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NATO Faces Up to North Korea, Russia With Nuclear Sub Visit

NATO’s secretary-general and council toured a Trident missile-capable submarine base in Scotland, in a high-level bid to highlight the military alliance’s nuclear capabilities.


Julian E. Barnes

FASLANE, U.K.—The NATO secretary-general and council toured a Trident missile-capable submarine Friday, in a high-level bid to highlight the military alliance’s nuclear capabilities in the face of North Korean tests and Russian drills.

The visit to U.K. Naval Base Clyde on the Scottish coast—the home port of Britain’s four Vanguard-class Ballistic missile submarines—comes as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization talks more publicly about the arms at its members’ disposal, in response to prodding from the U.S.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg toured the HMS Vengeance submarine alongside U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon. Mr. Stoltenberg was accompanied by ambassadors from NATO, which has stepped up its profile this month, issuing statements on North Korea’s nuclear program and the international treaty banning nuclear weapons.

“Nuclear deterrence remains critical for our security,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”

Mr. Fallon said the U.K.’s nuclear arsenal demonstrated his country’s commitment to NATO and was critical for “complicating the calculations of our adversaries.”

Any discussion of NATO’s nuclear weapons is a delicate matter, with allies eager to emphasize their deterrent forces, but not engage in the kind of saber rattling for which they have criticized Russia and North Korea.

Some allies believe a more full-throated voice for NATO on nuclear deterrence is important. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the new U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in a recent interview that the alliance must draw attention to its nuclear defenses in light of North Korea testing ballistic missiles.

“This is the time to be strong, not weak. This is the time to step up, not back,” she said.

Both the U.S. and the U.K. have pledged their nuclear deterrence capabilities to the defense of NATO and coordinate, to a degree, their nuclear policies with the rest of the alliance.

HMS Vigilant, one of the U.K.'s four nuclear warhead-carrying submarines, at Faslane last year. Photo: Danny Lawson/Zuma Press

The U.K. began continuous submarine deployments in April 1969, and Mr. Fallon said the military is now marking its 350th nuclear deterrence patrol since then.

The NATO event comes after a large military exercise by Russia that included deployments of nuclear-armed submarines and the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

“We are responding to that in many different ways,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “But we are not matching soldier by soldier, tank by tank, plane by plane or nuclear capability by nuclear capability with what the Russians are doing.”

Czech Gen. Petr Pavel, the chairman of NATO’s military committee, said the Russian exercise, known as Zapad, was only partially focused on its stated objective of conducting a counterterrorism operation.

“It was a preparation for a big war with a peer-like enemy,” Gen. Pavel said. “From conventional up to nuclear, from tactical up to strategic, all these levels were trained.”

Before Zapad, Western officials said they expected between 70,000 and 100,000 troops to participate in it, well in excess of the 12,700 announced by Moscow. Gen. Pavel said NATO was still assessing the Russian naval and air forces that participated, but estimated that more than 50,000 ground forces took part in the exercise. “We are well above 50,000 now,” he said. “Once we count it all together I believe we will be very close to the original estimate.”

As for the U.K., it faces conflicting pressures. Both elements of the British public and Labour, which is the main opposition party, and the Scottish National Party are critical of its nuclear program. Indeed, NATO’S visit Friday wasn’t announced until it was well under way, due to fear of protests.

“These weapons remain vital for the security of our people and of our NATO partners for as long as the security environment demands,” Mr. Fallon, a member of the ruling Conservative party, said.

He noted that the U.K. had reduced the number of warheads it deployed to 40 from 48. “We remain committed to reducing our stockpile,” he said. “But we also have to be realistic.”

Each of the U.K.’s Vanguard submarines can carry up to 16 U.S.-made Trident missiles armed with British warheads. The U.K. keeps one of the four submarines at sea at all times and is seeking to replace its aging Vanguard class with a new generation of Dreadnought-class boats.

Lt. Commander Chisholm, an engineer on board the nuclear-armed vessels, said it was business as usual for the submarine crews there, despite rising tensions with North Korea and Russia. British Ministry of Defense policy is that submariners on nuclear vessels aren’t identified by their full name.

“They [the submarines]are being used every day; that is deterrence for you. As for actually firing them, if it comes that far we have failed somehow,” Lt. Cmdr. Chisholm said.

Also Friday, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas visited NATO troops in Estonia, in a display of solidarity as leaders gathered for a digital summit.

“Russia’s continued aggression represents a growing danger to our friends here in Estonia—as well as in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. And our response must be clear and unequivocal,” Mrs. May told British troops serving in the NATO mission.

Write to Julian E. Barnes at