Parting words: Gates and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe

By Kingston Reif, Emma Lecavalier | July 14, 2011

In a recent speech in Brussels, departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized European members of NATO for allowing defense obligations to fall increasingly upon the United States, continuing a funding imbalance that could lead Americans to question whether the costs of NATO are justified.

This is not the first time that Gates has expressed his exasperation with NATO allies for not spending more on defense, nor is he the first defense secretary to articulate such sentiments. But never has a secretary of defense been more blunt or direct in his criticism — and by addressing the NATO funding issue so prominently, Gates also raised questions about US nuclear policy in Europe.

Though it was likely not their intent, Gates’s remarks beg a reconsideration of the logic and feasibility of the continued deployment of nearly 200 US “tactical” nuclear bombs — low-yield warheads intended for short-range applications or even battlefield use — in five NATO member states: Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Germany, and the Netherlands. If NATO burden-sharing is out of whack generally, it no longer makes sense in regard to these aging weapons, which US military officials increasingly believe serve no vital military purpose.

US nuclear weapons in Europe. In his speech, Gates forecast a “dim, if not dismal” future for the alliance should European members continue to enjoy their benefits without sharing “the risks and the costs.” He pointed to the NATO operation in Libya as an example of European underfunding, saying, “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime. … Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”

Fiscal, political, and demographic realties have restrained the capabilities — and shrunk the defense budgets — of many European nations, a point that Gates recognized by saying the present challenge involves deciding how “limited (and dwindling) resources are allocated and for what priorities.”

The priority now given to tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is not just open to question — it is being questioned. US military leaders increasingly suggest that the deployment of tactical B61 nuclear bombs in Europe serves no military purpose. When asked last year if there is a military mission performed by US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that cannot be performed by either US strategic or conventional forces, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly said: “No.”

Moreover, political leaders in a growing number of NATO member states, including host nations such as Germany and Belgium, have called for the removal of the weapons. Due in part to the differences that emerged over nuclear weapons policy during the formulation of NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept, the alliance is just beginning a year-long deterrence and defense posture review that, among other things, will consider the “appropriate mix” of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense forces for NATO, including the role of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

One of the main justifications for keeping these weapons in Europe is that they allow NATO members to participate in shaping alliance nuclear policy. In this view, transatlantic ties are strengthened when the risks and costs of deploying and securing nuclear weapons are shared between the US and the respective host nations.

But this burden-sharing agreement appears to be coming undone in both political and practical terms.

The 2008 final report of the Air Force Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures concluded that host nation security at “most sites” in Europe where US nuclear weapons are deployed do not meet the Defense Department’s security requirements. An alarming illustration of these shortcomings occurred in early 2010, when a group of Belgian peace activists penetrated the Kleine Brogel Air Base, which is believed to house 10 to 20 B61 nuclear weapons.

According to some analysts, lax security is a function of politics: Although some European military officials still strongly support the retention of tactical nuclear weapons, political leaders in the host nations do not place a high priority on the nuclear mission, and thus do not make a strong public case for the resources necessary to sustain the mission.

Beyond security and political considerations, the financial costs of continuing the European deployment are likely to be significant for both the US and host nations, even as the global financial situation continues to constrain defense spending. The US National Nuclear Security Administration has begun a $4 billion program to refurbish and extend the life of the B61 bomb. A recent Government Accountability Office report concluded that the broad scope of the program, which involves the study of features and designs untried during prior life extension programs, could result in a significant schedule delay.

Meanwhile, the host nations are faced with costly decisions about whether to modernize soon-to-be-obsolete, nuclear-capable aircraft. Germany is faced with the most immediate decision, as its Tornado IDS aircraft are scheduled to be retired in 2015. According to one estimate, Berlin would need to spend as much as €300 million to make new German Eurofighters nuclear-capable, a decision that would have to be made within the next two years. The German Air Force has apparently developed an interim option involving the maintenance of a small number of nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft beyond 2015, but this fix is not expected to last much beyond 2020 and could be significantly more expensive than making the Eurofighter capable of carrying a nuclear bomb. Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium will soon be faced with similar decisions about replacing their Tornados and F-16s and could opt to replace their nuclear-capable aircraft with a nuclear-capable version of the new F-35 multi-use fighter, which has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays.

Matching capabilities to threats. US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe provide a capability for a threat that no longer exists at a financial and opportunity cost that can no longer be justified.

The original rationale for deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Europe was to deter a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe. This threat disappeared when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s. In fact, the continued storage of tactical nuclear weapons at multiple bases in Europe increases the risk that they could be targeted for theft or sabotage by terrorists. The presence of these weapons also provides Russia with a convenient excuse to refuse to talk about its enormous non-strategic arsenal.

Given shrinking NATO defense budgets, alliance members should invest in capabilities (helicopters, transport planes, surveillance aircraft, etc.) that comport with NATO’s contemporary security environment, which includes the ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya, missile defense, terrorism, cyber defense and energy security. Investments in making new aircraft nuclear-capable would draw scarce resources from military and intelligence missions far more critical to NATO’s security.

The longer NATO puts off a collective decision about removing tactical nuclear weapons, the greater the odds that financial and political realities in Europe could force changes to alliance nuclear policy under circumstances not of its own choosing. For example, if the German parliament decides not to fund a nuclear capability for the Eurofighter — a distinct possibility given the current economic climate — the other host nations will find it difficult to pursue their own modernization programs. This could lead to a situation where the weapons are removed in a disorganized fashion, undermining alliance cohesion and effectiveness.

For all these reasons, the US should begin a consultative process with its NATO allies to ultimately remove the remaining tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. This will require that NATO think creatively about how it can best deter Russia and possible emerging nuclear threats in the future in the absence of forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons. And this is a type of creativity the alliance can’t thrive without.

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