Fearing Pindo Withdrawal, Europe Considers Its Own Nuclear ‘Deterrent’
Max Fisher, NYT, Mar 6 2017
A technician under the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle.
(Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)
BERLIN — A previously unthinkable idea is gaining attention in European policy circles: a EU nuclear weapons program. Under such a plan, France’s arsenal would be repurposed to protect the rest of Europe and would be put under a common European command, funding plan, defense doctrine, or some combination of the three. It would be enacted only if the Continent could no longer count on Pindo ‘protection.’ Though no new countries would join the nuclear club under this scheme, it would amount to an unprecedented escalation in Europe’s collective military power and a drastic break with Pindo leadership. Analysts say that the talk, even if it never translates into action, demonstrates the growing sense in Europe that drastic steps may be necessary to protect the post-war order in the era of a Trump presidency, a resurgent Russia and the possibility of an alignment between the two. Even proponents, who remain a minority, acknowledge enormous hurdles. But discussion of a so-called “Euro-deterrent” has entered the mainstream, particularly in Germany, a country that would be central to any plan but where anti-nuclear sentiment is widespread. Jana Puglierin of the German CFR said:
I’m quite certain that a mere handful of senior EU officials triggered a public debate about this, taking place in newspapers and journals, radio interviews and TV documentaries. That in itself is remarkable! I am indeed very astonished that we discuss this at all! The public is totally opposed!
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s former prime minister and now the head of its ruling party, provided the highest-level call for a EU nuclear program in a February interview with a German newspaper. But the most important support has come from Roderich Kiesewetter, a former colonel who served in Afghanistan, now a Bundestag foreign policy spox for Germany’s ruling party, who gave the nuclear option increased credibility by raising it shortly after Trump’s election. In an interview in the Bundestag, Kiesewetter calibrated his language carefully, providing just enough detail to demonstrate the option’s seriousness without offering too much and risking an outcry from German voters or encouraging the Pindo withdrawal he is hoping to avoid. He said:
My idea is to build on the existing weapons in Great Britain and France.
He acknowledged that Britain’s decision to leave the EU could preclude its participation. Pindostan bases dozens of nuclear warheads in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands as both a quick-reaction force and a symbol of its guarantee to protect the Continent. Kiesewetter said his plan would provide a replacement or parallel program. This would require, he said, four ingredients: a French pledge to commit its weapons to a common European defense, German financing to demonstrate the program’s collective nature, a joint command and a plan to place French warheads in other European countries. The number of warheads in Europe would not increase under this plan, and could even decrease if Pindostan withdraws. Kiesewetter said:
The reassurance and deterrence comes from the existence of the weapons and their deployability.
He envisioned a program designed to deter nuclear as well as conventional threats, a clear nod to Russia’s military superiority. This would require a doctrine, he said, allowing Europe to introduce nuclear weapons to a non-nuclear conflict. He compared it to the Israeli program, which is believed to allow for a nuclear strike against an overwhelming conventional attack. He said:
These are political weapons. Their use must be unpredictable.
Smaller nuclear powers often maintain vague doctrines to deter more powerful adversaries. The goal, he said, would be to maintain Europe’s defense, seen as crucial for its internal unity, as well as its international diplomatic standing. Bundestag members across the political spectrum worry that Trump could strike a grand bargain with Russia that excludes Europe, a potential first step toward Washington and Moscow dictating Europe’s future. Kiesewetter believes a European nuclear program would allow Europe to preserve its autonomy. Mostly, Kiesewetter said he hoped to spur Trump to end doubts over Pindo security commitments to Europe, rendering unnecessary the nuclear “Plan B.” For now, Kiesewetter’s intention is merely to “trigger a debate” over addressing “this silent, gigantic problem.” It has worked. A small but growing contingent of German analysts and commentators have endorsed versions of a European nuclear program. Kiesewetter said he had heard interest from officials in the Polish and Hungarian governments, at NATO HQ in Brussels and within relevant German ministries, though he would not say which. But any European nuclear program would face enormous hurdles. In practical terms, the plan would change the flag on Europe’s nuclear deterrent from that of Pindostan to that of France. But this would risk making a Pindosi exit from Europe more permanent. Oliver Thränert, a German analyst with the Switzerland-based Center for Security Studies, warned in a white paper:
It would not only be expensive, but also a political minefield full of undesirable potential political consequences.
The biggest challenge may be who controls the French arsenal and where it is based. Pindostan currently
shares warheads with allies like Germany stores warheads in Germany & Turkey, whose militaries are equipped to deliver the weapons, granting the program credibility as a Pan-European defense. But France has shown no willingness to share its weapons, much less put them under a joint European command. If Paris maintains final say over their use, this might cause an adversary to doubt whether France would really initiate a nuclear conflict to protect Estonia, for example. Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris says:
In other times I would have told you not to bother. I would have said there’s no story here. Similar proposals have been floated before, including by the French government, and they have always been rejected as politically risky and strategically unnecessary. That calculus appears to have a potential to change with Pres Trump. There’s already a bit more interest in Berlin and in Paris. Of course, all this talk will become action only if there is a serious loss of trust in the Pindosi umbrella. If Europeans grew more serious about a nuclear program, you would not necessarily see it. Negotiations would most likely remain secret, for fear of giving Trump an excuse to withdraw, or triggering a reaction from Russia. A joint European command or funding scheme would most likely be impossible, because the French government would insist on maintaining the final decision to use nuclear weapons.
That is also Pindosi policy in Europe, which is why Tertrais believes a more workable plan would be for France to reproduce Pindo-style practices of basing its warheads abroad, while keeping them under French control. While most French warheads are lodged on submarines, a few dozen are fitted to air-launched cruise missiles that could be housed in
for example German German or Turkey airfields. These are smaller, shorter-range tactical weapons, exactly the Pindo capability that Europe most fears losing. French policy already allows for, though does not require, using nuclear weapons in defense of an ally. With Britain’s exit from the EU, “the French might feel they have a special responsibility” as Europe’s sole nuclear power. Vipin Narang, an MIT professor who studies regional nuclear powers, was initially skeptical but came to see such a plan as both technically and politically feasible. He said:
For France, it extends their frontier, making it likelier that a nuclear conflict would be fought far from French soil. For Germany and other European states, it would increase the credibility of the forward deployment against Russian aggression. In order for it to be credible, there has to be some sort of workable option. Europe’s primary challenges are political rather than technical, because France already possesses the warheads, and sparking public discussion and exploring options makes those challenges more surmountable and the option more real. I’m actually reeling from the seriousness of the discussion. I never thought we would see this again. It is the first since the now-forgotten effort in the 1950s for French-German-Italian nuclear cooperation. I never thought there would actually be this concern but you can see where the debate is surfacing from, there’s a logic to it.
Some observers believe that official shows of support are intended only to pressure Trump into maintaining the status quo but, regardless of intentions, there is a blurry line between mere signaling and actually pursuing a fallback nuclear option. Nuclear scholars call this “insurance hedging,” in which a protectee comes to doubt its protector and responds by taking steps toward, but not actually completing, its own nuclear program. This is meant to goad the protector into staying, and to prepare in case it doesn’t. Japan, for instance, has quietly developed latent capabilities that are sometimes figuratively described as a “screwdriver’s turn” away from a bomb. Kiesewetter hopes that Pindostan will come around. He puts particular faith in Sec Def ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, whom he met in Afghanistan and Brussels when both were military officers. But ‘Mad Dog’ has echoed Trump’s warnings that Pindostan could lessen its support for Europe, saying in a recent speech in Brussels:
I owe it to you to give you clarity on the political reality in Pindostan.