international analysis and commentary

Is Europe self-deterring?


At the NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting in October, the US informed the allies that in light of the Ukraine War, Washington would accelerate deployment of the “high accuracy” B61-12 bomb to Europe together with the means of delivery. In fact, the B-61 is a gravity bomb that was designed in 1963 – the very existence of which points to a dangerous deterrence gap between the alliance’s conventional and strategic nuclear forces. The decision also points to something else: with war raging in Europe between Russia and Ukraine, does European support for Kyiv suggest to Moscow that Europeans are willing to do whatever it takes to deter Putin, or, are Europeans really self-deterring?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “deterrence” as to discourage to hinder by fear or dislike of trouble. To answer that question, one must return to basics and consider the components of deterrence. Many observers believe deterrence in Europe simply concerns NATO’s conventional and nuclear forces. They are indeed the sine qua non of deterrence, but they are not its essence. The essence of deterrence rests upon political fortitude, political cohesion, effective and timely decision making and effective messaging. This is because deterrence is first and foremost about credibly communicating strength in all its forms to an adversary and ensuring that said adversary gets the right message.

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision”.

Does Europe meet that challenge? Firstly, credibility is everything. NATO’s deterrence credibility was given a boost on October 27th when the US published the new National Defense Strategy, which states: “deterring strategic attacks on the United States, allies and partners” is a “top-level defense priority”. The United States and its immense resources and forces are a deterrent in their own right, but they are increasingly more engaged elsewhere than in Europe. Secondly, it is thus reasonable to assume that NATO continues to be a credible deterrent at the high end of conflict, both as an alliance and in the form of its component parts – the allies.


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The US National Defense Strategy also cites another priority: “deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary – prioritizing the PRC (People’s Republic of China) challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, then the Russia challenge in Europe.” For the first time since NATO’s founding in April 1949, the Americans have subordinated deterrence in Europe to deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. This is a subtle, but important shift that Moscow would have noted and no doubt understood completely the wrong message – that the US is now less committed to deterrence in Europe.

Equally, the US is also sending a message to its European allies: to ensure that the US security guarantee to Europe is maintained in all circumstances, Europeans must do far more than their own defense, including all forms of deterrence. But it is not at all clear that Europeans have gotten the message. For example, in the next fortnight a strategically-inept British government could well signal a retreat from a critical defense commitment underpinning European deterrence in favor of the search for “economic stability”.

The B-61 decision highlights the nature of the challenge Europeans face. If the new NATO Force Model is realized, then NATO’s ability to deter will be strengthened, both deterrence by punishment and denial. However, the true test of deterrence in Europe would be in extremis if the Americans were facing engineered crises simultaneously in several theatres and “deterrence” would rely on Europeans, even at the high end of conflict. In 2022, such deterrence would fail. Europe’s conventional forces are too weak, too small, too static and too poorly led to afford credible deterrence in the enforced absence of the Americans. It is to be hoped the NATO 2030 Agenda will help fix that, but the signs are not good.

What is sometimes called ‘Europe’s’ nuclear deterrent rests on British and French nuclear weapons, which were created in the first place to force Moscow to contend with multiple decision-making centers within a model of NATO deterrence that also retained the right to first-use of such weapons in a conflict if allied conventional forces were overwhelmed. It is also true that the British are currently building four enormous and ultra-stealthy Dreadnought-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, whilst France too is modernizing the Force de Frappe, even if its airborne delivery capability has been markedly reduced over the last decade. The bulk of British and French systems are submarine-launched strategic systems with little or no sub-strategic deterrent value.

The problem is that whilst Europe has observed both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the now abrogated Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) Russia has not. It is believed that Russia has some 1,912 tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal that are capable of destroying Europe, but not continental North America. Meanwhile, European dual-capable aircraft capable of delivering air-launched tactical nuclear systems are now obsolete, bordering on useless.

The solution? Warfare is changing and Europe does not need to match Russian nuclear weapons. Rather, the focus should be on developing capabilities across the future war mosaic of hybrid, cyber and super-fast hyper war. This would fill the gap between Europe’s conventional and nuclear deterrents, which going forward will take on an increasingly important role in deterrence.


Read also: The Kremlin’s hybrid warfare techniques in a fading world order


That must be complemented by a demonstrable commitment to robust political cohesion, and resilient decision-making in an emergency. Here, Europeans give the impression of lamentable weakness. Then perhaps such weakness is a message in its own right: we Europeans are simply unwilling to incur the risk that credible deterrence demands and imposes. Whither NATO?