Belgium, Germany Question U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe

By Meier, Oliver | Arms Control Today, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Belgium, Germany Question U.S. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe


Meier, Oliver, Arms Control Today


With May's nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference as a spur, German and Belgian politicians are calling on NATO to work toward the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

On May 2, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischei, a Green Party member, called proposals to remove these weapons from Europe a "reasonable initiative." Gert Weisskirchen, the foreign affairs spokesperson for Germany's Social Democrat Party's parliamentary caucus, said such a move would "send a signal toward Russia and get the disarmament process moving again." The Social Democrats and the Green Party form Germany's coalition government.

German officials said they hope to place the subject on the agenda of a NATO meeting scheduled for June. At the review conference, many non-nuclear-weapon states criticized the United States and the other four nuclear-weapon states for not doing enough to meet their NPT commitment to make good-faith efforts toward disarmament.

NATO Arrangements

Under NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements, an estimated 480 tactical nuclear weapons remain deployed in five NATO nonnuclear-weapon states (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) and in the United Kingdom, which also possesses an independent nuclear arsenal. Canada and Greece have ended their participation in nuclear sharing.

The arrangements were developed during the Cold War to increase the other countries' involvement in nuclear decision-making. The United States has reduced the more than 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons it had deployed in Europe at the end of the Cold War by about 90 percent. It has done so mainly to implement the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) announced in 1991 by then-Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. The nuclear weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime, but an estimated 180 such weapons can be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.

Experts estimate that Russia still holds at least 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons, although many of these may not be in usable condition. The United States says that Russia has been implementing its obligations under the PNIs "for the most part" but still has questions, particularly with regard to Moscow's land-based tactical nuclear arsenal. (See ACT, November 2004.)

On April 14, Germany's Free Democratic Party introduced a resolution in the Bundestag calling on the German government to work toward the withdrawal of U.S. weapons there. According to a February study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 150 U.S. weapons are housed in Germany, more than any other European country, with 60 permitted to fall under German command during a conflict.

A week later, the Belgian parliament unanimously passed a similar resolution. According to the NRDC, 20 B-61 gravity bombs-the only type of U.S. weapons still deployed in Europe-are stored at the Kleine Brogel air force base and could be delivered by Belgian pilots to their targets.

NATO and the Department of Defense do not publicly release information on the deployments.

Taking the Debate to a New Level

The parliamentary initiatives on NATO nuclear weapons in Belgium and Germany were both taken in the context of the 2005 NPT Review Conference, but they differ somewhat in their origins and dimensions.

Patrik Vankrunkelsven of Belgium's Liberal and Democratic Citizens Party (VDP) told Arms Control Today May 9 that he had worked for more than two years to get the support of all of Belgium's parties for the parliament's resolution. He said the resolution was intended to trigger discussions in NATO on nuclear sharing, rather than seek simply a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Belgium. "People are afraid to go it alone, both in the Senate and in the government," Vankrunkelsven said. "On the other hand, in NATO everybody is waiting for everybody else" to take the initiative on the question of NATO nuclear sharing. …

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