New NATO Strategic Concept guide warns of nuclear retaliation against use of nuclear weapons by rivals

Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began in February, the has been an abundance of saber-rattling and speculation about the potential use of nuclear weapons if the conflict were to escalate beyond conventional means or expand into territory controlled by North Atlantic Treaty Organization members.

In its newly issued Strategic Concept guide, NATO put on notice all of its “nuclear-armed peer-competitors” — especially Russia and China — that the alliance was willing and able to use nuclear weapons in retaliation to any first-strike with nuclear weapons against members or allied partners, the Washington Examiner reported.

The new guide from NATO also employed much stronger rhetoric against Russia than previous guides and mentioned China as a rival and potential threat for the first time. An unnamed senior European official told the Examiner of the new Strategic Concept guide, “We have a wartime strategic concept, actually, not a peacetime one, so [we] want to use stronger language.”

Nuclear rivals placed on notice

A news release from NATO announced that its collective members had agreed upon the new Strategic Concept guide — the guide is updated every 10 years — at a recent summit in Madrid, Spain, that would lay out the “Alliance’s priorities, core tasks and approaches for the next decade.”

The three core tasks are “deterrence and defense; crisis prevention and management; and cooperative security,” and the deployment of nuclear weapons falls under the “deterrence and defense” category.

According to the 2022 Strategic Concept guide, the “fundamental purpose” of NATO’s nuclear weapons arsenals is to “preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression.”

“The circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote. Any employment of nuclear weapons against NATO would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict,” the guide stated. “The Alliance has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve.”

Directly naming additional potential threats

The Examiner noted that the guide also made mention of the fact that, in addition to the massive arsenal of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States, both at home and forward-deployed in Europe and elsewhere, were complemented and reinforced by the arsenals maintained by France and the United Kingdom, subtly letting any rivals know that multiple nations were capable of responding to the use of nuclear weapons.

Further, in the Strategic Environment section of the guide, NATO addressed the continued “erosion” of arms control and non-proliferation efforts and — in addition to Russia — directly named China, Iran, North Korea, and even Syria of all posing a potential threat to use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons in a hostile manner.

Specifically of China, the NATO guide warned that the communist regime “is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and is developing increasingly sophisticated delivery systems, without increasing transparency or engaging in good faith in arms control or risk reduction.”

No more contemplation — nuclear weapons will be used, if necessary

The Examiner compared this new Strategic Concept guide to the previous one issued in 2010 and found that the language used was more forceful, particularly with regard to nuclear weapons, as previously it had only mentioned how nuclear weapons might be “contemplated” in the face of provocation, while the current revision skips over the contemplation and directly implies the “use” of nuclear weapons if necessary.

In addition, while the 2010 guide had substantially downplayed the potential risk of nuclear weapons being used, the current version now names several potential nuclear rivals and declared, “We will individually and collectively deliver the full range of forces, capabilities, plans, resources, assets and infrastructure needed for deterrence and defense, including for high-intensity, multi-domain warfighting against nuclear-armed peer-competitors.”

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