In 1991, U.S. President George H. W. Bush decided to retire almost all the tactical nuclear weapons operated by the US military. He found the short-range weapons militarily useless and burdensome. Twenty-three years have passed since then and here is the news hitting the radar screen – the United States Air Force is going to station 20 new B61-12 nuclear bombs in Germany.
The nukes will be deployed to Luftwaffe’s Büchel Air Base in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, which is already host to USAF nuclear bombs stored there since 2007 under a nuclear sharing deal, Germany’s ZDF public television network reported on Tuesday, September, 22.
According to the report, in the third quarter of the current year, the base will receive budget for the future storage and deployment of the new weapons, which are considered to be on the borderline between strategic and tactical, as well as funding for upgrading the German Panavia Tornado multipurpose aircraft that are also stationed in the base and are capable of deploying older types of nukes.
It takes place against certain background – the trend of the last five years. The negotiations on a treaty on European security failed even in 2010, the negotiations on the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative have become a thing of the past. One can witness the total collapse of talks on European security.
The United States currently deploys around 180 nuclear munitions in Europe (at bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). In the event of a nuclear conflict on the continent, NATO would deliver the munitions using U.S.-built F-15 or F-16 aircraft or European-built Tornado fighters, operated by some combination of Belgian, Dutch, German, Italian, and U.S. crews. The new B61-12 is scheduled for deployment in Europe around 2020. The modernization includes a new tail fin assembly for greater accuracy and would allow a lower nuclear yield in attacking targets. The bombs will be adapted for the bomber-fighter F-35, built on the technology of «stealth». The smallest of the existing B-61s, the B-61-4, has a destructive power of 50 kilotons of TNT, or roughly four times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. The combination of a guided standoff nuclear bomb and a fifth-generation stealthy fighter-bomber will significantly enhance the military capability of NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe. The development clearly violates the spirit of US President Barack Obama's stated pledge of not creating any new nuclear weapons or ones with new military capabilities.
About half of the bombs in the inventory are earmarked for delivery by the national aircraft of these non-nuclear-weapon states, although they all are parties to the NPT and obliged «not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly». In peacetime, the weapons at the national bases are under the control of a U.S. Air Force munitions support squadron, but in a war, the United States would hand over control of the weapons to the national pilots who would deliver the weapons and effectively violate the NPT at that moment.
In general, the weapons are deeply unpopular with European publics, and at the 2010 NATO summit, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway joined together to call for the removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from the continent. The German government has said on numerous occasions it would like to see the weapons removed, but to no avail. In 2010, at the NATO summit in Tallinn, the Americans made the Germans endorse «the Tallinn formula», under which no country in NATO can take a unilateral decision on the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.
The current initiative is the continuation of this policy. Nuclear weapons remain in place and the defense can only be a shared one. No separatism on German side on the nuclear issue is tolerated.
The upgrade inevitably entails consequences not to be ignored.
Tactical nuclear weapons have little military value for NATO in view of conventional superiority over any potential enemy. Russia currently has about one million men under arms. In comparison, the United States will have over 1.2 million active-duty military personnel after its ongoing military drawdown is complete. NATO’s European members, meanwhile, have two million soldiers under arms.
It should be taken into consideration that European NATO members are not entirely dependent on U.S. nuclear deterrence. France and the United Kingdom have nuclear-armed strategic submarines, and the French have their own air-delivered tactical nuclear bombs.
The US superiority in numbers on long-range conventional high-precision munitions, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, supported by advanced space and airborne systems, and fighter aircraft, is a well-known and indisputable fact.
Maintaining tactical nukes at the time strategic weapons can do the job is costly because the aircraft designated to deliver the munitions are nearing the end of their service lives. Giving the F-35 the capability to deliver nuclear weapons would add huge sums to the price tag. Money will have to be spent on upgrading nuclear storage facilities in Europe. Modernizing tactical nuclear munitions comes at the expense of other critical updates and investments in the conventional capabilities.
The decision inevitable spikes tensions in the already strained relationship between the US (NATO) and Russia. Russia’s concern is justified by the fact that in case of hostilities its tactical nuclear weapons will not reach the territory of the continental United States, but the U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, can strike Russia and are, therefore, strategic.
The decision has evoked reaction on the part of Russian government.
Moscow has formulated its stance in a statement. «The comprehensive analysis of the situation points to the threat posed by the increasing military capability of NATO and its endowment with global functions, which it performs in violation of the international law, as well as the encroachment of the military infrastructure of NATO members on the borders of the Russian Federation», said Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, in an interview with ZDF on Tuesday, September 22.
Zakharova said the move would be in breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. A total of 191 countries have joined the NPT, which was enforced in 1970. According to her, the US decision is «in clear violation of Articles 1 and 2 of the NPT». «This abnormal situation persists for more than forty years, but that does not make it more acceptable, » the spokesperson emphasized.
However, Zakharova stressed that Moscow is «open to discuss any issues related to the strengthening of international security».
The door is open for discussions. Later this month Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit New York to take part in the work of the 70th session on UN General Assembly. This is the chance to give revive the frozen process of dialogue between Russia and the US to address the burning issues that divide them.