Can Europe Shield with ‘Nuclear Umbrella’ from Russia?

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The idea of a European “nuclear umbrella” to protect the continent from potential Russian aggression has recently gained traction, reigniting a long-standing debate about the role of nuclear weapons in European security. This proposal, championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, envisions leveraging the nuclear capabilities of France and the United Kingdom to provide a deterrent against Russian threats, particularly in light of Moscow’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and its invasion of Ukraine. The notion of a European nuclear deterrent is not new, but, according to many analysts, it has taken on renewed urgency in the face of changing geopolitical dynamics and growing concerns about the future role of the United States in ensuring European security. For decades, the continent has relied heavily on the American nuclear umbrella, with U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in several European countries as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) nuclear sharing arrangements.

However, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President in 2016 and his “America First” foreign policy stance raised doubts about Washington’s long-term commitment to NATO and the defense of its European allies. Trump’s repeated criticism of NATO members for failing to meet the alliance’s defense budgets fueled anxieties within the European Union (EU) about the need for greater strategic autonomy. These concerns were further worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. The Russia-Ukraine war appeared as a stark reminder of the potential threats posed by an increasingly revisionist and militarily resurgent Russia led by Putin.

Against this backdrop, Macron’s proposal for a European ‘nuclear umbrella’ seeks to address the perceived vulnerabilities and uncertainties surrounding the continent’s security. By leveraging the nuclear arsenals of France and the UK, the two nuclear-armed states within the EU, Macron envisions a credible deterrent that could complement, or even potentially replace, the existing NATO nuclear sharing arrangements. Nevertheless, the idea of a European nuclear deterrent is fraught with challenges and has sparked a heated debate within the EU and the broader transatlantic community. Critics argue that the nuclear capabilities of France and the UK are primarily designed for national defense and may not be sufficient to provide credible extended deterrence to the entire European continent. Additionally, there are concerns about decision-making authority, the implications for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the potential impact on the transatlantic alliance and the existing NATO nuclear deterrence framework. The debate over a European nuclear deterrent is not solely a military or strategic issue but also carries significant political and ethical dynamics.

France and UK’s Nuclear Capabilities

France and the United Kingdom are the only two nuclear-armed states in Europe, with both countries maintaining independent control over their respective nuclear arsenals. Understanding their current capabilities is crucial in assessing the feasibility of a European nuclear umbrella. France possesses approximately 290 nuclear warheads, making it the third-largest nuclear power after the United States and Russia. The bulk of France’s nuclear deterrent is housed in its four Triomphant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, each capable of carrying up to 16 M-51 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Additionally, France has a component of air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs that can be delivered by Rafale fighter jets and Mirage 2000N strike aircraft.

The United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal consists of around 225 warheads, primarily deployed on four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Each SSBN carries up to 16 Trident II D5 SLBMs, capable of delivering multiple warheads to various targets. The United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent is solely based on these submarine-launched missiles, as the country retired its air-delivered nuclear weapons in the late 1990s.

Both France and the United Kingdom adhere to the principle of continuous at-sea deterrence, with at least one of their nuclear-armed submarines on patrol at all times, ensuring a survivable second-strike capability. However, it is important to note that the combined nuclear forces of France and the UK pale in comparison to the vast arsenals of Russia and the United States, which possess thousands of strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads. While France and the UK have well-established nuclear deterrents designed to safeguard their national interests, extending this umbrella to cover the entire European continent would present significant challenges and limitations.

Challenges of Extending Nuclear Deterrence to Non-Nuclear EU States

The idea of a European ‘nuclear umbrella’ might face several practical and political challenges in case of coming up as a reality.

  • Firstly, there is the question of decision-making authority and control over the nuclear weapons. Both France and the UK have historically maintained strict national control over their nuclear arsenals, and it is unlikely that they would relinquish this sovereignty to a collective European body. Many analysts argue that France and the UK are not going to dilute their sovereign control over their nuclear weapons. That’s just not going to happen.
  • Secondly, the current size and composition of France and the UK’s nuclear forces may not be sufficient to provide credible extended deterrence to the entire European Union.
  • Another significant challenge is the reluctance of many European nations to embrace nuclear weapons, particularly those that have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW). Countries like Austria, Ireland, and Malta might oppose to nuclear arms and would likely resist any attempts to extend a nuclear umbrella over their territories.
  • Moreover, the idea of a European nuclear deterrent raises questions about its impact on the existing NATO nuclear sharing arrangements and the broader transatlantic security architecture. A significant number of NATO members in Europe, including Poland and the Baltic states, strongly favor maintaining the stability provided by the US nuclear deterrent. They are opposed to any efforts by France to replace or even supplement the US nuclear presence in Europe.

Additionally, there are concerns about the potential implications for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the broader global non-proliferation regime. Extending nuclear deterrence to non-nuclear states could be perceived as a form of nuclear sharing or proliferation, undermining the NPT’s principles and potentially encouraging other countries to pursue nuclear weapons programs.

The European Debate on Nuclear Deterrence

The proposal for a European nuclear umbrella has sparked a heated debate within the European Union, with diverse perspectives and concerns emerging from various member states and political factions. In Germany, a traditionally staunch opponent of nuclear weapons, the idea has faced significant resistance. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius dismissed the suggestion, stating, “The nuclear debate is really the last thing we need at the moment. It is an escalation in the discussion that we don’t need.” However, some German policymakers, such as Finance Minister Christian Lindner, have expressed support for the concept, arguing that the strategic nuclear forces of France and the UK could contribute to the security of the alliance.

Within France itself, Macron’s proposal has faced criticism from both right-wing and left-wing political factions. Far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen labeled Macron labeled Macron’s agenda as “to dispossess the French people of everything they have built.” while left-wing National Assembly member Bastien Lachaud accused the president of attempting to “liquidate France’s strategic autonomy” under the guise of defending European soil. The debate also extends beyond Europe, with the United States closely monitoring the developments. While some American policymakers may welcome increased European commitment to defense, others may view a European nuclear deterrent as a potential challenge to NATO’s existing nuclear sharing arrangements and the transatlantic security architecture.

Implications for NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance

The proposal for a European nuclear umbrella has significant implications for the NATO and the broader transatlantic security relationship. NATO has long relied on the United States extended nuclear deterrence capabilities, with American nuclear weapons stationed in several European countries as part of the alliance’s nuclear sharing arrangements. If France and the UK were to extend their nuclear deterrents to cover the entire European Union, it could potentially diminish the role of the US in European security and undermine the existing NATO nuclear deterrence framework. As Derrick Wyatt, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Oxford, notes, “It’s close to inconceivable that Britain would use its nuclear weapons in case of an attack on a NATO ally rather than one on the UK itself.”

Furthermore, such a move could be perceived as a challenge to American leadership within NATO and a potential step towards greater European strategic autonomy, a concept that has long been debated within the alliance. However, proponents of the European nuclear umbrella argue that it could strengthen the overall deterrence posture of the alliance by complicating the calculus of adversaries and providing an additional layer of defense. As Macron stated, “the strategic nuclear forces of France and Great Britain are already making a contribution to the security of our alliance.” Nevertheless, any perceived decoupling or weakening of the transatlantic security framework could have severe consequences for European security and risk undermining the credibility of the deterrent itself.

Finally, the decision on whether to pursue a European nuclear umbrella will require extensive deliberation and consensus-building among European nations and their transatlantic partners. It will be a complex process, involving not only military considerations but also political, economic, and ethical factors. Therefore, it appears unlikely to come up as a reality in near future. By contrast, the path forward will possibly involve a combination of strengthening conventional capabilities, exploring advanced non-nuclear deterrence options, and maintaining close coordination with the United States and NATO.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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