Theater Nuclear Weapons and the NATO Strategy of Flexible Response

by J. Michael Legge


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After more than a decade of comparatively little public interest in matters of nuclear strategy, the last few years have seen a resurgence of concern about the policy of nuclear deterrence that the North Atlantic Alliance has followed since the early 1950s. In Europe in particular, this concern has centered on the role of theater nuclear weapons in NATO strategy. This report briefly examines the way in which that strategy evolved from the foundation of the Alliance in 1949 to the formal adoption of the current "flexible response" strategy in 1967, with particular reference to the role of theater nuclear weapons. It then traces the development within the NATO Nuclear Planning Group of the more detailed doctrine concerning the role of theater nuclear weapons within the overall strategy, which led inter alia to the decision taken by NATO in 1979 to modernize the long-term component of the theater nuclear forces. The report examines the main arguments that have been advanced against the current flexible response strategy, and considers the merits of various alternative strategies. The report finally considers ways in which the Alliance's theater nuclear stockpile might be adapted to meet the political and strategic needs of the 1980s.

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