuzed bombs, paint a rad symbol on the side and be done with it.

      We are very scary, look at our large bombs. Marion Lockheed and Tim Apple both agree.