Belgium, Germany Question U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe

Oliver Meier

With May’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference as a spur, German and Belgian politicians are calling on NATO to work toward the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

On May 2, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a Green Party member, called proposals to remove these weapons from Europe a “reasonable initiative.” Gert Weisskirchen, the foreign affairs spokesperson for Germany’s Social Democrat Party’s parliamentary caucus, said such a move would “send a signal toward Russia and get the disarmament process moving again.” The Social Democrats and the Green Party form Germany’s coalition government.

German officials said they hope to place the subject on the agenda of a NATO meeting scheduled for June. At the review conference, many non-nuclear-weapon states criticized the United States and the other four nuclear-weapon states for not doing enough to meet their NPT commitment to make good-faith efforts toward disarmament.

NATO Arrangements
Under NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements, an estimated 480 tactical nuclear weapons remain deployed in five NATO nonnuclear- weapon states (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) and in the United Kingdom, which also possesses an independent nuclear arsenal. Canada and Greece have ended their participation in nuclear sharing.

The arrangements were developed during the Cold War to increase the other countries’ involvement in nuclear decision- making. The United States has reduced the more than 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons it had deployed in Europe at the end of the Cold War by about 90 percent. It has done so mainly to implement the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) announced in 1991 by then-Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. The nuclear weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime, but an estimated 180 such weapons can be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.

Experts estimate that Russia still holds at least 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons, although many of these may not be in usable condition. The United States says that Russia has been implementing its obligations under the PNIs “for the most part” but still has questions, particularly with regard to Moscow’s land-based tactical nuclear arsenal. (See ACT, November 2004.)

On April 14, Germany’s Free Democratic Party introduced a resolution in the Bundestag calling on the German government to work toward the withdrawal of U.S. weapons there. According to a February study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 150 U.S. weapons are housed in Germany, more than any other European country, with 60 permitted to fall under German command during a conflict.

A week later, the Belgian parliament unanimously passed a similar resolution. According to the NRDC, 20 B-61 gravity bombs—the only type of U.S. weapons still deployed in Europe— are stored at the Kleine Brogel air force base and could be delivered by Belgian pilots to their targets.

NATO and the Department of Defense do not publicly release information on the deployments.

Taking the Debate to a New Level
The parliamentary initiatives on NATO nuclear weapons in Belgium and Germany were both taken in the context of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, but they differ somewhat in their origins and dimensions.

Patrik Vankrunkelsven of Belgium’s Liberal and Democratic Citizens Party (VDP) told Arms Control Today May 9 that he had worked for more than two years to get the support of all of Belgium’s parties for the parliament’s resolution. He said the resolution was intended to trigger discussions in NATO on nuclear sharing, rather than seek simply a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Belgium. “People are afraid to go it alone, both in the Senate and in the government,” Vankrunkelsven said. “On the other hand, in NATO everybody is waiting for everybody else” to take the initiative on the question of NATO nuclear sharing.

The resolution, therefore, is careful to frame possible changes in NATO nuclear sharing within a multilateral context. It asks the Belgian government to propose initiatives in NATO calling for the review of strategic nuclear doctrines; the gradual withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to help fulfill NPT disarmament commitments; and the initiation of negotiations between NATO and Russia on tactical nuclear weapons. These talks, perhaps within the formal mechanism of the NATO-Russia Council, would be intended to establish a framework for reducing and destroying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, safeguarding and destroying Russian tactical nuclear weapons, and strengthening confidence-building and transparency measures regarding tactical nuclear weapons.

The German Free Democrats’ resolution was more pointed than its Belgian counterpart, calling on the government to “urge the American allies to withdraw tactical weapons deployed in Germany.” The resolution said it was necessary “in order to strengthen the credibility of the nonproliferation regime and as a sign that the disarmament obligations of the nuclear-weapon states are being taken seriously as integral parts of the NPT and are being pursued rigorously.”

The political success of the resolution may have come as a surprise. Perhaps intended to split the ruling Social Democrat- Green Party coalition on NATO nuclear policy, it triggered an avalanche of approving statements from almost all parties. Only the conservative Christian Democrats openly supported the continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Germany. Ruprecht Polenz, the Christian Democrats parliamentary leader on disarmament matters, questioned in an April 14 debate whether the real motive behind the resolution was the intention of ending the U.S. nuclear umbrella entirely and contended that it should be Washington’s prerogative to decide how to protect its troops deployed in Europe.

The Green Party’s defense spokesperson in the Bundestag, Winfried Nachtwei, countered in a press release on April 29 that “a quick renunciation of nuclear sharing and a complete withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe could give nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts a new and important impulse.”

What Next?
In Belgium, it is not clear if the resolution will press the Belgian government into action. Vankrunkelsven said the initial reaction has been one of skepticism. He and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, both members of the Flemish VLD, have stressed the need to work together with NATO allies on this issue and have said that changes in NATO’s strategy should be tied to the dismantlement of Russian tactical nuclear weapons.

In Germany, the Liberal Party resolution was referred to the Bundestag’s subcommittee on disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation, where it is likely to be debated in June.

More crucially, senior German officials said they intend to press the issue within NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) June 9-10. The NPG is charged with making decisions on NATO’s nuclear policies, but in recent years its meetings have become largely a routine exercise and take place only once a year.

German Defense Minister Peter Struck said during a visit to the U.S. base at Ramstein May 6, “I agree with Foreign Minister Fischer that we will bring up this issue within NATO [and that we] will have to clarify this in consultation with the other European allies who also have nuclear weapons deployed on their territory.” Rolf Mützenich, the Social Democrat spokesperson for disarmament, told Arms Control Today on May 10 that he, too, is certain that this time “the debate about NATO nuclear sharing will not go away.”

Apart from Germany, no NATO member state has officially taken a position on the future of NATO nuclear sharing in the context of the recent debate. However, U.S. spokesmen have made clear their preference for the status quo.

“Nuclear weapons deployed in Europe are an essential political and military link between the United States and Europe,” Lt. Commander Rick Haupt, spokesperson for U.S. European Command, told Arms Control Today May 17. “The United States is working with NATO on this issue,” Haupt said. He added that the United States “remains committed to NATO’s Strategic Concept which calls for maintaining nuclear weapons at a minimum level to preserve peace and stability.”

A Pentagon spokesman said that any change would have to take place in NATO. “Should any nation wish to initiate a change to any of these basic precepts, they would be free to initiate such a proposal in the appropriate NATO fora...all of which work on the principle of consensus,” said Major Paul Swiergosz.

Germany made an unsuccessful push in 1998 to persuade the alliance to adopt a policy that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. (See ACT, November/December 1998.)

Still, Haupt said that the United States would “remain in support of the strategic concept even if there was a change to it.”

Regardless of the outcome of the political debate, Germany’s nuclear role in NATO is set to expire within the next 10 years. The German Air Force currently only has one type of aircraft certified to deliver nuclear weapons, the PA-200 Tornado, which will be replaced over the next 10 years by the Eurofighter. The German Defense Ministry, in a statement to the Bundestag on July 12, noted that “it is currently not planned and no preparations are being made to enable the weapons system Eurofighter for a nuclear-weapon deployment.” If the government sticks to this line, Germany will have no nuclear-capable aircraft by 2015 at the latest.