The avid nuclear dispute in European and Russian expert and political communities is still ongoing after a report by Germany’s ZDF TV channel about Washington’s plans to station B61-12 modernized high-accuracy nuclear bombs in Germany.
From US budget reports and WikiLeaks secret documents, the journalists concluded that 20 new bombs will be stationed at Buchel airbase in Rheinland-Pfalz federal land by the end of 2015. According to experts, together these bombs have the explosive power of up to 1,000 kt, 80 times more than Little Boy atomic bomb used in the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Soon after, the US National Nuclear Security Administration disproved the information, saying new B61-12 bombs will be stationed in Germany much later as their production will not begin until after 2020. At the same time, Ruediger von Fritsch, Ambassador of Germany in Russia, explained that the modernization plan only concerns the replacement of out-of-date components.
However, in March 2010, the German Bundestag voted in favor of beginning talks with Washington over gradual withdrawal of nuclear bombs from the country, while similar plans were included in the 2009 coalition agreement.
According to the 2014 report published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), B61 variable yield bombs stationed in Europe under the NATO nuclear sharing arrangement were first put into US service in 1968. At least 180 of such bombs are located in storage at six US bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands. Under the modernization program, they will be dismantled and converted into B61-12s equipped with guided tail kits instead of parachute systems for increased accuracy.
The modernization project for the US nuclear arsenal in Europe promises to become an expensive undertaking for Washington. According to official report, the United States allocated some $200 million for this program only in 2015, while the whole cost of the project that will last into late 2019 is at least $1 billion. This includes the costs for upgrading F-15E and F16 fighters, B-2 bombers and Panavia Tornado European aircraft to be able to carry the new bombs. These upgrades are scheduled to end by Q4 2018.
At present, the main point of discussion in the media and online is compatibility of the plans by Washington and Berlin with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): however, the opinions are currently ambiguous. Nevertheless, heads of Security Councils of Russia and Japan as well as some German political figures, such as the Bundestag member and representative of the Left Party of Germany Stefan Liebich, already expressed their concern over Washington’s plans.
“In a world where disarmament is more necessary than ever, it would be a signal of great value if the German government would tell the United States of America that their nuclear weapons are not to be stationed here any longer,” the politician said.
The Left Party of Germany has always been standing against any measures that could cause an inter-state conflict, he stressed.
The expert community in Germany and other European countries also met the news with mixed reaction. In particular, Goetz Neuneck, deputy director and head of Interdisciplinary Research Group on Disarmament, Arms Control and Risk Technologies of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, noted that the European public is largely unaware of the plans and wants no new nuclear bombs in NATO states, while he himself finds these measures unnecessary.
“The government, I think, is not very eager to have new bombs and what should be the rationale of it. […] But, as you know, military people in many countries, including Russia, are eager to modernize their weapons, and this is the argument by the Pentagon,” the analyst told “PenzaNews” agency in an interview.
He criticized Russia and the West for being unable so far to achieve a consensus over several urgent defense and security issues to defuse tensions, and added that a prolonged diplomatic stalemate can turn into another highly expensive arms race.
From the expert’s point of view, the modernization of US nuclear arsenal stationed in Germany and other states poses a danger to the 1991 Conventional Forces Treaty in Europe, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed by the US and the USSR in 1987.
“[The parties] should start negotiating a new treaty on conventional forces with limitations, including verification and crisis management architecture, and both nuclear sides – the American side and the Russian side – should negotiate an add-on protocol to the INF treaty,” Goetz Neuneck urged, placing particular emphasis on bilateral transparency measures.
In his opinion, Russia and the West can enjoy a successful cooperation in the field of defense by solving different objectives and exchanging data to neutralize common threats, but such a scenario is hardly a possibility at present time.
Meanwhile, Henning Riecke, head of Transatlantic Relations program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), stressed that the United States will not get rid of their nuclear arsenal in Europe, in spite of the voices of protest coming from the German public and nuclear disarmament activists.
For several dozens of years, the nuclear bombs in Europe had served only as a political symbol, and completely lost their importance with the end of the Cold War, he remarked.
“The nuclear deterrent element in NATO has been underrated for 20 years, because nuclear deterrence was seen as unimportant and outdated by NATO members,” the analyst said.
According to him, the NATO stance on this changed in 2014, after they learned that the regime change in Kiev could have resulted in Russian nuclear forces being put on standby.
Moreover, Henning Riecke expressed his belief that the US nuclear arsenal in Germany does not constitute a violation of the NPT.
“The Americans are not giving nuclear weapons to Germans in terms of ‘now you have them, you can use them.’ […] One has control over the nuclear weapons, the other has control over the means of delivery,” he said.
At the same time, Anna Peczeli, research fellow for the Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies at the Corvinus University of Budapest, recalled that the American nuclear bombs have been stationed in Europe since mid-50s, yet NATO officials still decline to disclose the exact location and number of these weapons.
“Today, the US only has one type of non-strategic nuclear weapon in its stockpile, which is the B61 gravity bomb. This has three modifications: the B61-3, B61-4 and the B61-10. The B61-3 (with a yield between 0.3-170 kilotons) and -4 (with a yield between 0.3-50 kilotons) modifications are the ones which are deployed in Europe. In the framework of the standard Life Extension Program of the US nuclear arsenal, the Barack Obama administration plans to retire the current modifications and convert the B61-4 into the B61-12,” the expert explained.
From her point of view, the US nuclear bomb modernization program in Europe itself is unlikely to lead to significant escalation of tensions or ruptured agreements between Washington and Moscow, as neither side wants to provoke a dangerous arms race.
According to Anna Peczeli, the nuclear arsenal stationed in Germany has great diplomatic significance that needs to be mentioned.
“Non-strategic nuclear weapons traditionally served four purposes during the Cold War: deterrence, reassurance, signaling and burden-sharing. Since the end of the Cold War, they have primarily become a political tool to symbolize alliance cohesion. Therefore Germany’s continued involvement in the nuclear mission is a sign of solidarity towards NATO,” she said, suggesting that in Berlin may eventually choose to phase out the US nuclear bombs the long-term perspective.
Hans-Joachim Schmidt, Senior Researcher at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and expert in conventional arms control and global security, also highlighted the political aspect of the issue.
“Firstly, should Germany be a part of the nuclear planning group within NATO, have some say in that group and the use of these instruments in case of crisis or war in particular on German soil? The other issue is: if [German] government says it wants to have this capability, is it ready to accept the modernization? As far as I know, Germany has not finally decided on the modernization,” he said.
He also added he thinks the phase-out of the US nuclear arsenal in Germany that was discussed several years ago is unlikely, and described why.
“Under the current more confrontational security conditions, a unilateral withdrawal of these weapons by the US would surely raise nuclear weapon efforts by France and United Kingdom. In Turkey, there is also a secret discussion on whether it should become a nuclear weapon state because of the growing instability in the region. So we would need again a more cooperative security situation to increase the chance for a withdrawal. Under confrontation, it will not work, and could lead to counter actions by other countries, which could lead to even greater instability,” Hans-Joachim Schmidt concluded.
In his opinion, the current situation represents a threat to European security and several international military agreements, such as the INF treaty.
“The modernization of US bombs [in Germany] will lower the nuclear threshold because the new ones are better suited for military purposes. The new bomb can be guided, and has a higher accuracy. This can be used to lower the variable nuclear detonation power of this bomb,” Hans-Joachim Schmidt reminded, adding that Moscow also leads its own parallel modernization program for its strategic nuclear arsenal.
He called for Russia and the West to establish direct contacts to resolve mutual security complaints and seek a way to overcome confrontation, as well as cancel any unilateral development, procurement and deployment projects in nuclear arms field.
At the same time, Jens-Peter Steffen, peace campaigner for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, claimed that the German government took no serious measures so far to withdraw US nuclear arsenal from the country.
“The Cold War period may have gone, but accepting US-nukes on German soil and being trained to use them in the case of war is the closest that Germany can get to nuclear weapons after having signed the NPT,” the rights activist said.
According to him, those who speak in favor of the US program say that any potential nuclear standoff will result in NPT being rendered void, after which the German Air Force will get the nuclear bombs while already having trained personnel to use them against any foe.
However, many observers take an opposite stance on the issue, he stressed.
“[We] see the training of German forces by the US to use their nuclear arsenal in case of war – named nuclear sharing – as a violation of the NPT,” Jens-Peter Steffen stated.
He also pointed out that German peace activists have been pushing against the policy that binds their country to an aggressive military alliance for several generations.
“During the different periods of the Cold War, West Germany and even Germany as a whole was a target for Soviet missiles. As a possible zone of war, it was even a target for the nuclear weapons of the Western allies. That created the impressive peace movement of the 1980s in West Germany and other European states. Hundreds of thousands of people on the streets confronted the political class saying they did not want to be the targets,” the expert reminded.
According to him, escalating tensions and new flashpoints emerging all over the world, including Iraq and Syria, call for immediate actions from people in Europe and Russia to push politicians to cancel all nuclear rearmament programs.
“We need the establishment of a common system of security of partners and stop falling for the fake security of nuclear weapons,” Jens-Peter Steffen summed up.