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News Analysis: An End to U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe?
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Oliver Meier

NATO’s policy of basing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in several European countries has lasted long after the end of the Cold War, despite increasing pressure from parliamentarians, disarmament advocates, and public opinion. Now, a more mundane yet more tangible force may now tip the balance against the status quo: money. Public statements from and interviews with government officials and experts in Europe indicate that European governments may not be willing to make the investments in a new generation of nuclear-capable aircraft or participate in relevant technology sharing that would be needed to sustain the policy.

Nuclear sharing was developed during the Cold War to deepen U.S.-European military ties and to create a forum where Europe could have a say in Washington’s nuclear policies. As the Cold War ended, about 4,000 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons remained on European soil, intended to offset Soviet conventional and nuclear forces. In a series of bilateral understandings with the Soviet Union and then with Russia in the early 1990s, President George H. W. Bush sharply reduced that number. Today, an estimated 480 B-61 gravity bombs remain deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, which also possesses its own nuclear arsenal. Of these weapons, 180 are assigned for use by the five non-nuclear-weapon states. These weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime but can be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.

U.S. and European officials readily acknowledge that they have held on to the weapons for predominantly political rather than military reasons. In its 1999 Strategic Concept, NATO implied that improved relations with Russia meant that the weapons’ military purpose had largely ended, but called for retaining the weapons as a means of shoring up the political solidarity of the alliance. U.S. and European officials have also seen the weapons as a potential bargaining chip to encourage Russia to part with its own much larger arsenal of such weapons, variously estimated at about 3,000 deployed operational warheads.

But the status quo is imperiled by the aging of NATO’s nuclear-capable fighter fleet. Over the next several years, a number of European NATO members involved in nuclear sharing arrangements have to decide whether to replace aging fighter aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons, commonly known as “dual-capable aircraft.” Amid budget pressures and growing public concern, some key groups are beginning to balk. These concerns come as NATO is expected to update the 1999 Strategic Concept, including a possible revision of its nuclear doctrine.

German Disagreements

Discussion of the issue is the most highly charged in Germany, which hosts an estimated 150 U.S. nuclear weapons. Germany relies exclusively on Tornado PA-200 aircraft to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons. The Tornado entered service in the early 1980s and had been expected to be phased out over the next 15 years. Nuclear-capable Tornados are deployed at Büchel Air Base, along with an estimated 20 B-61 bombs. Germany had been expected to begin retiring them as early as 2012.

The Tornados are to be replaced by the Eurofighter (Typhoon), a multinational aircraft built jointly by Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. But the German government in July 2004 told parliament—the Bundestag—that it does not intend to certify the Eurofighter to carry nuclear weapons. Such certification would require Germany and its partners to grant the United States access to Eurofighter technology, which Europeans are reluctant to do because they fear the loss of commercial proprietary information.

Berlin is looking for a way to delay making a decision. In February, the government stated that it might keep some Tornados beyond the expected end of their service life in 2020. The only clear purpose for such a move would be to preserve the ability of the German air force to deploy U.S. nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, there is concern within NATO about Germany’s long-term commitment to nuclear sharing. A senior NATO official told Arms Control Today June 2 that a decision by the German government to “extend the life of the Tornado would only delay and not solve the issue.”

Such fears are heightened by growing pressure from the Bundestag. Since April 2005, all three opposition parties in the Bundestag—the liberal Free Democrats, the left-of-center Green Party and the socialist Left Party—have introduced resolutions calling for a complete end to Germany’s involvement in nuclear sharing and a withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from German territory.

This year, the debate also is taking place within the government. When the draft of a new Defense White Paper was released to the Bundestag this spring, an unprecedented dispute about German support for NATO’s nuclear doctrine erupted between center-left Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats, which together form the governing “Grand Coalition.”

The draft, which was leaked to a German internet site (www.geopowers.com), states that nuclear deterrence will remain necessary to deter hostile states possessing nuclear weapons, including states with a fundamentalist ideology. Echoing earlier NATO language, the draft goes on to argue that “the common commitment of Alliance partners to war prevention, the credible demonstration of Alliance solidarity and nuclear posture require also in the future German participation in nuclear tasks.” The text specifies that this includes “the deployment of allied nuclear forces on German soil, participation in consultations, planning and providing means of delivery.”

This language was immediately and publicly rejected by the Social Democrats and, along with a subsequent position paper, made clear that for the first time that a governing party in Germany was calling for withdrawing from NATO nuclear sharing. The position paper, written by Social Democratic members of the Bundestag’s Defense Committee, categorically states that Social Democrats are “not willing to provide new means of delivery” once the Tornado has reached the end of its service life “in a few years.” Then, Germany’s participation in “tactical nuclear sharing” should end, the Social Democrats demand.

Rolf Mützenich, the Social Democrats’ spokesperson for arms control, told Arms Control Today June 13 that this means that Germany would no longer provide aircraft or personnel to participate in NATO nuclear sharing. Mützenich cautioned that “as long as these weapons exist,” Germany should stay involved in the “strategic operative” aspects of nuclear sharing, namely, it should continue to participate in alliance consultations and decision-making on nuclear doctrine. As a NATO member state, Germany is eligible to participate in nuclear deliberations—in the Nuclear Planning Group for example—even if it does not host nuclear weapons. Mützenich emphasized that as far as he is concerned, Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing should end “as early as possible” before 2012. He called on the German government to closely consult with partners and allies in order to initiate an open debate within NATO on the role of nuclear weapons in today’s world. “In the long-term, nuclear weapons should be abolished altogether. As long as that is not achievable, NATO should renounce the first use of nuclear weapons,” Mützenich said.

Christian Democrats are now the only party in the Bundestag that supports the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Germany and NATO’s nuclear posture. Responding June 9 to questions from Arms Control Today, Christian Democrats defense spokesperson Bernd Siebert rejected the idea of basing a decision on Germany’s future involvement in nuclear sharing on the phasing out of the Tornado. “Instead, it should be a political judgment whether nuclear sharing is still up to date or not.” According to Siebert, the Christian Democrats support Germany’s involvement in nuclear sharing as an insurance against unforeseeable risks and because it “guarantees political influence on the use or nonuse of nuclear weapons.” Siebert said he sees no necessity “to fundamentally call into question NATO’s current strategy.”

The white paper draft was prepared by the Defense Ministry, which is headed by Christian Democrat Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, and is currently being reviewed by the Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier. Discussions on Germany’s future involvement in nuclear sharing are expected to continue when the next draft is debated in the Bundestag.

Italian Uncertainties

Germany is not the only one of the nuclear-sharing participants to have doubts. A new government in Italy is also raising concerns.

Italy’s past Conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi had committed Rome to purchasing both the Eurofighter as well as its competitor, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), with the JSF taking over the Tornado’s nuclear missions. The JSF, also known as the F-35, is a $35 billion multinational program led by the United States. Partners include the nuclear-sharing countries of Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

But the new center-left government of Prime Minister Romani Prodi, elected in April, has called into question Italy’s commitment to the JSF. Should Italy decide to opt out of the program, the country would be left only with the non-nuclear Eurofighter.

According to a April 17 Defense News report, Giovanni Urbani, aerospace spokesperson for the Democratic Left, which is part of Italy’s governing coalition, proposed on April 11 that Italy “pull out of acquiring the JSF and look at the third-tranche Eurofighter instead, thus boosting a European production line.” New Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema told Reuters on May 21 that “a politics of disarmament must be relaunched, one that invites reflection on part of the great powers, starting with the United States.” Further, Francesco Martone, head of the Rifondazione Comunista-European Left in the Foreign Affairs committee of the Italian Senate, told Arms Control Today June 12 that the new government “should cancel Italian participation in the JSF.” Martone, says that Italy should initiate discussions on nuclear sharing “with a view to free our country from nuclear weapons.” Martone, whose party is part of Italy’s governing coalition, is preparing a bill that proposes to reinvest Italy’s share in the JSF in development aid.

Some in NATO, however, believe that the new Italian government will eventually support the JSF, if only to avoid hefty financial penalties for opting out.

The Bomber Gap

Italy is not the only country to raise questions about whether and how it might go forward with the U.S. fighter. Delays, cost overruns, and disagreements between the United States and its allies about access to JSF technology continue to plague the program. Unless these are resolved soon, Turkey and the Netherlands might not have nuclear-capable aircraft when their current fleet of F-16s starts reaching the end of its service life as early as 2009.

Under current plans, a nuclear-capable variant of the JSF is slated to enter into service in 2012 or later when a fourth version of the fighter could start to roll off production lines. But no JSF partner country has yet committed to buying this series of JSFs. Thus, there is a real possibility that Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey might not be able to deploy dual-capable aircraft for several years, removing these countries’ ability to participate in nuclear sharing.

Some in NATO fear that politicians in member states might put off deciding whether to buy nuclear-capable aircraft until NATO is forced to alter its nuclear posture to accommodate technological and financial realities. “I think politicians will delay making a decision as long as possible. I don’t anticipate any serious discussions on this issue until the 2008-09 time frame,” the senior NATO official said. By that time, it might be too late for some countries to have a smooth transition from nuclear-capable Tornados or F-16s to a follow-on aircraft.

Parliamentarians in the Netherlands and Turkey as well as Belgium have called for debates about their governments’ support for NATO’s nuclear weapons policy. This raises further questions about the ability of governments to make the financial pledges necessary to secure long-term involvement of their countries in nuclear sharing.

For the time being, the Netherlands remains committed to the JSF. However, the Dutch government resigned June 30 and the largest Dutch opposition party opposes involvement in the program. It has vowed to cancel agreements should it become part of a new government after parliamentary elections expected in October. The NIS News Bulletin May 3 quoted Labour Party (PvdA) member of parliament Luuk Blom as predicting that “not a single JSF will be bought under [a] PvdA government. It is to be a firm issue in our election program.” The Dutch Defense Ministry is expected to sign an agreement with the United States at the end of this year governing the production, maintenance, and continued development of the JSF.

Turkey has not committed firmly to buying either the Eurofighter or the JSF. Ankara may decide by the end of 2006 how it will spend $10 billion it has earmarked to buy 100 new-generation combat aircraft. Turkey is already a member of the JSF consortium but may end up buying some Eurofighters as well. According to a June 19 report in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, the Turkish Parliament on June 12 discussed the presence of an estimated 90 U.S. nuclear weapons at the U.S. air force base in Incirlik. Sukru Elekdag, a member of parliament and a former ambassador to the United States, who initiated the debate, noted that the United States had already withdrawn nuclear weapons formerly deployed in Turkey’s rival, Greece. Moreover, Elekdag stated that it would be difficult to explain the continued presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on Turkish territory to its Muslim and Arab neighbors.

Belgium has sidestepped the issue by investing in a life-extension program for its F-16s, which is expected to keep its fleet flying for another 15 years. But Brussels has rejected an invitation to join the JSF program as a partner, and there appears to be no rush to take a decision on a follow-on model for Belgian F-16s before 2008-2010, in particular with general elections taking place next year. In April 2005, the Belgian Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Belgian government to take an initiative in NATO to review its nuclear doctrine and to initiate the gradual withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear from Belgian territory. (See ACT, May 2005.)

A New Nuclear Policy for NATO?

This November’s NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, is also likely to duck the issue of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The senior NATO official complained that “there are currently no discussions on NATO nuclear policy within NATO” and that “this is not on anybody’s plate.” At most, NATO heads of state and governments are expected to launch a review of the Strategic Concept.

That there is currently no movement to adapt NATO’s nuclear posture was confirmed June 8 when NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels reaffirmed that NATO continues “to place great value on the nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO, which provide an essential political and military link between European and North American members of the Alliance.”

NATO leaders this fall are unlikely to consider changing their 1999 Strategic Concept, which states that “solidarity and common commitment to war prevention continue to require widespread participation by European Allies involved in collective defence planning in nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces on their territory and in command, control and consultation arrangements.” Instead, they are likely to approve a so-called Comprehensive Political Guidance. This document, which was agreed on last year but has not yet been published, apparently confirms NATO’s current nuclear posture.

There is, however, much talk in NATO about a new Strategic Concept to be agreed at a possible NATO summit in 2009, which marks NATO’s 60th birthday and the 10th anniversary of NATO’s current Strategic Concept. Robert Bell, who was NATO’s assistant secretary-general from 1999 to 2003 and previously served as a senior arms control official on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, told Arms Control Today June 13 that it is not clear that NATO will decide to update the Strategic Concept. If it does, “there is no guarantee” that the issue of dual-capable aircraft will be debated, he added.

Bell detects little willingness within NATO or among member states to change the alliance’s current nuclear doctrine and believes that the responsibility for taking the initiative on nuclear sharing rests with Washington. “Were this or were a new administration to decide to end the program, I do not believe the participating NATO allies would seriously try to stop it,” Bell said.

Indeed, some in the Pentagon favor ending nuclear sharing. A February 2004 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board recommended that the secretary of defense “consider eliminating the nuclear role for Tomahawk cruise missiles and for forward-based, tactical, dual-capable aircraft” because “there is no obvious need for these systems, and eliminating the nuclear role would free resources that could be used to fund strategic strike programs of higher priority.”

In an October 2005 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had indicated a willingness to leave the future of NATO nuclear deployments up to Europeans. Rumsfeld noted that it is up “to the Germans and to NATO” to pass judgment on the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons on German soil. “Some countries in Europe made the decision to allow them to be on the continent. It was seen to be in their interest and is still seen that way today as it persists. So one would assume it continues being in their interest,” Rumsfeld said.

Nevertheless, the current timetable means member states participating in nuclear sharing may need to make a decision on whether to purchase dual-capable aircraft before a new nuclear doctrine is in place. Thus, they could end up buying aircraft with a nuclear capability that in the long run may not be needed.

One means under consideration of guarding against this possibility and also deflecting public criticism of NATO’s nuclear posture would be to withdraw U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe but leave the technical and physical infrastructure associated with nuclear sharing in place so that the weapons could be redeployed swiftly if and when NATO considers such a move necessary. A withdrawal of all deployed B-61 bombs would not affect readiness because NATO has already slowed response times of U.S. nuclear forces deployed in Europe from days to months. Member states participating in nuclear sharing would still need to provide dual-capable aircraft, although perhaps in reduced numbers. The air forces of these countries would continue to train for nuclear missions by using a “Realistic Weapons Trainer” and dummy weapons. Fifty-four new trainers were delivered to Europe as recently as February 2004.

From NATO’s perspective, such an arrangement of “virtual” nuclear sharing might have a number of technical and political disadvantages. NATO member states may be reluctant to redeploy nuclear weapons in times of crisis for fear of sending a wrong, escalatory signal. The United States currently deploys specially trained Munitions Support Squadrons of approximately 125-150 soldiers each at every base where U.S. nuclear weapons are stored. These units would either have to remain stationed at bases where nuclear weapons could be redeployed or kept on standby in the United States for possible relocation in Europe. Both are expensive options and may be difficult to justify, given how unlikely it is that NATO nuclear weapons would ever actually be used. There is also a fear at NATO headquarters in Brussels and national defense ministries that NATO’s nuclear policy may over time fade into irrelevance if the real weapons are withdrawn.

Further, advocates of a denuclearized NATO are likely to criticize virtual nuclear sharing as half-hearted and insufficient from a disarmament perspective. Such a move would not enable NATO to reap the arms control benefits associated with a complete termination of nuclear sharing. Thus, Russia may continue to argue that NATO’s nuclear policy continues to stand in the way of a broader agreement on tactical nuclear weapons.

Bell does not believe that there are realistic alternatives to current sharing arrangements and predicts that the current “model will remain until the NATO [tactical nuclear force] comes out altogether and for good.”

Public Opinion

Ultimately, European publics may have the last word. Public pressure on NATO to revise its nuclear policy is growing. A May survey commissioned by Greenpeace on the question of nuclear weapons deployments revealed that almost two-thirds of the populations in those countries (aside from Turkey) that host U.S. B-61 bombs want Europe to be free of nuclear weapons. Anti-nuclear sentiments were strongest in Italy and Germany (71.5 percent and 70.5 percent, respectively) and weakest in the United Kingdom (55.7 percent). The survey also made clear that more, than 15 years after the end of the Cold War, about 60 percent of the people in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands are unaware that U.S. nuclear weapons continue to be deployed in their countries.


Brown Supports Continuing UK Nuclear Weapons Program

Gordon Brown, the heir apparent to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, announced his support for developing a successor to the United Kingdom’s strategic submarine fleet June 21. Brown’s support for the program, which could cost as much as $45 billion (see ACT, April 2006), came despite significant public and parliamentary opposition—including within the governing Labour party—to the move.

“In an insecure world we must and always will have the strength to take all necessary measures fro stability and security,” Brown said. The United Kingdom currently deploys 58 U.S.-supplied Trident D5 missiles with up to 200 warheads.



Posted: July 1, 2006