The United States currently deploys about 200 B61 tactical nuclear weapons in five European countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey). The weapons were originally deployed during the Cold War and were intended to help defend NATO countries from a Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion. After the end of the Cold War, the weapons became obsolete. Nevertheless, many NATO countries (particularly the Baltic states and Turkey) believe that their presence is necessary for burden sharing. Turkey, which borders three states known to have pursued both ballistic missiles and WMD technologies, quietly maintains that the NATO nuclear sharing arrangement (i.e. – host country air forces can, if ordered by the Supreme European Allied Commander, deliver some of the American weapons stationed on their territory) is useful for deterrence.
Germany, which had been a forceful proponent of the stationing of nuclear weapons on its territory in the 1970s, now believes that the weapons should be removed. Moreover, the American military, which is ultimately responsible for the weapons, has also indicated that it would like to see them removed from Europe and consolidated at bases in the United States. The Netherlands and Belgium, while not nearly as vocal in their opposition to the deployment of the weapons as their German counterparts, are also reported to be eager for NATO to agree to remove the weapons. As I have outlined here, the European NATO nuclear proponents are faced with a number of looming issues that could undercut their arguments for the weapons’ deployment and force a withdrawal.
Specifically, Germany has indicated that it will not purchase the F-35 – the aircraft slated to deliver the soon-to-be-upgraded B61. Once the Tornado is retired, Germany will not have an airplane equipped for nuclear missions (Germany has said that it will retire its Tornado’s in or around the early 2020s). The Netherlands and Belgium have also not fully committed to the F-35 program. Thus, the combination of Germany’s strong anti-nuclear politicians and the troubled fighter program’s ballooning costs could lead to a scenario where three of the five hosts of U.S. nuclear weapons don’t have the aircraft needed to deliver them. Turkey and Italy, on the other hand, are members of the F-35 program, are both producing components for the aircraft, and have indicated that they will purchase the aircraft. A Turkish aerospace firm is producing the aircraft’s fuselage and an Italian consortium is poised to produce the aircraft in Europe once tests are complete.
The aircraft issue is taking place against the backdrop of the Obama administration’s deliberations about the future force structure of the United States’ strategic nuclear forces. While the guidance is not likely to include any specifics about “tactical” nuclear weapons, it nevertheless indicates that the Obama administration is serious about moving towards the nuclear free vision he laid out in his 2009 Prague speech. As for tactical nuclear weapons, the Obama Administration during the negotiations with Russia for the New START Treaty made clear that the next round of arms control negotiations will have to include “all” nuclear weapons. Currently, U.S. – Russian nuclear agreements only deal with strategic nuclear weapons (i.e. – limits on long range delivery vehicles and their accompanying warheads). It is widely believed that Russia has many more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States; however, they are deployed across a myriad of systems. (The United States is thought to possess 500 versions of the B61 gravity bomb) The New Start Treaty’s duration is 10 years, thus raising the possibility that the next round of U.S – Russian arms control discussions will take place in or around the same time that that most of the European hosts of nuclear weapons will be retiring their current nuclear capable aircraft.
The nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is unlikely to alter this evolving dynamic. Specifically, Hagel endorsed a report commissioned by Global Zero, and authored by a panel chaired by General (Ret.) James Cartwright, that called for major nuclear reductions. General Cartwright is a retired United States Marine Corps four-star general who last served as the eighth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff between 2007 and 2011. The authors argued that the United States could reduce the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal from 5,000 (The total number of U.S. nuclear weapons) to 900. (For reference, according to U.S. – Russian Treaty accounting rules and definitions the United States has around 1,550 nuclear weapons – the disparity has to do with the words “operationally deployed strategic warheads”).
For Turkey, the most important recommendation has to do with the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. According to the report:
All U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would be eliminated over the next ten years. Their military utility is practically nil. They do not have assigned missions as part of any war plan and remain deployed today only for political reasons within the NATO alliance. The obligation to assure U.S. allies in Europe and Asia of American commitment to their defense and to extend deterrence to them would fall to U.S. strategic nuclear and conventional forces, which are amply capable of fulfilling it. (Snip)
The illustrative nuclear force would deploy only four types of nuclear weapons – W-76 and W-88 on Trident SSBNs, and the B61 (mods 7 and 11) and B83 on B-2 bombers. The need for warhead refurbishment would be vastly decreased. The B61-11 recently completed a Life Extension Program (LEP); the W-76 LEP has already completed a sufficient number of these warheads to meet future requirements under this plan; and the W-88 and B83 are relatively new weapons whose LEP needs are far into the future. Only the B61-7 needs LEP work in the near future (to convert it to a B61- 12), and the number of them needed for the bomber force is relatively small.
Essentially, the Allies at the 2010 Lisbon summit have already agreed to the overarching principles in the Cartwright report. NATO included language in the 2010 Strategic Concept saying that the Alliance’s security is guaranteed by the United States’, the United Kingdom’s, and France’s strategic nuclear forces. Moreover, the 2010 Concept only included language saying that the Alliance “will maintain the capability to deliver nuclear weapons.” Thus, one could imagine a scenario similar to the one posed by Cartwright et. al. unfolding in the not-to-distant future.
For example, the U.S., while amid a program to downsize the total number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, could opt to pressure the European NATO nuclear proponents to support the German desire to withdraw nuclear weapons. The European weapons could then be stored at an air-force base in the U.S. home to the “strategic” B-2 bomber (again the B-2 is considered to be a strategic range delivery vehicle in U.S. – Russian arms control agreements). Thus, NATO would retain the capability to deploy nuclear weapons in Europe without actually having to base them on European territory. To help assuage the European NATO nuclear proponents (Turkey and the Baltic States), the Alliance could opt to substitute missile defenses. NATO’s planned missile shield, while imperfect, could then symbolize Alliance cohesion and burden sharing. Most importantly, it could, along with a strong commitment by the United States to come to the Alliance’s defense, reassure the European NATO nuclear proponents still wary of regional nuclear threats.
This scenario, while hypothetical, is much closer to reality than the preservation of the current nuclear status quo. If I were in Ankara, I would be working double-time to get out in front of this issue. The Obama Administration, including the likely to be confirmed next Secretary of Defense, appear determined to make more progress on nuclear disarmament. I would encourage Ankara to take a more proactive approach to nuclear withdrawal. Moreover, a change in policy could also help Turkey achieve some of its other nonproliferation and disarmament policies. Ankara has been involved in the efforts to hold a conference for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Ankara’s efforts, however, are undermined by its continued support for the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe. Ankara is pursuing policy positions aimed at de-legitimizing nuclear weapons, while also making clear that nuclear weapons are still important for its security. The two positions are at odds with one another and undermine Turkish disarmament efforts. Ankara can rest assured that a smaller U.S. nuclear deterrent is entirely capable of deterring all of its current and potential foes. Moreover, even a reduced number of U.S. nuclear weapons are still sufficient to conduct counter-force missions. Ankara, therefore, has little to lose by changing its declaratory policy and getting out in front of a policy that it is likely to come to fruition anyways.