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Not with a bang but a whimper: Europe’s pending denuclearisation

Commentary, 12 March 2010
Americas, Defence Policy, Global Security Issues, International Institutions
Within the next decade, European aircraft capable of delivering US nuclear weapons are due to be withdrawn from service. What are the options available to NATO in the debate over the continuance of its tactical nuclear capability?

Within the next decade, European aircraft capable of delivering US nuclear weapons are due to be withdrawn from service. Of the four countries currently hosting US nuclear forces, Germany faces the most pressing timetable with its Tornado strike aircraft due for withdrawal by 2015. What are the options available to NATO in the debate over the continuance of its tactical nuclear capability?

By Malcolm Chalmers, RUSI Professorial Fellow

German Tornado IDS

Until recently, NATO's tactical nuclear weapons seemed destined to fade away through irrelevance and obsolescence, their role having disappeared just as completely as the scenario - a mighty clash of armies in Central Europe - for which they were designed. 

Yet the prospect that drawdown might soon lead to complete elimination has now triggered a major debate on the role of nuclear weapons in NATO strategy. a debate pitching those who believe that it could be a relatively cost-free way of taking forward the disarmament agenda, set out in President Obama's April 2009 Prague speech, against those who fear that it could do serious damage to the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence.

Getting from 200 weapons to zero looks set, to be much more controversial than the 90 per cent reduction (from 2500 to 200) that has taken place since 1991. What these weapons lack in operational utility (given their short range and location, together with the continuing availability of larger and more powerful strategic arsenals) is now greatly outweighed by their symbolic significance.

Until recently, this debate was conducted largely behind closed doors. In October 2009, however, as part of the coalition agreement of Germany's new centre-right Government, Foreign Minister and FDP leader Guido Westerwelle persuaded CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel that they should seek the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Germany as part of a wider NATO effort to pursue nuclear disarmament and arms control. The initiative has been supported by governments in Belgium and the Netherlands, two of the other three countries which equip dual-capable aircraft (DCA) for use with US nuclear weapons.  

Some experts argue that as long as extended nuclear deterrence plays a central role in NATO doctrine, it is important to ensure that as many member states as possible are involved in the maintenance of the forces that symbolise that policy, so as to ensure that non-nuclear states have to 'dip their hands in the blood' of preparing to use these weapons. Were non-nuclear states to no longer have a role in preparing for nuclear use, it might be difficult to convince nuclear-armed alliance members (the US, UK and potentially France) to risk the lives of their own citizens to extend an 'umbrella' over their non-nuclear partners.

It is argued, in response, that extended deterrence does not require basing on land (as the US nuclear guarantee to Japan illustrates). Moreover, Cold War nuclear deployments derived their political and symbolic significance from their location close to potential Soviet invasion routes. By contrast, there is little, if any, deterrent value to be obtained from deploying weapons in locations, and with capabilities, that are functionally irrelevant.

Operational Reality

Debates on nuclear weapon policy are strongly political and symbolic - 'theological' even - in character. Unlike their conventional counterparts, all concerned hope that they will never be used. As 'political' weapons, appearances matter much more than what might, or might not, happen in the event of war.

Yet even nuclear systems must be grounded in operational realities. Maintaining the status quo in DCA deployment depends on the future availability of European aircraft capable of carrying US nuclear weapons. At present, this role is performed by Tornado aircraft (for Germany and Italy) and by F-16 aircraft (for Netherlands and Belgium). But both types of aircraft are due to be withdrawn from service over the next decade; and Congress has not yet approved plans for extending the life of the US B-61 warhead currently deployed with these systems, which is due to reach the end of its lifetime in 2017.

 Assuming agreement is reached on B-61 life extension, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands have the ability to maintain DCA until around 2020, when current aircraft in this role are due to retire. Both Italy and the Netherlands then plan to purchase US F-35 aircraft, which (depending on the outcome of current US discussions) may well be nuclear-capable.

Germany, by contrast, faces a more pressing replacement timetable. Most of its existing Tornado strike aircraft are due to retire before 2015, to be replaced by the Eurofighter. Germany has no plans to purchase the F-35. The Luftwaffe could develop a Eurofighter-specific nuclear avionics package, enabling it to continue in the nuclear role after that date. Even if alliance sensitivities may persuade Germany to hold off from precipitate action in relation to current systems, there is little prospect that the Bundestag (dominated by anti-nuclear parties) would pay for a significant modernisation programme. This budgetary reality is likely to play a key role in shaping NATO's nuclear debate.

Towards a modern 'dual track'?

It is in the collective interest of all NATO members that this issue is managed sensitively. There is a danger that it could become a source of contention, sapping political energy from the need for progress on more central issues. Even if the DCA status quo is unsustainable in the long run, there is a strong case for an incremental process of nuclear disarmament, avoiding destabilising longstanding alliances, and thus preserving the broad political coalition that will be necessary for long term disarmament progress to be made.

A number of proposals that seek to respond to these requirements have been made recently. The former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, together with former US administration officials Franklin Miller and Kori Schake, has called for NATO to 'collectively negotiate with Moscow asymmetric but multilateral reductions to Russian and allied tactical nuclear arsenals'. [1]  The Foreign Ministers of Sweden and Poland have called for Russian sub-strategic weapons to be included in the discussion, arguing for sharp mutual reductions as part of US / Russian arms control talks, starting with Russian weapons deployed close to European Union member states (in the Kola peninsula and Kaliningrad).[2] Most recently, leading German experts, including former Defence Minister Volker Rühe and former chair of NATO's Military Committee General Klaus Naumann, have argued that NATO and Russia should agree a joint declaration that nuclear weapons are maintained only to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. On this basis, they argue, all Russian tactical weapons should be withdrawn to internationally-monitored central storage facilities, and American nuclear weapons would be withdrawn from Europe.[3]    

There is a strong case for bringing Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal into the arms control process. Yet one of Russia's main rationales for keeping its weapons is the weakness of its conventional forces, whose dismal performance was further highlighted in its recent conflict with Georgia. Complete Russian tactical nuclear disarmament may therefore have to involve addressing these concerns, either through conventional arms control or, more likely, through correcting its perception that NATO is an aggressive alliance.

Future options

There is now a growing momentum behind a radical reduction in the number of European countries (currently five) in which the US bases its tactical nuclear weapons.

One option might be the consolidation of US nuclear munitions into one or two 'regional' locations. In this scenario, DCA air forces would still train for nuclear missions, periodically deploying to the regional storage location. This option would yield significant budgetary and personnel savings for the US (because storage depots would be closed), and could be accompanied by a further reduction in warhead numbers. It might provide an interim solution to the difficult task of reconciling the political commitment to disarmament with nervousness about moving too rapidly toward a complete withdrawal.

Yet it is not a viable long term solution. It would not solve the problem of how to continue to involve Germany in nuclear operations once Tornado nuclear-capable aircraft retire from service. And, given the state of political debate in Belgium and the Netherlands, it is hard to conceive of a situation in which these two states would retain nuclear capabilities once Germany had relinquished its own. It is plausible to envisage the US retaining its current ability to deploy its own nuclear-capable aircraft to bases in Turkey and Italy, although this would require the US committing resources to its own modernisation programmes. If the three northern European countries were to withdraw from deploying nuclear-capable aircraft, however, the retention of Italy as the only DCA country would make little political or operational sense.

A second option would be for European states to assign some military staff to US nuclear forces, either in Europe or in the US itself. The German Air Force already conducts a significant part of its training in the US, at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. This precedent could be extended through the secondment of European military officers to US facilities involved in providing nuclear forces to NATO. The US may not be willing to provide more than nominal additional transparency in relation to its strategic forces. But such an option could still help provide a continuing symbol, if it was thought this was required, of European willingness to participate in nuclear planning and preparations.

Thirdly, if the Iranian missile and nuclear programmes continue on their recent trajectories, there may soon be another, more operationally relevant, way in which West European states could participate in collective preparations against nuclear threats: the deployment of US missile defence systems on national territory, as part of NATO collective defences against emerging nuclear threats. Agreeing such deployments in Western Europe at present is not easy or necessary, since Iranian missiles have not yet developed a range at which countries in this part of NATO are under threat, and Iran does not yet have (to our knowledge) an operational nuclear arsenal. Were this to change, however, the involvement of European states in strategic missile defence might be one way in which they could reassure concerned Americans that they remain willing to share the burdens, as well as the benefits, of collective defence.


[1] Franklin Miller, George Robertson and Kori Schake, 'Germany Opens Pandora's Box', Centre for European Reform Briefing Note, February 2010.

[2] Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, 'Next, The Tactical Nukes', New York Times, 1 February 2010.

[3] Volker Rühe, Klaus Naumann, Frank Elbe and Ulrich Weisser, 'It's Time to Invite Russia to Join NATO', Speigel Online, 8 March 2010.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


Malcolm Chalmers
Deputy Director-General

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General of RUSI and directs its growing portfolio of research into contemporary... read more

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