Playing it Safe: the German Election and Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Andrea Berger – a research fellow for nuclear analysis at the Royal United Services Institute in London – kindly agreed to contribute to Turkey Wonk. You can follow her on Twitter at @AndreaRBerger. The views presented here are her own.

[Editors Note – The German debate about the future of its dual-capable aircraft has the potential to impact nuclear decision making in Ankara. Turkey, therefore, should be paying close attention to what the Germans are saying about the future of their Tornado aircraft.]

NATO’s Deterrence and Defence Posture Review (DDPR) concluded that the “Alliance’s nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defence posture”. In one sentence NATO put a lid on the brewing crisis sparked by the German coalition government’s pledge to, in the near-term, return American B61 bombs stationed on German soil home.

However, the DDPR only postponed the resolution of this crisis. At some point the Bundeswehr’s dual-capable Tornados will have to be replaced, and a decision made as to their successor’s nuclear capability. Germany’s opposition – consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), The Left, and The Greens – is aware that this looming decision makes the coalition government’s silence about its tactical nuclear weapons policy untenable in the long-term. Though there has been relatively little public discussion since the DDPR, Germans on the whole remain decidedly and vocally anti-nuclear, and the opposition seems prepared to drag the B61s into the 2013 election debate and deploy some interesting arguments against them.

Delayed Response to the DDPR

Until September 2012, the German public was unaware that its anti-nuclear stance had been circumvented. The German media then discovered an article by Karl-Heinz Kamp, which claimed that the repatriation of B61s was off the table for the time being, as a result of NATO’s consensus agreement over the sufficiency of its current nuclear posture – a reasonable conclusion to draw from the DDPR. At the time, nearly every national newspaper declared with alarm that Berlin had decided “US nuclear bombs are staying”. The Foreign Ministry responded by reminding that “no one in the federal government… thought [repatriating the B61s] would be an easy task.”

Kamp continued on to say that the German government has pledged €250 million euro to extend the life of its nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft to 2024. (The government has not substantiated this figure)

Preparing for 2013 Elections – The Greens

Opposition politicians are now trying to get answers about the unannounced delay in expelling US tactical nuclear weapons from Büchel air base. Only a few weeks ago, the Greens and the SDP submitted information requests (known as ‘Anfrage’ – find them here and here) in parliament as to the government’s arms control policies and the DDPR. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the questions posed by the opposition illuminate far more of the trajectory of Germany’s tactical nuclear weapons debate than the non-answers given by the government.

The Greens focused their questions largely on the normative effect for arms control and disarmament of German participation in Alliance nuclear burden-sharing, as well as the cost of continuing this participation. Specifically, that nuclear weapons stationed in Germany are inhumane (questions were asked about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons); they perpetuate Europe-wide nuclear weapons stationing (inversely, if bombs in Germany are sent home, B61s stationed elsewhere in Europe would likely follow); and keeping delivery aircraft nuclear-capable and in service is costly in an age of austerity.

For the Greens, the situation also indicates that the coalition government has unambiguously broken its promise to remove these weapons in the near-term – a fact they hope to substantiate by unearthing the extent to which Germany communicated, or failed to communicate its objection to hosting US B61s at the Chicago Summit.

SDP Preoccupation with Safety

Like the Greens, the SPD may also utilize arguments relating to perceived policy ‘U-turns’ and the costs of the Bundeswehr’s dual-capable aircraft. In expressing interest in the B61’s planned tail kit upgrade, which will improve the bomb’s accuracy, the SDP implied that the coalition had changed its policy and was allowing further armament, rather than pushing for disarmament. The SPD further requested substantiation of Karl-Heinz Kamp’s €250 million figure for Tornado life-extension, the annual costs of maintaining the Tornado’s nuclear role, and the variation in total annual cost should their life be extended past 2025.

Where the SPD’s line of inquiry diverges substantially from the Greens is in relation to the safety of the B61s and the Tornados designed to carry them. Specifically, questions about the fire-resistance of the B61 pits stand in contrast to some of the other, more predictable lines of interrogation. Neither the current B61 model (known as the B61-4) nor the planned B61-12 modification have Fire Resistant Pits (FRPs). By shrouding the fissile core of a warhead in a heat-resistant metal casing, FRPs dramatically reduce the likelihood of accidental dispersal of fissile material in the event of a fire. In its inquiry, the SPD asked if current B-61 pits can be made fire-resistant, or if current B-61 pits can be swapped out for FRPs, without having to test the new configuration. They also asked, to the government’s knowledge, what measures are being planned to improve the B61’s safety. Washington’s nuclear testing moratorium means that the B61-12 modification cannot be critically tested. Without testing during development, the US nuclear weapons complex would have little confidence in the safety, security, and reliability of any fire-resistant B61-12 pit. As such, the B61-12, like its predecessors, will not be fire-resistant.

In fact, the SPD’s interest in safety appears to go beyond the warheads. Their questions about the Tornados’ recorded flying hours and the technical requirements for their life-extension similarly suggest that the SPD is concerned that keeping Germany’s dual-capable aircraft in service, particularly past 2025, may be unsafe.

The Case for Responsible Debate

Arguing that the B61 bomb and its delivery vehicles are unsafe would be a sure vote winner in Germany. Mixing anti-nuclear sentiment with safety concerns has already proven to be a potent recipe: Germany’s phase-out of nuclear power by 2022 was sparked largely by the perception that ‘nuclear power is unsafe’. In the eyes of the SPD, the B61’s non-fire-resistant pits could be the Fukushima for tactical nuclear weapons.

Another politically attractive narrative presents itself to the SPD: the coalition government’s indecision on the tactical nuclear weapon issue has a direct impact on the safety of nuclear systems in Germany. In other words, the longer the government dithers over the purchase of a nuclear-capable successor aircraft, and the longer aging Tornados are kept in service, the more vulnerable to accident these nuclear-capable aircraft will be.

However, pursuing a political argument based on safety can quickly and easily become irresponsible, abusing the population’s limited understanding of daily Tornado operations and the technical implications of B61 design. Firstly, it is highly unlikely that Tornados fly with nuclear weapons in circumstances other than Alliance-agreed nuclear use or carefully controlled transport. And even with a nuclear weapon on board, should a Tornado crash, the result would not be a nuclear explosion. Depending upon the crash, fire may not reach or damage the pit. If it does, at worst, plutonium would be scattered on a scale affected by conditions such as wind.

But the German population may not grasp these realities and complexities, as many populations wouldn’t, particularly if there is a political interest in inflating the consequences of an accident. While the safety of nuclear systems is an important issue, the risk of an accident occurring should not be overstated for political gain.

Convincing and responsible arguments that tactical nuclear weapons in Germany should be removed are not in short supply. Debates over the bombs’ utility in terms of deterrence and Alliance cohesion (as the Green Party alludes to), or the B61-12’s improved precision and the associated message for arms control, not to mention the cost of renewing or extending dual-capable aircraft, are legitimate and more salient. In autumn 2013, Germany’s opposition parties will put up a strong fight to unseat a consistently-popular Angela Merkel. But for the sake of informed and rational nuclear-policy making in Germany, I hope they fight fair.

Andrea Berger is research fellow for nuclear analysis at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow her on Twitter at @AndreaRBerger. The views presented here 

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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1 Response to Playing it Safe: the German Election and Tactical Nuclear Weapons

  1. Pingback: The Sequester and Future Nuclear Weapons in Turkey | Turkey Wonk: Nuclear and Political Musings in Turkey and Beyond

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