B61: US Nuclear Weapon Nobody Needs

A new Stimson Center report titled «B61 Life Extension Program: Costs and Policy Considerations» published on August 14 questions the need to keep US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

The paper issued by the think tank argues that the US should curtail its planned refresh of the B61 nuclear weapon to only those needed to arm the new B-21 long range strike bombers, rather than procure enough weapons for use on fighter jets. It says, the likelihood that tactical nuclear weapons would ever be used in a conflict is small. «We recommend that the US forgo the procurement of B61s intended for delivery by fighter aircraft and remove the weapons from Europe immediately», write the authors saying the money saved – a total over $6 billion – could be used more productively to strengthen conventional forces.

One does not have to be a defense expert to realize that the development of modern missile air defenses have nullified the A-bomb’s potential, as no bomber would be allowed to approach, let alone fly over, the enemy territory. It makes the multi-year effort to update and extend the life of the B61 an egregious example of waste. Still, the US Department of Defense intends to certify the B61-12 for the F-35 joint strike fighter, as well as the F-15E, F-16 and the Tornado fighter used by European forces. About 180 of the nuclear weapons are kept in bases across Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey – as a holdover from the Cold War. The bases could be security risks. «The continued presence of these weapons at five sites in Europe, particularly in Turkey, raises serious risks of their seizure by terrorists or other hostile forces», the think tank believes. «These bombs are ill-suited for modern warfare and incredibly costly», said report co-author Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center. «The smart move would be to remove these weapons from Europe and double down to strengthen conventional forces that actually protect our NATO allies».

In particular, the paper calls out the dangers of keeping nuclear weapons at Incirlik, a Turkish base located in the city of Adana, several dozen miles from the Syrian border. It is the site of approximately 50 US tactical nuclear weapons. During the failed coup in Turkey in July, power to the base was cut off and the Turkish government prohibited US aircraft from flying in or out. The Stimson Center doubts the expediency of keeping the weapons there.

Former Director for Defense Policy and Arms Control on the White House National Security Council, Steve Andreasen, writes that the B61 tactical nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik have become a hot potato rather than geopolitical argument, especially in view of growing anti-US sentiments in Turkey over the alleged US involvement in the recent coup attempt.

And as some in Turkey blame the United States for playing a role in the coup, anti-American protests have erupted around the base calling for its closure.

The proximity of the base to the Syrian border is another factor. The US military has already ordered all military families out of Incirlik and southern Turkey back in March over terrorism-related security concerns.

«Those are security and political conditions that are completely out of sync with what you normally require for having nuclear weapons deployed», believes Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

«There is no other country in Europe where the US stores nuclear weapons where a military coup just happened and you have something that looks almost like a civil war with violent explosions and killings, and in addition to that you are less than 100 miles from the border of a completely war-torn country, Syria», he said. «Those are security and political conditions that are completely out of sync with what you normally require for having nuclear weapons deployed», he added.

There are other considerations to be added to the above mentioned security concerns. About half of the US munitions based in Europe are earmarked for delivery by the national aircraft of non-nuclear states, which are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968.

The planned upgrade mentioned by the Stimson Center’s report is a gross violation of the NPT. Article I of the NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from NWS (nuclear weapons states) to other states: «Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices». Article II requires NNWS (non-nuclear weapons states) not to receive nuclear weapons: «Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transfer or whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices».

There is one more aspect of the problem to be taken into account. The battlefield purpose increases the chance of a nuclear escalation. The upgrade makes Russia take retaliatory measures, especially in view of NATO’s conventional military superiority, thus increasing the possibility of conflict. Besides, the existing US, UK and French nuclear arsenals provide more than enough deterrence against any threat. Logic suggests that Turkey should drawdown the US nuclear weapons. Nobody with foreign nukes on its territory has ever enhanced its national security. There is hardly any meaningful rationale for having B-61s on Turkish soil. By doing so, Turkey may set a very valuable and meaningful precedent for the countries in its neighborhood.

With military utility questionable, political value doubted and economic costs high, the weapons serve nobody’s interests, including NATO, the US and Turkey, especially at the time the Russia-Turkey relationship has received a powerful impetus for progress.

This is also the time the Turkey-US relations have reached the lowest level ever.

The future of Turkey-NATO relationship is very much uncertain.

Pulling the B61s from Turkey would do away with security concerns and public discontent, allow the US military to concentrate of the fight against Islamic State and ease tensions between Russia and NATO. If Turkey took a decision to remove B61 bombs from its soil, it would facilitate the improvement of ties with Russia at an opportune time. It will be a win-win decision with everybody to gain and nobody to lose. The Stimson Center report and the facts adduced above provide ample evidence to substantiate such a conclusion.