While NATO leaders are preparing for the summit in Wales (4-5 September), and thinking about how to ‘punish’ Russia, as it were, for the fact that she is not following the lead of Western powers on the Ukrainian issue, it is about time we recalled one of the main components of the Alliance’s military potential – tactical nuclear weapons on the ground in Europe. Nuclear weapons are first and foremost a deterrent weapon: the very fact that potential enemies have them reduces the likelihood of war. The guarantee of mutual destruction, a nuclear winter, and the death of most of mankind has been confirmed time and time again during command post exercises, simulated on computers, and demonstrated in disaster films.
An apocalyptic nuclear scenario loomed over the world throughout the whole of the cold war. With its end, the threat of a nuclear apocalypse has faded to the background, a global confrontation of superpowers is a thing of the past, the nuclear arsenals of Russia and America have been significantly reduced, and in recent years there have been calls for other nuclear-weapon states to join the process, first and foremost Great Britain, France and China. After being elected president, Barack Obama said that America would work towards a so-called global nuclear zero; that is, a world entirely free from nuclear weapons.
The attention of the global community is usually focused on strategic nuclear weapons designed to destroy an opponent’s key administrative, economic and military centres, characterised by their long range and high hitting power. However, there are also tactical nuclear weapons designed to destroy enemy forces on the battlefield. The range and hitting power of tactical nuclear weapons is less than that of strategic nuclear weapons, but they possess exactly the same destructive qualities, including penetrating radiation and radioactive contamination of the terrain. A tactical nuclear weapon is capable of making life impossible in the area where it was used for a very long time. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people continued to die from exposure for many years afterwards, are vivid examples.
The US began to deploy its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe back in the early stages of the cold war, when the West invariably attributed aggressive plans to the Soviet Union. At that time, the USSR and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation had an advantage over NATO in conventional weapons, and, in its military plans, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation proceeded on the basis that it would not be able to contain a Soviet offensive in the event of a war in Europe. Tactical nuclear strikes were to be launched against Soviet forces, but NATO’s plans went beyond this. The forward deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe meant that strikes could be carried out against key Soviet centres, which gave these weapons, although tactical in terms of their technical characteristics, a strategic importance. The Soviet Union could not remain indifferent to this threat, and so was also obliged to place European cities in its nuclear crosshairs. Those living in Western Europe did not relish the prospect of their countries being turned into a theatre of nuclear war because of American ambition, and a powerful anti-war and anti-nuclear movement arose, carrying out marches and demonstrations that shook Europe. These protests reached their peak in 1979, when NATO decided to deploy Pershing ballistic missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles in Europe.
US tactical nuclear weapons are still deployed in Europe to this day, although America does not provide official information on the number of warheads. According to a report by the Federation of American Scientists, «the secrecy is partly precipitated by the fact that a significant portion of US weapons is deployed in Western European countries where the public sentiments are overwhelmingly against nuclear weapons». The authors of the report estimate America’s nuclear arsenal in Europe to be around 160-200 warheads. According to Peter Huessy, the president of defence consulting firm GeoStrategic Analysis, however, there are 400 such warheads.
At the present time, US nuclear weapons are deployed at six air force bases in five NATO countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey. The majority are on the southern flank of NATO at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, and the Aviano and Ghedi Torre Air Bases in Italy. The rest are stationed at the Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium, the Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, and the Büchel Air Base in Germany. All the nuclear warheads are air bombs delivered by F-16 and Tornado bombers. In the event of war, part of this nuclear arsenal, at the discretion of the US president, may be used by the aircraft of NATO allies. In addition to America, France also owns tactical nuclear weapons; however, its nuclear forces are not part of NATO’s armed forces, and France itself is not involved in the work of the alliance’s Nuclear Planning Group.
After all of Obama’s declarations about a «nuclear zero», it was decided at the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago to modernise America’s tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The essence of this modernisation is that up until 2012, America’s nuclear arsenal in Europe consisted of B61 gravity bombs, whereas now, these bombs are going to be replaced with B61-12 smart bombs, and, in addition, the existing fleet of bombers is to be replaced with new US F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. This will increase the striking power of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons by improving target accuracy.
The latest Nuclear Posture Review Report published in 2010 says: «US allies and partners are on the front lines of a changing global security environment. Some are enjoying unprecedented security and accordingly seek an acceleration of efforts to reduce reliance on nuclear deterrence. Others face new challenges to their security and look to the United States for continued partnership in safeguarding their interests... Some also feel the pressures of neighboring major powers asserting stronger regional roles, in some cases by nuclear means.» And it could not be clearer. The authors of the report have very elegantly pitted Old Europe against New Europe yet again. The Europe that is «enjoying unprecedented security» and speaking out against nuclear weapons is clearly Old Europe, lagging behind the times, while the Europe facing new challenges that wants to be under America’s nuclear umbrella is New Europe, looking ahead. Who the «neighbouring major powers» seeking regional domination and stooping to nuclear blackmail refers to, meanwhile, is obvious without the need for comment.
Russia responded to the decision taken at the Chicago Summit by confirming its own much earlier made plans to deploy Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads, among other things. Consequently, the European countries in which US nuclear weapons are deployed, and the residents of cities like Milan or Frankfurt that are close to air bases where these weapons are, should think twice about agreeing to the new US nuclear initiatives that will more than likely be put forward at the NATO Summit in Wales.