U.S. Nukes in Europe Are Useless
As the members of the world’s most powerful military alliance convene in Wales this week for the NATO Summit, much of the focus will be on taking steps to increase the capability, readiness, and responsiveness of NATO forces in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. In particular, the United States will seek to reassure its Baltic and Central European allies that NATO will come to their defense if attacked.
In addition to augmenting NATO’s conventional military footprint, some well-respected observers are also calling on NATO to reaffirm the importance of the approximately 180 U.S. “tactical” (or short-range) B61 nuclear gravity bombs that are still deployed in five NATO countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
But not only are these outdated weapons irrelevant to the Ukraine crisis, they divert resources from more pressing and credible responses. Moreover, while removal of forward based nuclear weapons is unlikely in the immediate term due to the present tensions with Moscow, the perpetuation of the NATO nuclear status quo may be untenable. To the extent nuclear weapons are a topic of discussion at the summit, the emphasis should be on moving towards a strategy that better reflects the current threat, political, and financial environments.
One of the more glaring head-scratchers about U.S. nuclear policy is the continued forward deployment of B61 bombs in Europe despite the fact that the military mission for which these weapons was originally intended – stopping a Soviet invasion of Western Europe because of inferior U.S./NATO conventional forces – no longer exists.
When asked in 2010 if there is a military mission performed by U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that cannot be performed by either U.S. strategic nuclear or conventional forces, Gen. James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly said: "No." Similarly, one senior official with European Command told a task force created by the then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that "We pay a king's ransom for these things and…they have no military value."
Nuclear weapons are particularly irrelevant to the strategy of “hybrid war” that Russia has pursued in Ukraine and which some NATO officials believe could be deployed against the alliance’s eastern flank. A recent article in the Financial Times described the Russian approach as “a broad range of hostile actions, of which military force is only a small part, that are invariably executed in concert as part of a flexible strategy with long-term objectives.” These tactics fall well below the threshold that makes threatening or using nuclear weapons rational or credible.
Given their next to non-existent military utility, the main rationale for keeping U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe is as a political symbol of the American commitment to NATO, particularly to the newer members that border Russia. However, this justification is also weak.
U.S. nuclear forces do provide assurance to our European allies by extending deterrence against nuclear attack, but the heavy lifting of the nuclear component of extended deterrence is done by our central strategic forces based in the United States and under the oceans not forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Even then, nuclear weapons are just a small piece of a much larger assurance puzzle, the biggest pieces of which are rooted in other elements of American power.
In the current crisis over Ukraine, the calls from Eastern European allies for reassurance has been almost exclusively for non-nuclear measures, such as increased U.S. troop rotations, air patrols, training exercises, and contingency planning. The allies are interested in visible signs of the commitment enshrined in Article V of the NATO charter, particularly boots on the ground, which would act as a trip-wire against any incursion.
The Obama administration has already taken many of these steps. It is also calling on Congress to support a European Reassurance Initiative of up to $1 billion to fund such actions as increasing the U.S. military presence in Europe, conducting additional bilateral and multilateral exercises and training, improving infrastructure to allow for greater responsiveness, and more. In addition, NATO plans to endorse at the Summit a new rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops capable of quickly deploying to Eastern Europe.
Such steps are likely to have a more credible impact than 180 archaic and militarily useless tactical nuclear weapons. However, buttressing NATO’s defenses won’t come cheaply, particularly at a time of budget austerity in both the United States and Europe.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost to the United States to maintain and rebuild its tactical nuclear weapons over the next decade at $7 billion. This is real money that could be put toward more effective reassurance measures. At the very least, if European members of NATO truly value these weapons, it is reasonable to ask them to pay a larger share of the bill to keep them there. The five NATO states that host nuclear weapons contribute a modest amount to the cost of the mission, but the vast majority of the financial burden is shouldered by Washington.
Despite the deeply flawed case for retaining NATO’s current nuclear posture, even many supporters of removing U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe think it would be unwise to do so as long as Russia is running roughshod over Ukraine. But whether one supports or opposes the existing policy, the complete withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe over time by political and financial default is a real possibility.
For starters, the five NATO host nations have yet to commit to spend the political capital and economic resources necessary to upgrade their existing aircraft or purchase new aircraft to deliver the B61. For example, Germany is planning to procure a next-generation fighter aircraft that won’t be configured to carry nuclear weapons. This isn’t surprising, given that a significant number of NATO members see little use for these weapons and have little interest in paying for them.
Meanwhile, even if the host nations do decide to purchase new dual-capable aircraft, such as the F-35A, Congress last year zeroed out the Pentagon’s $10 million research and development request to make the F-35A nuclear-capable. The cost of the dual capability, estimated to be at least in the hundreds of millions, will compete with the conventional role of the program, which is behind schedule and over-budget.
This raises the possibility that the nuclear weapons deployed in Europe may not have aircraft to deliver them after the existing European aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons are retired over the next 10 to 15 years. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has argued “that without financial buy-in by the NATO partners, either the F-35 nuclear integration or through fielding of an independent or equivalent European manufactured aircraft, F-35 investment dollars should realign to the long range strike bomber.”
Might the Ukraine crisis change these dynamics? Perhaps. But the clock is ticking, and the sooner NATO stops relying on the forward deployed weapons as a crutch and begins the difficult conversation about security and reassurance in the absence of these weapons, the better off the alliance will be.