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NATO doctrine about Nuclear Escalation in the cold war.

NATO Nuclear Escalation Policy

NATO, is an alliance of nations that via three permanent members (USA, UK, and France) is a nuclear alliance. This alliance was formed in order to provide a blanket of security for Western European nations, Canada, and the United States against the Soviet Union.[1] NATO members get the safety of Nuclear weapons being shared to its members from one of the 3 permanent members. However, the U.S. was the primary defender of the other countries upon NATO’s formation,[1] due to its vast nuclear arsenal that it lays at the disposal for the organization. NATO’s escalation policies did not take hold until the late 1950’s. During the previous time the weapons and capabilities of NATO’s combined members alongside the U. S’s vast nuclear arsenal were enough to keep their citizenry calm. NATO policy would amalgamate from the U. S’s initial nuclear strength. Russia lacked ICBM’s or long range missiles to directly threaten the U.S. In contrast, the U.S. had stationed bombers within NATO countries in Europe that could deliver nuclear payloads to designated targets within the Soviet Union if they attempted to start a war. One of these was the U.S. Corporal missile with a range of 120 kilometers (70–80 miles) and had a one kiloton warhead.[2] After the late 1950’s the USSR was able to raise its Nuclear arsenal and delivery methods to have the U.S become a capable target. Many of the European NATO countries became worried that the US’s massive firepower was equaled by the USSR and that the United states would have no reason to come to European aid with the new possibility of any attack from the U.S being met in kind with similar or greater means of nuclear arms directed at the U.S. created NATO’s response of ‘Massive Retaliation’.[3]

European nations had the potential to become Nuclear battlefields. If a war between superpowers were to break out, even if not originating in Europe, would quickly engulf it. The possibility of Warsaw pact nations under the USSR attacking Western Europe ensured all possible conflicts of nuclear escalation. It would escalate from conventional warfare to the use of tactical Nuclear weapons and then the possibility of going further and using intermediate nuclear weapons existed.[4] The existence of nuclear weapons such as the U.S. Corporal missile, Redstone missile, Sergeant, and a missile called the Davy Crockett that was so small it could be fired by one man from the back of a jeep.[2] These weapons given to Europe from the U.S. made it evident that if a nuclear war were to occur, it would almost surely engulf Europe as well. Strong ties, culturally, economic, and political tie the U.S with many European nations and the umbrella of NATO not only offered protection for these European countries, but also put them within the USSR’s attack possibilities in a nuclear war.[4]

NATO created policies to counter-attack the USSR as well as how to deal with them without a nuclear trigger in changing how conventional warfare would be conducted. The first alternative, horizontal escalation in which if the USSR were to attack a European country, all of Europe would be engulfed in a war. The war would be pushed outside into new theaters external to where it originated as to help spread the USSR thin militarily. NATO acknowledges that this form of escalation could not be carried out by NATO.[5] NATO was not equipped with massive divisions of troops. NATO members could not justify the waste in money in having to keep a large peace time standing military.[6] The second policy being temporal escalation, a policy in which an effort is made to prolong war long enough until one side can no longer keep up with war time efforts and all available resources become exalted or a stalemate prevents either side from claiming victory. This second policy is viewed as the more conventional way to deal with the USSR. It would attempt to force the soviets into a war of attrition to force a stalemate and swiftly bring an end to any possibly conflict before nuclear means could become an option. It has several flaws, one is if a war with western powers and allies’ vs the USSR and its compatriots would create a similar war to that of World War 2 and that it could be drawn out for four years with nobody introducing a nuclear weapon attack, Calculations at the time showed that the possible war would last 3 to 4 months and would be the longest a war of its type.[citation needed] The third policy is called ‘surprise escalation’, in which it was a theory held by NATO that it was a feasible means to avoid vertical escalation. A surprise attack would be launched to cripple the attacked country, in this case Russia, from retaliating with nuclear weapons. An example of this would be if the Soviet Union were to attack Germany, and enter the NATO operational area, would be quickly surrounded by NATO forces to prevent an accelerated push into Europe. This plan relied heavily on the ability of NATO to operate with a thin margin of error. Their conventional retaliation approach would rely on intelligence gained from outside means and a miss estimate could cause the initial encirclement force to become isolated away from the group and annihilated by the Soviet Union.[citation needed]

NATO began to evolve from its previous policies and began to devise a plan suggested to it by the United States called ‘flexible response’. By NATO reasoning in the face of an all-out USSR invasion of Europe, the U.S. still guaranteed strategic help, and with a USSR invasion, it would upset the balance of world powers and force the U.S. to enter due to its many international interests that would be jeopardized. The ‘Flexible response’ policy laid out a plan for NATO in which it would develop a capacity to respond to any forms of USSR aggression without help from the U.S until all forms of action were taken and they are, battlefield, conventional, theater, or Nuclear weapons.[7] European NATO members quickly let it be known of the great cost that would be required to complete the ‘flexible position’ and that sort of cost is what they were avoiding once before in the ‘50’s when the proposal for a large ground force for NATO had been suggested.[7] The policy of ‘Flexible Response’ was met with doubt from some Europeans. The U.S guaranteed the defense of NATO nations after NATO battlefield strategy, and theatre strategy fail in the face of an attack from the USSR, but some Europeans contended that the intermediate steps of Flexible Response were superfluous.[8] The Europeans whom raised this argument believed that the previous stance of NATO by threatening massive retaliation against the USSR, in which the U.S. was more than willing to respond to any attack with nuclear weapons if the USSR even thought about attacking any NATO member. They felt that massive retaliation was the better course of action due to it unfolding from a small conflict to a war of two superpowers.[8] These doubts within the smaller NATO countries would come to fruition when France quit believing in the past NATO ideology that heralded the U.S. as a martyr in which they would engulf their entire country in war for its allies in Europe. This led to the creation of Frances own nuclear defense program, and France would withdraw from NATO’s integrated military structure.[9]

NATO Nuclear Capabilities

In 1967 NATO officially accepted the doctrine of ‘Flexible Response’, but the European member’s anxieties of it came to fruition in changing how the policy was implemented. The first proposed change was to create a larger conventional standing force that if destroyed, the U.S. would then respond in kind to the USSR with nuclear weapons. This change was not fully followed through. NATO did not increase its conventional force size, and by not doing so they retained a meager standing military that could be annihilated by the USSR in moments. This policy, after the Europeans amalgamated it, allowed them to retain the previous defense employed. NATO forces were insignificant, but the U.S nuclear might was superior and it created the deterrence they sought at the time.[10] To further increase deterrence NATO adopted dual capable missile systems, such as the 155mm artillery. It allowed for the delivery of either a conventional payload or a nuclear one. This was not done only for simplicity of ordinance, but as a sign to any USSR aggression that they were prepared to use nuclear weapons given to them.[11]

NATO had a good foundation of Nuclear weapons provided by the U.S and a small amount via Britain. They possessed 1,081 155mm artillery, 319 203 mm artillery, 90 Lance missiles, 91 Honest John missiles, and 180 Pershing 1A missiles that were all nuclear capable with allocated nuclear payloads. In 1974 France created the Pluton. It was an all French tactical missile and made it available to NATO. It was a fully mobile, accurate missile with the capability to deliver a 25-kiloton bomb for attacking rear areas, or a smaller 15-kiloton bomb designed to destroy advancing troops.[12] By 1981, over 30 Pluton units were deployed with available reloads accompanying them throughout Europe.[12] NATO’s battlefield deterrence was not the bulk of its later capabilities in the ‘80’s. NATO also possessed a large amount of nuclear capable aircraft that could be used in multiple roles, nuclear and non-nuclear, within a conflict.[13]

See also

Works cited

  • Sheehan, Michael (1983). The Arms Race. New York: St.Martin's. 
  • Cimbala, Stephen (1989). NATO Strategies and Nuclear Weapons. New York: St.Martin's. pp. 1. 
  • Chant, Christopher; Hogg, Ian (1983). The Nuclear War File. London: Ebury Press. pp. 44. ISBN 0 85223 380 9. 


  1. 1.0 1.1 Cimbala 1989, p. 1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Sheehan 1983, p. 117.
  3. Sheehan 1983, p. 110.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Chant & Hogg 1983, p. 44.
  5. Cimbala 1989, p. 28.
  6. Sheehan 1983, pp. 111–112.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Sheehan 1983, pp. 113–114.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Sheehan 1983, p. 114.
  9. Sheehan 1983, pp. 114–115.
  10. Sheehan 1983, p. 115.
  11. Sheehan 1983, p. 116.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Sheehan 1983, p. 118.
  13. Sheehan 1983, p. 119.

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