Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe


John Scales Avery - Danish Pugwash Group – TRANSCEND Media Service


The danger of nuclear war is very great today, especially because of the Ukraine crisis and the danger of accidents. We would like to suggest that, in exchange for withdrawal of U.S. Nuclear weapons from Europe, the Russian government might be persuaded to eliminate its tactical nuclear weapons directed against Europe.

The dangers are very great today

Let us first consider the urgent reasons why all nuclear weapons must be eliminated. Although the Cold War has ended, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than ever before. There are 16,300 nuclear weapons in the world today, of which 15,300 are in the hands of Russia and the United States. Several thousand of these weapons are on hair-trigger alert, meaning that whoever is in charge of them has only a few minutes to decide whether the signal indicating an attack is real, or an error. The most important single step in reducing the danger of a disaster would be to take all weapons off hair-trigger alert.

Bruce G. Blair, Brookings Institute, has remarked that “It is obvious that the rushed nature of the process, from warning to decision to action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake… This system is an accident waiting to happen.” Fred Ikle of the Rand Corporation has written, “But nobody can predict that the fatal accident or unauthorized act will never happen. Given the huge and far-flung missile forces, ready to be launched from land and sea on both sides, the scope for disaster by accident is immense… In a matter of seconds, through technical accident or human failure, mutual deterrence might thus collapse.”

Although their number has been cut in half from its Cold War maximum, the total explosive power of today’s weapons is equivalent to roughly half a million Hiroshima bombs. To multiply the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a factor of half a million changes the danger qualitatively. What is threatened today is the complete breakdown of human society.

Nuclear terrorism

There is no defense against nuclear terrorism. We must remember the remark of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan after the 9/11/2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. He said, “This time it was not a nuclear explosion”. The meaning of his remark is clear: If the world does not take strong steps to eliminate fissionable materials and nuclear weapons, it will only be a matter of time before they will be used in terrorist attacks on major cities. Neither terrorists nor organized criminals can be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation, since they have no territory against which such retaliation could be directed. They blend invisibly into the general population. Nor can a “missile defense system” prevent terrorists from using nuclear weapons, since the weapons can be brought into a port in any one of the hundreds of thousands of containers that enter on ships each year, a number far too large to be checked exhaustively.

As the number of nuclear weapon states grows larger, there is an increasing chance that a revolution will occur in one of them, putting nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorist groups or organized criminals. Today, for example, Pakistan’s less-than-stable government might be overthrown, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might end in the hands of terrorists. The weapons might then be used to destroy one of the world’s large coastal cities, having been brought into the port by one of numerous container ships that dock every day. Such an event might trigger a large-scale nuclear conflagration.

The Ukraine crisis

Today, the world is facing a grave danger from the reckless behavior of the government of the United States, which recently arranged a coup that overthrew the elected government of Ukraine. Although Victoria Nuland’s December 13 2013 speech talks much about democracy, the people who carried out the coup in Kiev can hardly be said to be democracy’s best representatives. Many belong to the Svoboda Party, which had its roots in the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU). The name was an intentional reference to the Nazi Party in Germany.

It seems to be the intention of the US to establish NATO bases in Ukraine, no doubt armed with nuclear weapons. In trying to imagine how the Russians feel about this, we might think of the US reaction when a fleet of ships sailed to Cuba in 1962, bringing Soviet nuclear weapons. In the confrontation that followed, the world was bought very close indeed to an all-destroying nuclear war. Does not Russia feel similarly threatened by the thought of hostile nuclear weapons on its very doorstep? Can we not learn from the past, and avoid the extremely high risks associated with the similar confrontation in Ukraine today?

Lessons from World War I: The danger of escalation

Since we have recently marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, it is appropriate to view the crisis in Ukraine against the background of that catastrophic event, which still casts a dark shadow over the future of human civilization. We must learn the bitter lessons which World War I has to teach us, in order to avoid a repetition of the disaster.

We can remember that the First World War started as a small operation by the Austrian government to punish the Serbian nationalists; but it escalated uncontrollably into a global disaster. Today, there are many parallel situations, where uncontrollable escalation might produce a world-destroying conflagration.

In general, aggressive interventions, in Iran, Syria, Ukraine, the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere, all present dangers for uncontrollable escalation into large and disastrous conflicts, which might potentially threaten the survival of human civilization.

Another lesson from the history of World War I comes from the fact that none of the people who started it had the slightest idea of what it would be like. Science and technology had changed the character of war. The politicians and military figures of the time ought to have known this, but they didn’t. They ought to have known it from the million casualties produced by the use of the breach-loading rifle in the American Civil War. They ought to have known it from the deadly effectiveness of the Maxim machine gun against the native populations of Africa, but the effects of the machine gun in a European war caught them by surprise.

Nuclear war: an ecological catastrophe

Few politicians or military figures today have any imaginative understanding of what a war with thermonuclear weapons would be like. Recent studies have shown that in a nuclear war, the smoke from firestorms in burning cities would rise to the stratosphere where it would remain for a decade, spreading throughout the world, blocking sunlight, blocking the hydrological cycle and destroying the ozone layer. The effect on global agriculture would be devastating, and the billion people who are chronically undernourished today would be at risk. Furthermore, the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima remind us that a nuclear war would make large areas of the world permanently uninhabitable because of radioactive contamination. A full-scale thermonuclear war would be the ultimate ecological catastrophe. It would destroy human civilization and much of the biosphere.

One can gain a small idea of the terrible ecological consequences of a nuclear war by thinking of the radioactive contamination that has made large areas near to Chernobyl and Fukushima uninhabitable, or the testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific, which continues to cause leukemia and birth defects in the Marshall Islands more than half a century later.

The illegality of NATO

In recent years, participation in NATO has made European countries accomplices in US efforts to achieve global hegemony by means of military force, in violation of international law, and especially in violation of the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Principles.

Former UN Assistant Secretary General Hans Christof von Sponeck used the following words to express his opinion that NATO now violates the UN Charter and international law: “In the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, the Charter of the United Nations was declared to be NATO’s legally binding framework. However, the United-Nations monopoly of the use of force, especially as specified in Article 51 of the Charter, was no longer accepted according to the 1999 NATO doctrine. NATO’s territorial scope, until then limited to the Euro-Atlantic region, was expanded by its members to include the whole world”

Article 2 of the UN Charter requires that “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This requirement is somewhat qualified by Article 51, which says that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

Thus, in general, war is illegal under the UN Charter. Self-defense against an armed attack is permitted, but only for a limited time, until the Security Council has had time to act. The United Nations Charter does not permit the threat or use of force in preemptive wars, or to produce regime changes, or for so-called “democratization”, or for the domination of regions that are rich in oil. NATO must not be a party to the threat or use of force for such illegal purposes.

In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously affirmed “the principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal”. The General Assembly also established an International Law Commission to formalize the Nuremberg Principles. The result was a list that included Principles VI, which is particularly important in the context of the illegality of NATO:

Principle VI: The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

a) Crimes against peace:

(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

Robert H. Jackson, who was the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, said that “To initiate a war of aggression is therefore not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

At present, NATO’s nuclear weapons policies violate both the spirit and the text of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in several respects: Today there are an estimated 200 US nuclear weapons still in Europe the air forces of the nations in which they are based are regularly trained to deliver the US weapons. This “nuclear sharing”, as it is called, violates Articles I and II of the NPT, which forbid the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear-weapon states. It has been argued that the NPT would no longer be in force if a crisis arose, but there is nothing in the NPT saying that the treaty would not hold under all circumstances.

Article VI of the NPT requires states possessing nuclear weapon to get rid of them within a reasonable period of time. This article is violated by fact that NATO policy is guided by a Strategic Concept, which visualizes the continued use of nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.’

The principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons has been an extremely important safeguard over the years, but it is violated by present NATO policy, which permits the first-use of nuclear weapons in a wide variety of circumstances.

Russian tactical nuclear weapons

Russian nuclear weapons, both tactical and strategic, also represent a grave danger to human civilization and to the biosphere. We would like to suggest that a bargain might be reached. In exchange for the withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, as well as the lifting of the present European sanctions directed against the Russian economy, it might be possible to persuade the Russian government to eliminate all of their tactical nuclear weapons directed against Europe.

Establishment opinion shifts towards nuclear abolition

The complete elimination of nuclear weapons is by no means a hopeless cause. While the Ukraine crisis is a great step backwards, there are indications that the establishment is moving towards the point of view that the peace movement has always held: – that nuclear weapons are essentially genocidal, illegal and unworthy of civilization; and that they must be completely abolished as quickly as possible. There is a rapidly-growing global consensus that a nuclear-weapon-free world can and must be achieved in the very near future.

One of the first indications of the change was the famous Wall Street Journal article by Schultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn advocating complete abolition of nuclear arms. This was followed quickly by Mikhail Gorbachev’s supporting article, published in the same journal, and a statement by distinguished Italian statesmen. Meanwhile, in October 2007, the Hoover Institution had arranged a symposium entitled “Reykjavik Revisited; Steps towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons”.

In Britain, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Hurd and Lord Owen (all former Foreign Secretaries) joined the former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson as authors of an article in The Times advocating complete abolition of nuclear weapons. The UK’s Secretary of State for Defense, Des Brown, speaking at a disarmament conference in Geneva, proposed that the UK “host a technical conference of P5 nuclear laboratories on the verification of nuclear disarmament before the next NPT Review Conference in 2010” to enable the nuclear weapon states to work together on technical issues.

In February, 2008, the Government of Norway hosted an international conference on “Achieving the Vision of a World Free of Nuclear Weapons”. A week later, Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, reported the results of the conference to a disarmament meeting in Geneva. On July 11, 2008, speaking at a Pugwash Conference in Canada, Norway’s Defense Minister, Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, reiterated her country’s strong support for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

In July 2008, Barack Obama said in his Berlin speech, “It is time to secure all loose nuclear materials; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to reduce the arsenals from another era. This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.” Later that year, in September, Vladimir Putin said, “Had I been told just two or three years ago I wouldn’t believe that it would be possible, but I believe that it is now quite possible to liberate humanity from nuclear weapons…”

Other highly-placed statesmen added their voices to the growing consensus: Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, visited the Peace Museum at Hiroshima, where he made a strong speech advocating nuclear abolition. He later set up an International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament co-chaired by Australia and Japan. On January 9, 2009, four distinguished German statesmen (Richard von Weizäcker, Helmut Schmidt, Egon Bahr and Hans-Dietrich Genscher) published an article entitled “Towards a Nuclear-Free World: a German View” in the International Herald Tribune.

Going to zero

On December 8-9, 2008, approximately 100 international leaders met in Paris to launch the Global Zero Campaign . They included Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, Norway’s former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, former UK Foreign Secretaries Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Margaret Beckett and David Owen, Ireland’s former Prime Minister Mary Robinson, UK philanthropist Sir Richard Branson, former UN Under-Secretary-General Jayantha Dhanapala, and Nobel Peace Prize winners President Jimmy Carter, President Mikhail Gorbachev, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Prof. Muhammad Yunus. The concrete steps advocated by Global Zero include:

  • Deep reductions to Russian-US arsenals, which comprise 96% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
  • Russia and the United States, joined by other nuclear weapons states, cutting arsenals to zero in phased and verified reductions.
  • Establishing verification systems and international management of the fuel cycle to prevent future development of nuclear weapons.

The Global Zero website contains a report on a new public opinion poll covering 21 nations, including all of the nuclear weapons states. The poll showed that public opinion overwhelmingly favors an international agreement for eliminating all nuclear weapons according to a timetable. It was specified that the agreement would include monitoring. The average in all countries of the percent favoring such an agreement was 76%. A few results of special interest mentioned in the report are Russia 69%; the United States, 77%; China, 83%; France, 86%, and Great Britain, 81%.

On April 24, 2009, the European Parliament recommended complete nuclear disarmament by 2020. An amendment introducing the “Model Nuclear Weapons Convention” and the “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol” as concrete tools to achieve a nuclear weapons free world by 2020 was approved with a majority of 177 votes against 130. The Nuclear Weapons Convention is analogous to the conventions that have successfully banned chemical and biological weapons.

More recently, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon initiated a comprehensive 5-point program for complete nuclear disarmament, and in December, 2014, Austria hosted the Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. At the conference, the Austrian government issued an extremely strong statement in which they pledged to work for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. More than 50 governments have already signed statements endorsing the Austrian pledge.

Long-term goals

Both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1996 decision of the International Court of Justice require all nuclear weapons states to rid themselves completely of their nuclear weapons. In response to questions put to it by WHO and the UN General Assembly, the IJC ruled that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and particularly the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” In addition, the Court added unanimously that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict international control.” Article VI of the NPT also requires signatories of the treaty to completely eliminate their nuclear weapons.

It is a life-or-death question. We can see this most clearly when we look far ahead. Suppose that each year there is a certain finite chance of a nuclear catastrophe, let us say 2 percent. Then in a century the chance of survival will be 13.5 percent, and in two centuries, 1.8 percent, in three centuries, 0.25 percent, in 4 centuries, there would only be a 0.034 percent chance of survival and so on. Over many centuries, the chance of survival would shrink almost to zero. Thus by looking at the long-term future, we can clearly see that if nuclear weapons are not entirely eliminated, civilization will not survive.

Civil society must make its will felt. A thermonuclear war today would be not only genocidal but also omnicidal. It would kill people of all ages, babies, children, young people, mothers, fathers and grandparents, without any regard whatever for guilt or innocence. Such a war would be the ultimate ecological catastrophe, destroying not only human civilization but also much of the biosphere. Each of us has a duty to work with dedication to prevent it.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century http://www.learndev.org/dl/Crisis21-Avery.pdf.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Mar 2015.

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2 Responses to “Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe”

  1. […] This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 March 2015: TRANSCEND Media Service – TMS: Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe […]

  2. […] And if you thought the nuclear threat had receded, try reading this recent assessment by Dr John Scales Avery and the Danish Pugwash Group ‘Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe’ https://www.transcend.org/tms/2015/03/tactical-nuclear-weapons-in-europe/ […]