Germany’s nuclear weapons policy and the war: Money for nukes, words for disarmament

By Moritz Kütt | October 27, 2022

In March 2022, the German government decided to purchase 35 US F-35 aircraft at a price of $8.4 billion to replace Germany’s aging “dual-capable” aircraft. Here, an F-35A aircraft carries a test article of the upgraded B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb at the Nellis US Air Force Base, Nevada in September 2021. Germany will use this combination to maintain its nuclear capability using US-owned bombs. (Photo: US Air Force/Zachary Rufus)

With its nuclear weapons policy, Germany has tried to kill probably too many birds with one stone. The result has been a mix of partially disconnected, sometimes even contradictory individual policies and governmental actions. This was the case under the previous Merkel governments, remains the case since 2021 under the new Scholz cabinet, and has not changed significantly since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

However, there is one thing the war has laid bare: For policies that rely on nuclear weapons, Germany’s material and financial support is strong. In contrast, support for disarmament is often limited to rhetoric.

Germany is a strong supporter of NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy. The North Atlantic alliance has kept its nuclear strategy flexible, meaning that the alliance could theoretically be the first party to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Moreover, in addition to whatever coverage Germany gets from NATO, the United States has promised that it would come to the rescue of Germany with all its might, including nuclear weapons. Germany still hosts 15 US tactical nuclear weapons on its soil and provides dual-capable aircraft to deliver these weapons under the control of German pilots to potential targets.

At the same time, Germany sees itself as a leading actor in efforts at global nuclear disarmament. It is active in the Stockholm initiative, a group of 16 non-nuclear weapon countries that try to renew disarmament debates within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), focusing on a “pragmatic and result-oriented nuclear disarmament agenda.” And the country has recently been an observer to the first meeting of states that party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, also known as the “ban treaty”).

A turning point. In 2021, Germans ended a 16-year-long streak of conservative governments under Angela Merkel. A broad coalition of three parties from the left and the right formed a new government, consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens—technically known as “Alliance 90/The Greens.” Because of the involvement of the Greens, many observers had hoped that disarmament would become a more prominent topic within the new government, because the party has roots in the 1980s peace movement. The last time it came to power, in 1998, the Greens’ party platform argued strongly to replace NATO with a European peace order. Significantly more moderate in that regard today, subsequent Green party platforms still propose a Germany free of nuclear weapons, and in 2021 proposed accession to the TPNW.

Then came 2022. Only a few weeks after taking government, the new coalition had to face the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Then followed a succession of governmental decisions and changes—partly as a direct reaction to the war but also because of a broader trend toward policies that strengthen Germany’s existing nuclear posture. This happened despite a conflicting trend toward government actions that promote a world free of nuclear weapons. It is not wonder that there has been much public debate in Germany on the issue of nuclear sharing and nuclear deterrence.

Government support for extended nuclear deterrence and nuclear sharing. Only three days after the start of the war, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) announced a “Zeitenwende” (turning point) in German defense policies. In a speech to the German parliament, he announced a special military investment budget of 100 billion euros (98 billion US dollars), and a stronger commitment of Germany to achieve NATO member states’ goal of spending at least two percent of a country’s gross domestic product for defense purposes.

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In March 2022, after the war in Ukraine started, the government decided to purchase 35 US F-35 aircraft at a price of $8.4 billion to replace Germany’s aging “dual-capable” aircraft. (“Dual-capable” means that these aircraft can transport US nuclear weapons.) This decision marked the end of a debate that lasted more than a decade, which, taken remarkably swiftly, suggests there was already an underlying leadership support for the sharing of nuclear weaponry across the political spectrum, despite surface impressions to the opposite.

Funding for these aircraft comes from the new special military investment budget. The request for purchase was confirmed by the US government in July.

Another step that demonstrates the German government support for nuclear sharing will be the first-ever national security strategy. The drafting process for the strategy was announced by the foreign minister in March 2022 and is still ongoing. As part of the strategy, the foreign minister plans to retain a credible nuclear deterrence through Germany’s NATO membership. The strategy is expected to be made public early next year.

But while it funds new nuclear sharing capability, the German government also continues to assert—in words, if not in deeds—that it wants to eliminate nuclear weaponry.

Government efforts toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Germany, along with NATO allies, repeatedly criticized the ban treaty in previous years. But this changed too in 2022. In June, German diplomats observed the first meeting of states parties of the TPNW in Vienna, despite the initial criticism from other NATO members. But Germany nevertheless participated in the meeting—and was joined eventually by five other NATO—or soon-to-be NATO—members: Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden.

At the meeting, Germany announced its intention to provide support for victims of nuclear testing and environmental remediation of damages caused by nuclear testing explosions. The signatories of the ban treaty are required to take such actions by its members under so-called “positive obligations.” Germany, even though it is not a TPNW member, repeated this pledge again at the review conference of the NPT in August. As the government has not taken concrete steps in that regard yet, it is unclear if that was just rhetoric or if serious action will follow.

Like previous initiatives by Sweden, Canada, and Mexico, the new German government announced a new focus on a feminist foreign policy, which it defines as foreign policy “based on the conviction that gender equity and equal participation are preconditions for long-term peace and security.” It is the government’s goal, the policy says, to work for equal rights, equal representation, reduced injustice in resource distribution, and include a view on diversity in foreign policy. This marks an important shift even though it is too early to know if the new approach will have immediate as well as long-term implications for nuclear policy—if any.

A shifting public debate on Germany’s nuclear policy. The war in Ukraine led to rapid, visible changes in debates about Germany’s own security. As soon as the 100-billion-euro defense fund was announced, the discussion started on what should be funded with that money. In this debate, some voices say the Russian invasion of Ukraine results from a weak stance toward Russia. In this view, Germany’s future security can only be maintained if the country commits to higher investments in military equipment and personnel. Often, however, there is no reflection on whether such investments might end up being counterproductive by fueling an international arms race. Voices of the opposing view—those critical of war and armaments in general—remained mostly quiet. There has been, so far, no indication of a large-scale response by a new German peace movement.

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There has been, however, frequent calls for a “Euro-deterrent,” provided by the French strategic forces—most prominently voiced by Friedrich Merz, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the main right-wing opposition party in Germany. His party colleague and head of the conservative European People’s Party in the European parliament, Manfred Weber, went further and even proposed that Germany fund the French force de frappe.

Such moves, if implemented, will come under fierce criticism from other members of the NPT. Whether or not it is legal also remains subject to debate. But the NPT Review Conference this summer has already shown that an increasing number of countries see nuclear sharing as problematic—with Germany finding itself on the defensive side. Similar attempts to change Germany’s nuclear policy in the past have been seen as expert debates much disconnected from the public debate. But this might change this time. For instance, in a June 2022 poll, a majority of the interviewees expressed a supportive stance toward hosting US nuclear weapons in Germany. This is in stark contrast to previous years where a large majority of Germans in polls were in favor of removing these weapons from the country.

Follow the money. The words of the current foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, a Green Party leader and a key player in the current coalition, capture well the current state of nuclear policy in Germany: “disarmament and arms control as being complementary to deterrence and defense.” Complementarity, however, does not necessarily mean that these two priorities are equal. Judging from the special military investment allocation—and if one tracks the money—there seems to be a clear preference toward nuclear deterrence over concerns for nuclear disarmament. Moreover, additional defense spending since the war started is significant, also reflecting its increased prominence in policy.

In contrast, there is no indication whether new financial support will come for issues related to nuclear disarmament. The public debate in Germany also shows that as the international security environment deteriorates, military options and new nuclear armaments are becoming more attractive among political leaders.

There’s no question that disarmament supporters in Germany should applaud the government for showing some support for the ban treaty—both as observers and as proponents of victim assistance. But this happened in the shadows of real-world armaments, including the purchase of new dual-capable aircraft for nuclear sharing. By its recent actions, the German government has de facto increased the relative role of nuclear weapons and fueled an ongoing arms race.

Germany needs to do more if it wants to help achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. Positive steps can be taken even in times of ongoing conflict, but they need to be more than mere catchphrases.

As part of the new German government’s coalition agreement, the three governing parties promised a “disarmament offensive.” But given the recent government decisions, a lot remains to be done to make this promise a reality. Actions will speak louder than words.

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