Nuclear weapons in Europe

Nuclear weapons have shaped Europe’s history of for nearly 60 years. In March 1955, the US armed forces began to store atomic bombs in the Federal Republic of Germany. Only one month later, warheads for nuclear Matador cruise missiles and 280mm artillery shells followed suit and, only a little later, warheads for Honest John and Corporal missiles, 8-inch artillery for howitzers and nuclear land mines. In the early 1960s, ten types of nuclear weapons were stored in West Germany already. Nearly all had the explosive force of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Thus started a wave of nuclear rearmament that, at its peak, consisted of approximately 7,300 US nuclear weapons in Europe, suitable for a variety of uses. Added to this were smaller potentials possessed by the European nuclear powers of France and Great Britain. In 1958/59, the Soviet Union also started to position delivery systems for nuclear weapons on the territories of its allies on forward operating bases. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), up to 31 storage sites for nuclear warheads for short- and medium-range missiles as well as for atomic bombs and other nuclear weapons were built over the years. It is likely that more than 1,000 nuclear weapons were stored there.

Besides the armies of the two superpowers, their allies also gradually procured delivery systems for nuclear weapons either from the United States or the USSR and trained their soldiers in their use. Initially, the United States established a dual key system in the West which assured that its allies were only able to deploy US nuclear weapons after authorization by the President of the United States. Later on, this was replaced by electromechanical or electronic safety systems with so-called PAL-codes without which it was impossible to activate and use a nuclear weapon. While the Soviet Union used the territory of its allies to stockpile nuclear warheads, it did not give their armies access to these weapons. Only in war would specially trained units under the authority of the 12th central administration of the Soviet General Staff have transported the warheads to the units with the delivery systems, mount them on the systems and monitored their deployment. It is most likely that no soldier of the armed forces in the German Democratic Republic ever saw a real nuclear warhead. NATO treated this differently. It was necessary, for instance, that to be able to deploy quick reaction alert systems, atom bombs were already mounted on their carrier aircraft during such standby to take off in the time foreseen.

For a long time, NATO considered nuclear weapons in Europe primarily as battlefield weapons, weapons whose use would escalate an already started war, but that would serve the same purpose as conventional weapons. The enemy was to be depleted, stopped or beaten on the battlefield. Accordingly, plans for the use of nuclear weapons were highly elaborate. The option of the first use of nuclear weapons was a declared part of NATO strategy. Only with the election of Helmut Schmidt to the West German government in the late 1960s, did a re-think commence. He pursued two goals: for one, it should be impossible to deploy nuclear weapons on or from West German territory without the previous consent of the West German chancellor. For another, he wanted to find a way to prohibit the limited deployment of nuclear weapons to Europe only. He wanted Washington and Moscow to be aware of the fact that any use of nuclear weapons in Europe would in all likelihood also affect Russian and US-American mainland.

In the Soviet military doctrine, however, the use of nuclear weapons of any range and kind was believed the beginning of an all obliterating nuclear world war. Only in the last decade of the Cold War did Moscow also consider the battlefield role of nuclear weapons more seriously.

The largest part of the nuclear battlefield weapons in Europe was withdrawn after the end of the Cold War in the context of the German reunification and the unilateral initiatives of US President George W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. All Soviet weapons were moved to the territory of the Russian Federation. Initially, about 1,400 atom bombs remained on European NATO bases in the West; a number that was gradually reduced. The knowledge gained that nuclear weapons stockpiles in Europe were not as technically secure as one had believed for decades also contributed to the fact that soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Washington was prepared to markedly downscale its stockpiles in Europe.

The situation

Today, there are about 150 to 240 US-American nuclear bombs (type B61-3 and B61-4) in Europe. They are equipped with relatively modern safety systems and have an explosive force of between 0.3 and 50 kilotonnes (model 4) or 0.3 to 170 kilotonnes (model 3). The explosive force of 0.3 kilotonnes roughly corresponds to that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Today, NATO has deployed nuclear weapons at six air bases in Europe: Kleine Brogel (Belgium), Büchel (Germany), Aviano and Ghedi Torre (Italy), Volkel (The Netherlands) and Incirlik (Turkey). In theory, up to 392 bombs can be stored on these sites. There are nuclear-capable fighter bombers in Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands while Turkey is the only base in Europe with nuclear weapons where nuclear-capable aircraft are not permanently present.In a war, aircraft would fly in from other bases immediately to pick up and employ the weapons. Other NATO countries could, too, participate in non-nuclear support and assistance missions.

In Germany, 10 to 20 atom bombs are stored in nuclear weapons storage vaults in Büchel, the base of the Tactical Air Force Wing 33 of the German Air Force. Theoretically, there is room for up to 44 weapons. It is the only active stockpile in Germany. The German armed forces have committed themselves to making 46 carrier aircraft available for nuclear missions in the framework of their 'permanent task' of nuclear sharing, positioning 44 of their 85 Tornados in Büchel. The Ministry of Defence expects the Tornados to be operational beyond the year 2025—an extension until 2030 is an option.

Nuclear weapons in Europe are stored in underground weapons storage vaults built into the floors of protective aircraft shelters. The construction of the vaults is such that theoretically, they can withstand fire or an armed attack until assistance has arrived. Each vault can contain up to four weapons.

Munition Support Squadrons (701.-704. MUNSS) that are stationed at the four sites of the European NATO partners are responsible for servicing and granting access to the nuclear weapons. They are also responsible for making sure that no individual soldier or any European soldier who is not accompanied by US soldiers gains access to a nuclear weapon. Additional guards guarantee the external security of the storage area.

Regular nuclear security inspections monitor compliance with security regulations and the state of training of the personnel at each site. Annual NATO nuclear exercises in Europe, known as Steadfast Noon ascertain whether the soldiers on the ground and the aircrews still master the employment of US atomic bombs despite reduced standby requirements.

Nuclear weapons in Europe are primarily foreseen to support tasks in the framework of NATO. They are only permitted to be deployed once the President of the United States has given the order and when the launch code with the weapon's release order has been received via a special chain of command. The United States also reserves the right to plan the deployment of nuclear weapons stored in Europe to support the regional Central Command responsible for the Middle East. In all likelihood, NATO will not play a role in this.

Since the end of the Cold War and from the viewpoint of NATO, US-American nuclear weapons in Europe have predominantly played a political psychological role. They symbolize that nuclear deterrence also applies to its new member states, that it is impossible to create a divide amongst NATO countries, and that they jointly bear the responsibility for NATO's nuclear policy. These weapons, however, have lost most of their specific military function. While former targets for atomic bombs have become obsolete, these weapons are hardly suited for new targets included in the more flexible 'adaptive' planning of NATO in the post-Cold War era. In the framework of nuclear deterrence, these weapons are no more deployable than submarine-based nuclear weapons available to NATO in the event of war.

In recent debates on a new NATO Strategy 2010 and the future of the alliance's deterrence and defence policy for 2012, states were still not able to agree to go without these weapons in the future. They concurred that these arms would stay in Europe for the time being. In talks with Russia, NATO will attempt to negotiate further concessions by Russia in return for further reductions. As some components of the current weapons holdings will soon reach the end of their technical service life, the United States decided in 2010 to commence a comprehensive modernization programme for four of the five B61-bomb versions. They are planned to be substituted by one single successor model with the explosive force of the smallest predecessor version but intended to strike the target with high precision. The service life of these weapons is planned to last 30 years longer. Critics fear that this will markedly increase the military usefulness and role of these weapons.

According to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSSA) responsible for the development and construction of these weapons, the new version will be available in 2017/18 to be positioned in Europe and will cost between four and five billion US dollars. Pentagon by now assumes that there will be a delay of four or five years and that the costs will total more than 11 billion US dollars.

The technical aspects of the NATO system of nuclear sharing in NATO are controversial both politically and legally. The European countries that participate in this system are non-nuclear members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and have committed themselves under international law not to control nuclear weapons. The United States must by no means pass on the control over these weapons. Yet, if a US nuclear weapon were deployed with a carrier aircraft from a non-nuclear NATO country, control over this weapon would be passed on latest when the European aircraft takes off. The majority of the members of the NPT, countries that do not belong to any alliance, have therefore repeatedly demanded of NATO that all member states comply with the NPT at all times. In other words, and somewhat exaggerated: They fear that the technical implementation of nuclear sharing could be a particular case of nuclear proliferation.

Sources and further information:

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