Rid Europe of ‘tac nukes’

Wayne Merry
21 September 2009

President Obama has publicly echoed bi-partisan American advocates of a world free of nuclear weapons.  He has done so partly in preparation for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference next year, after the near failure of the acrimonious 2005 Conference. More helpful for the NPT than mere rhetoric, and long overdue in terms of military reality, the United States and five European governments should remove the two hundred-odd remaining American ‘tactical' nuclear weapons from Europe. 

‘Tactical' nuclear weapons (also called ‘nonstrategic' and ‘theatre' weapons) have an inglorious Cold War history.  At one point, the United States had about ten thousand such weapons - warheads for short- and medium-range missiles, bombs, artillery shells, mines, torpedoes, depth charges - and the Soviet Union at least twice as many.  In the Seventies, Washington based over seven thousand such weapons in Europe at over one hundred facilities, to ‘extend' nuclear deterrence to its NATO allies. 

Slowly, American generals and civilian planners discovered a basic problem: there is no such thing as a ‘tactical' nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon use anywhere is inherently strategic. There was no imaginable useful role for these weapons in a crisis or conflict.

Thus, in September 1991, US President George H.W. Bush announced a unilateral initiative drastically to reduce these weapons. This was soon echoed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.  Without a treaty obligation to do so, the United States rapidly eliminated all sea-based ‘tactical' weapons (not strategic deterrent weapons) from its fleet, and withdrew all land-based weapons from the territories of its European and Asian allies plus all aircraft-delivered weapons except for about five hundred nuclear bombs left at bases in seven European countries as a residual US nuclear presence. 

For a decade, nothing changed.  Then, without public announcements, the administration of President George W. Bush removed all nuclear weapons from Greece in 2001 and from Britain in 2008, plus withdrawing most of the deployed weapons from Germany in 2007 and a large number from Italy.  These actions were not motivated by arms control goals, but by concerns about the security of the weapons, the cost of the deployments and their military inutility.  In consequence, the number of ‘tactical' weapons in Europe was cut by more than half without public notice.

Today, five countries host ‘tactical' nuclear weapons.  Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany each maintain about twenty ageing B-61 gravity bombs under so-called ‘dual key' arrangements whereby the US controls the weapons which the host government's F-16 attack aircraft would deliver in wartime.  The basing countries thereby have many of the responsibilities of nuclear weapon states but little of the ultimate authority.  Italy hosts about fifty of the same B-61 weapons and Turkey nearly a hundred, plus the US combat aircraft to deliver them, in old-style so-called nuclear ‘forward deployments'. 

These are the only nuclear weapons of any power still on foreign soil (the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact ended Soviet foreign deployments).  The obvious question is, ‘why are they still there?'  If seven thousand were militarily pointless, how about the remaining two hundred?  It is no secret that many in the US military have long wanted to scrap them.  Indeed, the US European Command recently advised the Secretary of Defense in a public document that "it believes there is no military downside to the unilateral withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe".  It "no longer recognizes the political imperative of US nuclear weapons within the Alliance."  An Air Force study also found security problems with some of the deployments.  Nonetheless, a high-level Pentagon study affirmed that these weapons remain "a pillar of NATO unity" on political grounds.

Does NATO unity really depend on outmoded weapons and increasingly obsolescent delivery aircraft?  Why, then, is there no security crisis in the Western Pacific, where America's allies no longer host such weapons?  If Japan and South Korea, in a much more challenging security environment, accept so-called ‘over the horizon' American nuclear guarantees as sufficient for their security, why cannot Europeans? 

Washington and five European capitals have it easily within their power to create a de facto European nuclear weapon free zone between the French and Russian borders.  No real security would be lost; much money would be saved.  NATO's pledges that it does not threaten Russia would be underscored.  NATO can then better insist on further reductions in Russia's overly-large ‘tactical' nuclear arsenal.  By removing these weapons now, the governments would also fulfill some of their Article VI disarmament obligations under the NPT.

Otherwise, the European governments concerned must explain at next year's Review Conference why they have not taken this simple and long overdue step.  Perhaps they should explain it to their own people as well.  Europeans tend to blame the spread of nuclear weapons on others, but here is a tangible and practical measure to eliminate a class of such weapons which they can take, if they will. 

E. Wayne Merry is a former State Department and Pentagon official and a Senior Associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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