NATO Mulls Nuke Modernization, Security

Oliver Meier

Reports about security problems at U.S. nuclear weapons bases in Europe have led to renewed calls from parliamentarians of European allies for an end to NATO's nuclear weapons-sharing arrangements. But a senior NATO official interviewed by Arms Control Today rejected the reports about security problems, predicted a continuation of NATO's nuclear weapons policies, and called for a modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

"There is no question that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe are safe and secure," Guy Roberts, NATO deputy assistant secretary-general for weapons of mass destruction policy and director for nuclear policy, told Arms Control Today Aug. 14.

On June 19, Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists released the classified findings of a February U.S. Air Force blue ribbon review (BRR), which he had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The "Air Force Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures" found that most European sites where U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed "require significant additional resources to meet [Department of Defense] security requirements."

The review had been launched following an August 2007 incident in the United States, when a B-52 bomber flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana wrongly and unknowingly armed with nuclear cruise missiles. (See ACT, July/August 2008. )

Security at U.S. Bases in Europe

NATO keeps details of its nuclear deployments secret, but Kristensen estimates that the United States probably still deploys between 150 and 240 B-61 bombs in Europe. Under nuclear sharing arrangements, as many as 140 weapons can 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. Other states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) have repeatedly criticized these arrangements as contradicting the NPT, because they would permit control of nuclear weapons to pass to countries who have forsworn the possession of such weapons under the treaty. (See ACT, June 2008. )

Despite the fact that European nuclear weapons bases were notified in advance of the visits by the U.S. Air Force inspectors, the review still found several deficits in security provided by European allies that host U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory, noting "inconsistencies in personnel, facilities, and equipment provided to the security mission provided by the host nation." Examples of areas with shortcomings include support buildings, fencing, lighting, and security systems. The review also criticized the use of conscripts and unionized security personnel for security tasks.

Officials from NATO states and NATO headquarters have rejected the review's findings and methodology. Roberts said that "there is nothing new in the BRR report. The report contains no security issue that NATO wasn't aware of." Roberts explained that security issues are continuously monitored by NATO through the Joint Theater Management Group, which reports quarterly through the vice-chairman of the High Level Group to the Nuclear Planning Group, which decides on the nuclear policy of the alliance. "Based on these reports, a number of enhancements are being implemented. The BRR report did not add anything new."

During a June 25 parliamentary debate in Berlin, Thomas Kossendey, German assistant secretary for defense, argued that the report and related discussions in NATO have "demonstrated that we do not need to worry" about the security of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. In a July 1 meeting of the Dutch Defense Committee, Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop also maintained that safety and security at the Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands are in good order.

Volkel, alleged to host up to 20 U.S. nuclear weapons, is one of four European air force bases operated by NPT non-nuclear-weapon states where Kristensen says U.S. B-61 nuclear bombs are deployed.

NATO officials also condemn the review for being misleading. "If conscripts are used to provide security, so what? These are well-trained soldiers," Roberts told Arms Control Today. "And the necessity to repair a support building is not necessarily a security issue. If there is a hole in a fence, that gets repaired," he said.

European officials also argued that the report was unfair because the Air Force inspectors applied stricter U.S. security standards, applicable to the inner perimeter of the actual nuclear weapons storage area, to the outer perimeter that is guarded by allies. As a result, NATO does not see any need to take additional measures to improve the security at European nuclear weapons bases.

NATO is angry at the U.S. Air Force for not consulting or at least advising NATO before the report was issued. "This was released without prior warning, and the information regarding the security of nuclear weapons stored in Europe is inaccurate and misleading," Roberts said. "In my view, the report also contains sensitive information, much of which should not have made it into the public domain, even under the Freedom of Information Act."

Nuclear Weapons Consolidation?

Kristensen claimed that the review triggered a consolidation of U.S. nuclear weapons at fewer European bases. Citing anonymous sources, he indicated that one U.S. Munition Support Squadron (MUNSS) will be withdrawn from one national base in Europe, possibly Ghedi Torre in Italy.

MUNSS are units specially trained to guard nuclear weapons storage sites. Withdrawal of such a unit would signal an end of the nuclear mission of a base.

Roberts refuted rumors that NATO is considering a redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. "There is no discussion whatsoever in NATO about consolidating nuclear weapons at fewer bases," he told Arms Control Today.

Renewed German Debate on Nuclear Weapons

The report about security problems at nuclear weapons bases triggered a new debate about the utility of NATO nuclear weapons deployments, particularly in Germany. During a June 25 parliamentary debate in Berlin, representative of all parties with the exception of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel) reacted to the news of security leaks by calling for a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German territory.

Rolf Mützenich, arms control spokesperson of the Social Democrats, who share power in a coalition with the conservatives in Berlin, argued that weapons should be withdrawn from Büchel, the German air force base where Kristensen says up to 20 B-61 warheads are still stored. Mützenich called for a global initiative on short-range, tactical nuclear weapons. He sought to dispel fears of a loss of influence in NATO should Germany end nuclear deployments and said that U.S. nuclear weapons had been withdrawn in 2005 from the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, without any negative implications for Germany's national security or role in NATO. (See ACT, September 2007. )

Supporters of Germany's continued involvement in nuclear sharing argued that nuclear deterrence not only is essential for national security but also gives Berlin "the possibility to influence a decision about the use of nuclear weapons within NATO," as Kossendey argued. But other conservatives indirectly conceded the problems with security of NATO's nuclear weapons. Christian Democratic Union arms control spokesperson Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg warned that politicians should not "ride on a wave of populism or else we will some day be as insecure as the weapons in Büchel."

Meanwhile, some other parliamentarians continue to press for new arms control initiatives on tactical nuclear weapons. For example, in a joint article published on May 7 on the Web site, Mützenich; Patrick Vankrunkelsen, a member of the Belgian parliament; and Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of the Russian Duma, called for an end of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, including western Russia.

NATO's Nuclear Inertia

The increasing pressure on the alliance to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons comes as NATO is conducting an internal review of its nuclear deterrence posture and nuclear deterrence requirements for the twenty-first century. (See ACT, September 2007. ) NATO, however, seems to be thinking about modernization of nuclear forces rather than about reduction.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in June 12 remarks to the press during the NATO defense ministers council, said that "there was talk about modernization of both policies and capabilities" within the alliance. He argued that NATO had already reduced its nuclear forces substantially and maintained that among alliance members "there was no dissent from the fact that we needed a nuclear deterrent in NATO and needed to keep it modern."

In his Arms Control Today interview, Roberts provided further details of options to renew U.S. nuclear forces in Europe. He argued that NATO member states will have to make some difficult choices about modernizing nuclear forces. "There is a recognition by member states and NATO that dual-capable aircraft are aging. The B-61 is a weapon that will need to be upgraded or replaced if NATO wants to maintain a credible and capable nuclear deterrent." (See ACT, July/August 2006. ) Roberts said that the proposed so-called reliable replacement warhead (RRW) is currently the only option to replace aging U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, beyond 2015. "If the RRW program is not going ahead, there will be a need for a life extension program for the B-61."

Launched in 2004, the RRW program aims to produce warheads that will ostensibly be safer, easier to maintain, and more reliable than the estimated 5,400 warheads in the current U.S. stockpile. Congress has eliminated nearly all funding for the program because it wants to review U.S. nuclear policy before deciding whether to proceed with the development of a new type of warhead. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

But Roberts said that NATO's review of long-term deterrence requirements is unlikely to result in fundamental changes in nuclear weapons policies. He pointed out that so far no NATO member state has questioned the basic requirements of NATO's nuclear posture or nuclear sharing, stating that "[w]e at NATO and NATO member states fully embrace extended deterrence. There is no debate on this question." Roberts said that discussions are likely to produce a report only by June 2009, after an April 2009 summit, when NATO is expected to launch a review of its 1999 Strategic Concept. "The report on nuclear weapons doctrine would nevertheless feed into discussions on a new Strategic Concept which we hope can then be approved at a 2010 summit," he said.