Europe’s impossible nuclear option

Dr Oliver Hartwich
7 February, 2024

In a  previous column I discussed the precarious state of European security in light of the rising threat of Russia and the potential decline of US involvement (Europe’s precarious security could invite Putin to expand war, 26 January 2024).

Today, I will analyse a potential way for Europe to organise its own security: the development of a European nuclear shield.

The idea of Europe
crafting its own nuclear deterrent is not new. In fact, it has been discussed for decades. But while the Europeans have been talking, the US has provided the nuclear deterrent that has been a cornerstone of the continent’s security since World War II.

The prospect of this protective shield being withdrawn has now forced Europe to confront its longstanding defence complacency. Even Greens politicians like Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, are now openly calling for the EU to have its own nuclear weapons.

However, as in so many other areas, the first problem the Europeans would have to overcome is the continent’s complicated political landscape. The European Union quarrels over everything, even the smallest things. What are the chances that European nations will be able to agree about something as grave as nuclear armament? Would they ever agree on policy for the use of nuclear weapons, even in theory?

European nations have diverse histories, security priorities and varying degrees of willingness to invest in defence capabilities. Some countries, like Germany, have strong antinuclear sentiments, whereas two others, France and the UK, already possess small nuclear arsenals.

If a coherent strategic doctrine is to be developed, these divergent viewpoints will have to converge.

Even if the Europeans could reach agreement, there would still be a substantial difference between a European nuclear shield and the US shield. America’s deterrence strategy (so far at least) has always been part of its doctrine to project power globally as “the world’s policeman”.

Currently, no European nation has the ambition, let alone the capability, to play such a role. If, however, Europe developed its own nuclear arsenal, the question of its global role would come into play.

Even more challenging than political difficulties of European nuclear armament is the technological aspect.

Nuclear weapons technology is complex and expensive. Such weapons require strict safety and security requirements beyond the present capability of any European country apart from the UK and France. To manage nuclear weapons, sophisticated new infrastructure for control, communication, and command would be necessary.

Anyone who understands how difficult it is to build any new kind of infrastructure in Europe will instantly comprehend just how ambitious that undertaking would be. In a continent in which new bridges, railways, and roads can take decades to plan and build, it seems unlikely that Europe could develop nuclear infrastructure in time to respond to what are now pressing security concerns.

Then there is the financial question: A nuclear arsenal is significantly more expensive to develop and maintain than a non-nuclear one.

Considering that Europe’s current defence spending has been a topic of contention for years, significantly increasing it would strain national budgets, as well as being a hard sell politically. Many European countries are still finding it hard to reach NATO’s two percent of GDP target for defence spending.

So, a European nuclear umbrella is not a realistic possibility. It would take years, if not decades, for such an umbrella to be operational due to political, technological, and financial barriers. It will definitely not be available by 20 January 2025, when President Trump might celebrate his second term inauguration.

Another scenario would see the two existing Western European nuclear powers expand their capability. Would it be possible for the rest of Europe to piggyback on them? Could France and the UK expand their nuclear capacity to cover the rest of Europe?

This option is equally unrealistic.

The existing nuclear arsenal of the UK and France are designed to serve as national defence shields rather than a continental shield. These are very different things.

The US has thousands of nuclear warheads. They come in a variety of sizes and with a variety of delivery mechanisms. This affords them a great deal of strategic and tactical flexibility.

Because the French and British arsenals are much smaller, their strategic options are much more limited. Though their nuclear weapons may be suitable for their own defence, they are no match for the US umbrella, let alone a replacement.

Even if they were, there would be significant political problems. Would London and Paris be willing to share command over their nuclear forces with, say, Berlin, Warsaw or Rome? Or Tallinn, Vilnius or Riga?

It would be ironic for Britain first to leave the European Union, only to return and share its nuclear force with a European organisation rather than through NATO.

Even if France and the UK did share their forces and technologies, extending them to cover the continent would require a massive investment.

Extending French or British nuclear deterrents to cover all of Europe is not a viable short-term solution. Again, the problems are political, technological and financial. It would require more than a simple scaling-up of existing capabilities. It would be a fundamental shift in the strategic positioning of both nations.

Realistically, Europe cannot develop a nuclear deterrent to replace the US shield in the short term: not as a new shield, nor as an extension of British and French capabilities.

Europe’s lack of preparedness and the delay in developing credible deterrents thus leaves the continent vulnerable.

In the face of an unpredictable US political landscape, Europe’s security is now entirely dependent on factors beyond its control. Hoping for a Biden victory or a Trump administration that does not withdraw US support from Europe is a thin strand to cling to.

Europe, which has for years prided itself as a force for peace and stability, now finds its security hanging in the balance, depending on foreign policy whims. The need for a robust European defence strategy has never been greater, but there is no obvious way to achieve it.

As Europe is beginning to think about the nuclear option, it will realise that there is no such thing. For the time being, its best option is to convince the US to remain the guarantor of its security.

A first step towards that goal would be a commitment to accept greater responsibility for Europe’s defence within NATO, including lifting Europe’s defence budgets. Incidentally, that would help President Biden’s re-election campaign, and it would rob Donald Trump of one of his arguments against NATO.

For Europe’s security, there are no silver bullets – and certainly there is no alternative nuclear option.

To read the full article on the Newsroom website, click here.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates