Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe

An event at the Brookings Institution tomorrow will highlight the future of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at Brookings, will discuss his recent paper “NATO, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control”, which sets out recommendations to achieve the eventual removal of the estimated 180 B61 gravity bombs in five European countries. He will be joined on the panel by experts Hans Kristensen, from the Federation of American Scientists, and Frank Miller of the Scowcroft Group.

The discussion is timely because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is preparing to focus on the fate of these weapons in the context of its Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR), which was ordered by the 28 NATO leaders at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010.

BASIC and the Arms Control Association are among the signatories of a letter to the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, urging NATO to look at the salience of nuclear weapons in NATO policy and to consider how to withdraw the tactical nuclear weapons which serve no military purpose. The two organizations released the letter in full, along with a press release, today.

This issue has become one of the most divisive facing NATO. With Germany having taken the lead in seeking their withdrawal from German soil – the B61s are also deployed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey – there is a shifting coalition led by France which remains opposed to that option.

Three central objections are raised by officials from some NATO states to oppose the removal: that NATO should not withdraw the weapons without seeking reciprocal action by Russia, which has an estimated 2,000 such weapons; that withdrawal of the bombs would symbolize U.S. withdrawal from its task of protecting Europe; and that such withdrawal would also undermine the fundamental concept of NATO burden-sharing.

Advocates of their removal point out that a NATO request would not be a unilateral action, if the 28 states agree by consensus that no purpose is served by their continued deployment. Rather it would be rationalization of resources at a time when it is all the more important to achieve value for money in European security. The U.S. bombs in Europe are unlikely to be considered as an effective bargaining chip by the Kremlin whose leaders must be highly entertained by NATO tying itself in knots over bombs that would take up to a month to deploy in a nuclear crisis. So if we want reciprocity, let’s find another issue with real strategic value.

BASIC’s own soundings around Europe have shown that the physical reassurance of NATO allies – for this is the real purpose of the tactical weapons’ continued deployment since the Cold War – does not need to be nuclear.

In response to a Japanese news report last week that the U.S. was talking to NATO about the removal of the obsolete nuclear bombs from Europe, U.S. officials said that there was nothing new in the story, that no decision has yet been taken, and that the issue will be debated in the DDPR. But the longer NATO delays, the weaker it will appear to Moscow. NATO should show courage and strength in its dealings with Russia and pull these residual memories of the Cold War out of Europe.

These are the personal views of the author.

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