By Pia Fuhrhop, Ulrich Kühn, and Oliver Meier
In May 2020, a debate erupted in Germany on the future of NATO nuclear sharing and Berlin’s participation in the arrangement that has seen U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in European nations for decades. This may well turn out to be an opportunity for the alliance, European security, and arms control. Even though it might not sound very realistic today, within the next five years the United States could withdraw the tactical weapons it deploys in Europe with no negative consequences for NATO unity and the security of Europe. In order to secure such an outcome, German leaders and NATO policymakers will have to combine reassurance and arms control in novel and smart ways.
The German nuclear debate was triggered by a mid-April decision by the German Defense Ministry to replace its current fleet of Tornado dual-capable aircraft with 90 Eurofighter Typhoon and 45 U.S. F-18 fighter aircraft. Thirty of the F-18s would be certified to carry U.S. nuclear weapons.1
The plan, announced by German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), quickly attracted criticism not only from opposition parties. Rolf Mützenich, leader of the Social Democrat (SPD) group in the Bundestag, made clear that a discussion about the Tornado replacement would have to include a debate about the new aircraft’s nuclear role. Mützenich argued that the risks associated with continued deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons would outweigh their potential security benefits. He concluded that “it is about time that Germany in the future excludes the deployment” of nuclear weapons on its territory.2 The SPD is a partner in the nation’s governing coalition with the CDU.
Kramp-Karrenbauer clarified that it would be up to the next Bundestag to make a decision on the procurement of a new aircraft and conceded there would be plenty of “room for debate” on the aircraft decision during the campaign for the September 2021 parliamentary elections and while negotiations on a new coalition government would take place.3
Under nuclear sharing arrangements, NATO allies jointly discuss, plan, and train nuclear missions. According to estimates, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey are hosting up to 150 U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs on their territories. These countries, except for Turkey, provide their own dual-capable aircraft for the delivery of nuclear weapons in times of war.4 Details of the arrangement remain shrouded in secrecy, although an estimated 20 U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed at Büchel air base in western Germany.
Mützenich’s call for a debate on NATO nuclear sharing triggered predictable criticism. Proponents of the status quo argued that the security situation in Europe provides neither political nor military room for changing NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. They also maintained that a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany would undermine alliance solidarity. Some even argued that questioning nuclear sharing would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin a diplomatic victory. Others are concerned that Berlin would lose influence over NATO’s nuclear policies, should Germany give up its role as a host nation.5
Beyond such well-known positions, the debate revealed interesting nuances and unique insights. In contrast to previous discussions, many participants distinguished between the operative and technical aspects of sharing associated with the forward deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, on the one hand, and the political aspects involving consultations on NATO’s nuclear policy in the alliance’s respective consultative bodies. Thus, supporters of changes to nuclear sharing pointed out that a withdrawal of nuclear weapons does not mean the end of Berlin’s involvement in nuclear sharing. Even without hosting the B61s, Germany would still participate in NATO nuclear discussions, planning, and exercises, for example in the Nuclear Planning Group. Also, there is now broad agreement across the political divide in Berlin that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe do not have a military role that other conventional or nuclear weapons assigned to NATO could not fulfill. Last but not least, the security concerns of central and eastern European allies, and therefore Germany’s responsibility for European security, turned out to be a key issue in the debate.
Although the debate has subsided since May, the nuclear controversy will return when the Tornado replacement decision comes up in parliament. Hence, there is good reason and sufficient time to explore how steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons can be brought in line with the security and arms control priorities of Germany, its NATO partners, and ideally Russia.
A Five-Year Moratorium
To provide the ground for potential political compromises, Russia and NATO should refrain from introducing new, destabilizing weapons to Europe until 2025. Such a five-year moratorium would make sense given that the next German and U.S. administrations would be in office until 2025. During those five years, the next review cycle of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will be completed. From a German perspective, a five-year freeze would be feasible because the Tornado aircraft can be kept operational at least until 2025.
Germany has a crucial role to play as an interlocutor. Berlin should urge Moscow and Washington to make use of the current window of opportunity to discuss reductions to nuclear weapons in Europe. A moratorium could prepare the ground for a more comprehensive, sustainable debate on security and stability in Europe. To achieve that goal, NATO should propose to Russia specific, reciprocal, and politically binding arms control measures. One should expect that many NATO allies would support such a moratorium as long as its goals are well communicated and the process is coordinated at NATO headquarters. At the same time, Berlin’s ability to bring all necessary actors to the table would be a litmus test of Germany’s influence in the alliance.
Moscow, for its part, would have to commit not to deploy additional land-based, nuclear-capable, short- and medium-range missiles in the European part of Russia. Moscow has already declared that it keeps warheads for such weapons separate from missile launchers and other means of delivery.6 To increase the credibility of that pledge, Russia would need to be transparent with regard to its central storage sites and communicate the movement of nuclear warheads.7 Russia’s infamous 9M729 missile, which NATO believes violates the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, must be verifiably stored at these sites, at least until 2025.
NATO in return would commit to refrain from deploying additional land-based, intermediate-range missiles in Europe. This would build on the alliance’s commitment not to deploy additional nuclear weapons in Europe in response to the demise of the INF Treaty.8 The alliance would also pledge not to transfer new, modernized B61-12 weapons to Europe before 2025.9 NATO’s Aegis Ashore missile defense site in Poland, currently under construction, would only become operational by 2025 at the earliest.
On the basis of such a moratorium and on reciprocal commitments to halt the deployment of destabilizing weapons, Germany could wait for the results of U.S.-Russian talks before deciding on the procurement of new aircraft. As a consequence, the Tornado might have to fly a few years more. This should be a price worth paying in exchange for giving arms control a serious chance.
As such, an agreement on a moratorium would be a success in its own right and pave the way for confidence-building measures between NATO and Russia. In close coordination with its allies, Berlin could push three parallel debates: on the forward deployment of nuclear weapons, on NATO reassurance, and on arms control between the alliance and Russia.
Forever Forward Deployment?
The five allies hosting U.S. nuclear weapons could use the moratorium to begin consultations among each other on their perspectives on and possible reforms of nuclear sharing. In Belgium and the Netherlands, political support for the continued deployment of nuclear weapons is fragile. The German public has also consistently opposed hosting nuclear arms.10 U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey are in dangerous vicinity to the war in Syria, and Ankara has recently flirted with the idea of its own nuclear arms.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has just appointed a new experts group,11 a brainchild of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. If former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November, the group might well be charged with preparing the alliance’s next Strategic Concept in the context of the NATO 2030 reflection process. The group should therefore immediately discuss the future of nuclear sharing arrangements. Given the unpopularity of the presence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in many European host nations, it would be important that the group, which is co-chaired by former U.S. diplomat Wes Mitchell and former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, discuss nuclear issues as transparently as possible. Including all relevant stakeholders in that process would increase the legitimacy of any recommendations the group might produce.
Proponents of the nuclear status quo often argue that reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are at odds with the security interests of central and eastern European NATO allies. From this perspective, a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons, for example from Germany, would undercut the principles of burden sharing and of alliance solidarity. Therefore, all allies would have to thoroughly discuss and agree on changes to NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe.
Berlin has a particular responsibility for its partners to the east. At the same time, Germany has to do a better job at bringing together collective defense via NATO and cooperative security with Russia. Combining reassurance with arms control, Germany would be following in the best of NATO traditions, such as the 1967 Harmel Report, which recommended a combination of strength and dialogue to overcome conflict and division.12 Particularly in times of U.S. unilateralism, it should not be difficult to find many supporters of such a dual-track approach. With such a unifying strategy, a German “Sonderweg,” leading to a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons, would also be much less likely.
German solidarity would have to begin with a greater contribution toward substantive reassurance measures. Currently, 24 allies contribute to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and the three Baltic states. It is no secret that the four countries would like to see additional reinforcements, given Russia’s conventional edge in the region.
Germany should step up to the plate. As an essential first step, Berlin should actually provide those conventional capabilities that it has already promised. Currently, gaps exist in Germany’s contribution to NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which would be the first to respond should NATO’s eastern flank come under attack. The German government recently had to concede that the forces it contributes are not fully equipped or readily deployable. Over the next three years, German armed forces probably would have to improvise if they were to take on the role as VJTF lead nation. Germany could also contribute more toward air policing and surveillance of the NATO-Russian border region.
Critics might argue that additional efforts to enhance NATO conventional reassurance toward eastern Europe would violate the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Among other things, the act prohibits the permanent stationing of additional “substantial combat forces” on the territories of new member states. Although the term was never officially clarified, possible additional conventional German units on the eastern flank might be in violation at least of the spirit of the act.
A new combination of collective and cooperative security would also be necessary, however, because the NATO-Russia Founding Act has de facto established two different zones of security within the alliance, a recurring cause for valid complaint in eastern Europe. In 2022 the act will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Until then, the conventional reassurance of eastern Europe must become part of an overall package between Russia and NATO, which ideally would make the act redundant.
Time for Action
Any such comprehensive agreement would be more sustainable with Moscow’s support. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative for strengthened arms control might still be a starting point for engaging with the Kremlin. To test Russia, the alliance should offer talks about conventional and nuclear arms control. Internally, the allies could agree on their position on arms control in NATO’s Special Advisory and Consultation Committee on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.13 Reaching agreement on an arms control initiative, the allies would place the ball in Russia’s court.
In any case, talks on transparency and perhaps even limits on conventional forces would be complicated and would have to focus on the most urgent threat perceptions.14 Concerns about a Russian land grab indicate that traditional conventional force imbalances still matter. There are also concerns that Moscow might prepare a surprise attack under cover of one of its notorious snap exercises. Russia must therefore be willing to discuss constraints on certain conventional forces and capabilities close to the NATO-Russian border. Of course, it would also be desirable to limit dual-capable, long-range strike weapons and novel weapons technologies, as well as hybrid forms of warfare, but it is rather easy to overburden the agenda. The security of central Europeans would already be improved if it were possible to significantly reduce the risk of surprise attacks.
In parallel, both sides should urgently discuss measures to reduce nuclear risks. The forward deployment of nuclear weapons would have to be part of such an agenda. For years, Moscow has repeated its mantra that it is willing to address its own stockpile of an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads were the United States to withdraw its nuclear arms from European soil. It is about time to turn the table and ask the Kremlin which reductions to its tactical stockpile it would accept, should the alliance be willing to change its nuclear posture in Europe. It is not a sign of NATO’s strength that allies avoid bold initiatives by simply pointing to Russian intransigence.
A Package Deal
NATO needs to bring together the interests of the nuclear host nations with the legitimate security requirements of the other allies. This can be done by pursuing three parallel tracks on reforming the forward deployment of nuclear weapons, strengthening reassurance, and getting serious about arms control. Should the alliance succeed in reaching an agreement with Russia on specific measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in Europe, withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from all host nations and in a coordinated and consistent manner would be possible.
Intermediate steps are feasible. Washington might relocate B61 warheads to the United States but keep the nuclear infrastructure intact until Moscow has irreversibly removed its tactical nuclear arms from the European part of Russia. In any case, NATO would continue nuclear consultations, for example on the UK and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the alliance.
If Moscow rejects the alliance’s arms control initiative after a five-year period, Germany would likely decide to continue hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, but Berlin would do so on the basis of having invested serious political capital in significantly strengthening stability through reassurance and arms control. Ideally, Germany would have initiated a process that leads to reducing instabilities and which puts NATO cohesion on a more solid footing. Simply continuing the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe without addressing Europe’s underlying insecurities contributes neither to stability or cohesion.
5. For an overview of such arguments, see Sophia Becker and Christian Mölling, eds., “(Nuclear) Sharing Is Caring: European Views on NATO Nuclear Deterrence and the German Nuclear Sharing Debate,” DGAP Report, No. 10 (June 2020).
6. The director of NATO’s nuclear policy directorate, Jessica Cox, confirmed that, by 2010, Russia had “consolidated its tactical nuclear weapons at ‘central storage facilities’” and “removed tactical nuclear weapons from its ground forces.” See Jessica Cox, “Nuclear Deterrence Today,” NATO Review, June 8, 2020, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2020/06/08/nuclear-deterrence-today/index.html.
7. For a proposal on how to monitor such an arrangement, see Pavel Podvig, “Nuclear Weapons in Europe After the INF Treaty,” Deep Cuts Issue Brief, No. 10 (June 2020), https://deepcuts.org/files/pdf/Deep_Cuts_Issue_Brief_10-NW_Post-INF_Europe.pdf.
8. “Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Following the Meetings of NATO Defence Ministers,” June 26, 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_167072.htm?selectedLocale=en.
10. A July 2020 poll found that 83 percent of Germans support complete withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany. Other polls have consistently found that approximately two-thirds would support such a move. See, “Greenpeace-Umfrage zu Atomwaffen und Atomwaffenverbotsvertrag,” July 2020, https://www.greenpeace.de/sites/www.greenpeace.de/files/publications/umfrage_atomwaffenverbotsvertrag__0.pdf.
11. “Secretary General Appoints Group as Part of NATO Reflection Process,” March 31, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_174756.htm.
13. See Oliver Meier, “NATO Agrees on New Arms Control Body,” Arms Control Now, February 26, 2013, https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2013-02-26/nato-agrees-new-arms-control-body.
Pia Fuhrhop leads the Berlin office of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. Ulrich Kühn heads the institute’s Arms Control and Emerging Technologies research. Oliver Meier is a senior researcher at the institute.