Getting Out of the NATO Nuclear Task Would Not Increase Dutch Security
Do the U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Netherlands keep the country safe, or do they make it the target of Russian nuclear forces? For some, the answer is obvious. One nongovernmental organization, PAX, has recently put out a report calling on the Dutch government not to allow the deployment of modernized American B61 bombs on Dutch territory. It argues that the “[r]emoval of US nuclear weapons on our territory reduces the chance that the Netherlands will become a military target of preventive or retaliation attacks.” This argument is not new. One of the first petitions with the same argument was launched by the Dutch Peace Council, with support from the Dutch communists, in 1958.
The argument to remove American nukes from the Netherlands is seductive, but it’s wrong. The Netherlands is a target of Russia because of its strategic location and its position as NATO’s logistics hub. Thanks to its geography, the Netherlands has key relevance for NATO in case of future conflict. As long as the Netherlands remains a member of NATO (which even PAX supports), the country will be in Moscow’s crosshairs. As a recent report by the Dutch government’s independent Advisory Council on International Affairs spelled out, the Netherlands continues to host U.S. nuclear weapons because “successive governments have considered nuclear weapons to be a crucial part of NATO deterrence and defence.” Furthermore, unilaterally giving up this task might lead to their transfer farther east within the alliance, which could be interpreted as provocative by Russia. Withdrawing U.S. nuclear weapons would not make the Netherlands safer, and would add instability to NATO at a time when that is the last thing it needs.
U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the Netherlands
American nuclear weapons have been deployed in the Netherlands since April 1960. At present, 10–20 nuclear weapons are believed to be deployed to Volkel Air Base. Similar to the arrangements in other European countries that host American nuclear forces — Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey — U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Netherlands are under the custody of the U.S. government. The U.S. president holds the control over their use in war situations. However, they would be delivered by Dutch dual-capable F-16 fighter aircraft flown by the Dutch airmen.
Yet the Dutch government — aware of the strong anti-nuclear feelings among the Dutch, especially among civil society — has never confirmed the presence of the nuclear weapons in the Netherlands. The parliament remains active on the issue of nuclear disarmament more broadly, and the societal relevance drives the continuing interest in nuclear disarmament. Therefore, whenever the Dutch government wants to even approach talking about the issue of nuclear weapons deployed in the Netherlands, it talks of either the “NATO nuclear task” or the “dual-capable aircraft.”
Most recently, the Netherlands justified its nuclear policy by arguing that NATO’s deterrent contributed to stability and predictability in Europe. The cabinet also argued that while removal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe (“from the Atlantic Ocean till the Ural Mountains”) is desirable, unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe is politically and militarily imprudent. It added that future disarmament steps (including the withdrawal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe) “must be complete, mutual, verifiable and irreversible,” and pointed to the unwillingness of “Russia and other states possessing nuclear weapons” to take such steps. This view clearly places U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons within discussions about global arms control and nuclear disarmament.
What the Netherlands Gets Out of Hosting U.S. Nuclear Weapons
The Dutch government hosts U.S. nuclear weapons for political, economic, and strategic reasons. In the early years of the Cold War, the Dutch feared becoming a “second-class ally” and were deeply distrustful of schemes for a European deterrent between France, Italy, and Germany, as they saw it as opening doors to French hegemony over Europe. The obvious solution was, for the Dutch, to seek as close ties with the United States as possible. The stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons was a means to cement its relationship with Washington. The Dutch government was committed to rebuilding the armed forces after World War II, but it faced economic headwinds. Hosting America’s nuclear deterrent provided an option to save on defense expenditure.
A strategic rationale was also clear — the NATO plan to defend Western Europe along the Rhine-IJssel line meant that the Netherlands would be divided into two in case of conflict. As a result, about two-thirds of the Netherlands would be left undefended from an invading Soviet army. This caused significant unease in The Hague. The deployment of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands, according to Dutch scholar Jan van der Harst, was seen by the Dutch political and military elite as moving the battlefield away from the Netherlands toward Germany (where the incoming Soviet forces would be engaged using nuclear weapons) and making the country safe from the nuclear fallout.
Although the nature of the threat has changed since the end of the Cold War, some of the benefits remain the same for keeping the “nuclear task.” This is particularly true with respect to the political benefit of being seen as a first-class NATO member, with special responsibilities (and, presumably, rights) when it comes to the NATO nuclear mission. The Dutch government also emphasizes that continuous participation in the NATO nuclear task brings tangible benefits to Dutch businesses, and helps prop up niche expertise, such as the aerospace industry. Most fundamentally, however, the Dutch government sees the nuclear deterrent as fundamental to the maintenance of European and Dutch security. The government speaks of “taking responsibility” for its “own security,” but also of having an enhanced role in the arms control discussions. In this way, the government attempts to bridge the difference between difference between its commitments to and interests in disarmament and nonproliferation (also widespread in the public), and the security needs perceived at the top. If the Dutch government were to renounce the nuclear task, the thinking goes, then other NATO members closer to Russia could become interested in picking it up. Such a step would, according to the Dutch government’s Advisory Council for International Affairs, be “probably interpret[ed] as a serious provocation” by Russia. Unnecessarily irking the Russians would not contribute to peace and security, seen from The Hague. The contribution to the NATO nuclear task is therefore seen as the lesser of two possible evils.
From the perspective of the United States, the purpose of stationing U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe is to reassure European allies that Washington remains committed to their security, prevent allies from developing their own nuclear weapons, and deter aggression against NATO allies. Yes, it’s true that the presence of American nuclear weapons in the Netherlands makes it a potential target for a Russian nuclear strike in case of a future conflict. However, the Netherlands would be a target regardless of the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons.
The Netherlands Would Be a Nuclear Target No Matter What
The chief reason the Netherlands would be a target is not a few bunkers at Volkel Air Base — it is the port of Rotterdam. The port is a logistical hub for U.S. reinforcements in case of future conflict. American materiel is already being supplied to the whole of Europe via Rotterdam, because of the excellent logistical network that the port of Rotterdam, and the Dutch railway (and road) system, offer. In case of future conflict, this is likely to be the spot where the reinforcements would arrive. And therefore, whether the Netherlands hosts B61s or not, it would still be a target for a potential nuclear strike. Of course, there is a way out, which would be for the Netherlands to step out of NATO. However, that option is extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future.
While we do not have any information about the Soviet, or later Russian, nuclear targeting practices, we do know something about the American plans from the 1950s. American targets included many smaller cities in Soviet satellites that had nothing to do with the nuclear enterprise. They were simply targeted because they were Soviet allies with some industrial value. The Soviets did, however, plan for a nuclear attack on France in case of war with the West. As the Czech historian Petr Luňák wrote in his book Plánování nemyslitelného (Planning the Unthinkable), Czechoslovak forces were meant to fight in a war on French territory in which the use of nuclear weapons was contemplated. This is important, because although the plans were drafted when France was a full member of NATO, they remained in force even after France withdrew from the NATO military command structure in 1966, and thus was not a member of NATO’s nuclear planning group or of NATO defense planning. In a way, France sought to distance itself from the NATO military mission — including the nuclear mission — to an even greater extent than some propose than some propose for the Netherlands. Yet in case of war, this would not have helped the French, as the Eastern bloc’s military planners considered them still a legitimate target.
Current Russian nuclear targeting plans are, of course, unknown. However, there’s no reason to think that Russia would spare the Netherlands if the Dutch government would only remove U.S. nuclear weapons from its territory. A new Russian missile, SSC-8, which Russia developed in violation of the now-dead Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, is exactly the type of equipment that can target strategic facilities such as the port of Rotterdam.
Conclusion: No Safer Disarmed
As long as the Netherlands remains a member of NATO, it will be a possible target in the event of a conflict with Russia. Since NATO membership is considered vital to Dutch security, leaving the alliance is a non-starter. Refusing to allow the United States to deploy nuclear weapons at Volkel — or signing disarmament treaties like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as some suggest — would not protect the country. The idealism of anti-nuclear activists is understandable, but it does not make them right. The Netherlands — a small, vulnerable, but strategically essential country — cannot wish away threats from Russia. Getting rid of U.S. nuclear weapons on Dutch soil, or signing a disarmament treaty, will not make the Netherlands safer.
Michal Onderco is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam and associate at the Peace Research Center Prague. He writes on the politics of nuclear nonproliferation regime.
Image: U.S. Air Force