The United States may have quietly removed all 130 nuclear weapons from its air force base in Ramstein, Germany. Before the withdrawal, Ramstein had been the biggest U.S. nuclear base in Europe. If true, the withdrawal means that there are probably about 350 U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, down from thousands at the height of the cold war.
In a July 9 report, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists revealed that Ramstein is missing from a Jan. 27, 2007, list of NATO nuclear bases that are scheduled to receive a Nuclear Surety Staff Assistance Visit, a precursor for an inspection by a Nuclear Surety Inspection. Such an inspection must be passed every 18 month if nuclear bases want to remain certified for nuclear deployments.
If the weapons have been withdrawn, the German air force base at Büchel would be the only remaining U.S. nuclear base in Germany. Presumably, 20 U.S. B61 gravity bombs are deployed there under NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements. Under these arrangements, 140 weapons would still be assigned for use by Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, none of which have their own nuclear arms. These weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime but can be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.
Guy Roberts, NATO deputy assistant secretary-general for weapons of mass destruction policy and director for nuclear policy, told Arms Control Today Aug.1 that NATO “currently deploys a few hundred nuclear weapons in Europe.” In line with NATO custom, Roberts declined to provide any further information on NATO’s nuclear weapons practice or deployments.
The timing of a possible withdrawal and the reasons for it remain unclear. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported in 2005 that the weapons deployed in Ramstein may have been withdrawn for safety reasons during construction at the site. Kristensen now speculates that the bombs never returned.
NATO is currently conducting an internal debate on the future role of nuclear deterrence. A June 15 Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) communiqué welcomed discussions on “deterrence requirements for the twenty-first century.” Roberts explained that the alliance is reviewing its nuclear posture “as NATO goes through the process of agreeing on a new Strategic Concept possibly by 2009 or 2010.” Roberts expressed hope that a decision could be taken to report findings of those discussions during NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008 or no later than the 2009 spring defense ministerial. He said that the NATO secretariat would prefer an early agreement on a new nuclear doctrine.
Little detail about the scope or direction of those discussions is publicly available. Roberts said that, in ongoing discussions on NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture at the NPG and other NATO bodies, there was unanimity among NATO allies that nuclear deterrence, a U.S. nuclear presence in Europe, and burden sharing will remain vital. The NPG communiqué reiterates alliance doctrine that “NATO’s nuclear forces are maintained at the minimum level sufficient to preserve peace and stability” and that the purpose of NATO nuclear weapons is “to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war.” NATO member states, according to the statement, continue to view nuclear sharing as an “essential political and military link between the European and North American members” of the alliance. Roberts, however, conceded that there were different perceptions among allies on a range of other issues related to NATO’s nuclear posture.
German officials declined to comment on the reports about a possible withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Ramstein, citing the government’s policy of not confirming or denying details of NATO nuclear deployments.
The two ruling parties of Germany’s governing coalition, the left-of-center Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats, reacted differently to the news. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, arms control spokesperson for the Christian Democrats, told the German online magazine stern.de July 13 that a partial withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons would not contribute necessarily “to departure of others, such as Iran, from their nuclear ambitions.”
Uta Zapf, Social Democrat and chair of the Bundestag’s subcommittee on disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today Aug. 10 that the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Ramstein is good news but “by itself does not signify a change in policy” because U.S. nuclear weapons remain deployed at Büchel and in five other European countries. “I think we should use the opportunity to push for a more fundamental debate about nuclear deterrence,” Zapf said.German opposition parties are going further and are demanding a quick withdrawal of the remaining nuclear weapons. This debate is taking place against the background of persistent differences between the governing parties on the role of nuclear weapons. (See ACT, July/August 2006. )