Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Nuclear Waste: Why Are American Nukes Still in Europe?

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Nuclear Waste: Why Are American Nukes Still in Europe?

Article excerpt

Let It Be

Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh ("Bombs Away," July/August 2014) have revived an old argument: U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are militarily useless, and so there is no reason for Washington to keep them in Europe. The problem, however, is that Blechman and Rumbaugh would have the United States draw back just as new Russian capabilities threaten its nato allies.

In recent years, Moscow has been testing midrange cruise and ballistic missiles, something explicitly forbidden under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It has also adopted a new first-use doctrine. Whereas Russia's long-range nuclear weapons threaten nato members on both sides of the Atlantic, these missiles would target Europe alone. U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are the strongest bulwark standing in the way; without them, the alliance's European members could not deter a Russian strike on their own. Such a capability is particularly crucial given Moscow's recent expansionism. On any given day, the Kremlin could move troops into Estonia, just as it did in Ukraine. If U.S. nuclear weapons were gone from the European continent, Moscow could implement invasion plans undeterred, reasonably certain that Washington wouldn't respond with strategic nuclear strikes.

Blechman and Rumbaugh also assert that many Europeans don't want U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory. But those who oppose hosting such weapons represent a small minority, and among nato's top leaders, there is a strong consensus in favor of keeping U.S. weapons on the continent. The alliance's director of nuclear policy, Fred Frederickson, acknowledged as much in a speech this past August, saying, "There is currently . . . no debate around that [U.S. nuclear weapons] officially at nato headquarters." Nato's defense posture, meanwhile, continues to rely on a mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Blechman and Rumbaugh also complain about the expense of tactical nuclear weapons. They are correct that extending the service life of the B-61 bomb, the only type of nonstrategic nuclear weapon remaining in the U.S. arsenal, will cost over $8 billion. But compared with other Pentagon projects, that program is reasonably affordable. (So far, it also has the uncommon distinction of running on time and under budget.) According to the Los Angeles Times, for example, in 2011, the U.S. Air Force purchased nearly two dozen Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs, each weighing approximately 30,000 pounds, at a cost of $15.7 million per bomb. These conventional weapons are unquestionably effective at destroying underground facilities, but unlike B-61s, they will do nothing to make Moscow think twice about invading its neighbors. (And each can be used only once.) Next to a conventional war, nuclear deterrence in Europe is a bargain. What's more, the B-61 life-extension program will have two other important benefits: improving the weapon's safety and enabling Washington to retire its last megaton-class bomb, the B-83.

It is true that, as Blechman and Rumbaugh point out, maintaining U.S. nuclear capabilities in Europe will require the Pentagon to replace aging fighter planes with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Equipping the F-35 to deliver nuclear bombs could raise its development cost by around $400 million across the program. But nato members could easily share the financial burden.

Moreover, such investments would still be worthwhile even if the costs were higher. Washington's security guarantees to its nato allies will stay credible only so long as U.S. nuclear weapons remain on European soil. …

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