An End to U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe?

Article excerpt


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 Buchel 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. …