By Julio Godoy
Between late 2009 and mid-2010, the German government, represented by its foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, made a case for dismantling B61 atomic bombs on German soil. The actual number of such weapons of mass destruction is a top military secret, but some 20 of these are reported to be stationed in Germany.
The German campaign for nuclear disarmament had relevance also for Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands – as well as Turkey – where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is stated to have positioned between 150 and 200 nuclear weapons.
Like his predecessor Frank Walter Steinmeier, Westerwelle made the arguments of the anti-nuclear weapons activists his own, and recalled that such arsenal is in many ways obsolete, for it was conceived to be used in conjunction with other armament that itself is out of use, and it aimed at an enemy – the Soviet bloc – that had ceased to exist.
The German campaign, as discreet as it was, was a timely reaction to the historic speech the U.S. president Barack Obama made in the Czech capital Prague in April 2009, where he called the nuclear weapons spread across the world “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War”.
But soon, the German campaign for the denuclearisation of Europe, very much like Obama’s speech in Prague, turned out to be no more than pious words. Already in April 2010, NATO had approved the so-called modernization of its nuclear arsenal in Europe, which should be completed by 2020. The modernisation was confirmed in May 2012 at the Chicago summit, during the so called deterrence and defence posture review (DDPR).
By so doing, NATO finally admits that the criticism of the present nuclear arsenal is correct – it is constituted of so-called dumb weapons, for they are to be dropped from war planes over target zones, and be guided by a radar that, according to U.S. senate hearings, was constructed in the 1960s and originally designed for “a five-year lifetime”.
This radar also features “the now infamous vacuum tubes”, as one U.S. military industry representative stated at the senate hearing, and “must be replaced. In addition, both the neutron generator and a battery component are fast approaching obsolescence and must be replaced.”
Dropping such dumb nuclear weapons from an airplane would mean that, in case they operate as expected, vast areas would be obliterated from the face of the earth.
The old B61 nuclear bombs manifest several dangers: In 2005, a U.S. Air Force review discovered that procedures used during maintenance of the nuclear weapons in Europe held a risk that a lightning strike could trigger a nuclear detonation. In 2008, yet another U.S. Air Force review concluded that “most” nuclear weapons locations in Europe did not meet U.S. security guidelines and would “require significant additional resources” to bring these up to standard.
The modernisation of this archaic arsenal is expected to take place in two phases. In a first step, the B61 bombs currently deployed in Europe will be returned to the United States starting 2016 and converted into precision guided nuclear weapons (the so called B61‐life extension programme or B61 LEP) and then brought back to Europe as B61-12, with improved military capabilities around 2019/2020. In addition, a new stealth fighter‐bomber – the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – is under construction to begin deployment to Europe in the early 2020s.
However, this modernisation contradicts NATO’s assessment of the present arsenal, and undermines other declared objectives of the military alliance.
First, in its DDPR of May 2012, NATO affirms that “the Alliance’s nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defence posture”. As numerous critics of NATO’s nuclear arsenal point out, if this arsenal is so efficient, why then is it necessary to improve its capabilities? This is all the more absurd, since the B61-LE “is very expensive, currently more than 10 billion U.S. dollars,” as Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, said November 7, 2012 during a hearing at the Disarmament and Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Parliament in Berlin.
This high cost, Kristensen added, “Is partly said to be necessary to upgrade safety and security features of the bomb. It is a mystery why that is necessary given that the (nuclear) weapons in Europe are always said to be safe and secure.”
But the contradictions go beyond the mere nature of the assessment and the technical obsoleteness of the nuclear armament. Its modernisation also constitutes a challenge to Russia. For, if the NATO description of the new B61 weapons is to be believed, they would be laser-controlled, thus substantially increasing its precision, and be practically able to hit targets within an error margin of less than 30 meters.
Or, as Kristensen puts it, “The addition of the guided tail kit will increase the accuracy of the B61-12 compared with the current versions and result in a greater target kill capability than the B61 versions currently deployed in Europe.” It is worth to note that the U.S. Congress in 1992 rejected a similar guided bomb proposal out of the concern that it would make nuclear weapons appear more useable.
Such precision would transform the B61 nuclear bombs into a rather flexible arsenal, deployable both as a tactical and as a strategic weapon, and no longer only under the present archaic conditions. “Such a change would revive the worst apprehensions the (post-)Soviet leadership had during the Pershing-II debate” of the late 1970s, early 1980s, warns the German nuclear weapons expert Otfried Nassauer, director of the Berlin information centre for transatlantic security (BITS), and co-author of a recent study on the B61-LEP.
That way, Europe would be heading towards a repetition of the ill-reputed “NATO double-track decision” of December 1979. With this decision, the NATO announced the deployment across Western Europe of 572 mobile middle range missiles, of the types Pershing II and BGM-109 Tomahawk Gryphon Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles, to counter the Soviet deployment of SS-20 mobile missiles in Eastern Europe. The result was a most feared nuclear arms race in the heart of Europe, to rebuild the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which threatened to annihilate life on the continent.
Officially, NATO nuclear weapons in Europe are aimed at targets in the Middle East, especially against Iran. Russia, so NATO’s official line, has no reasons to fear the modernisation of the B61 weapons. However, such a view is at best naïve, at worst cynical. For everybody in the NATO knows how the Russian leadership reacts to such modernisation plans.
Though the Soviet Union never disclosed how large its tactic nuclear arsenal was, experts believe that Russia today still has between 500 and 700 nuclear weapons mostly aimed at targets in Western Europe. This horrendous mass of nuclear weapons is as antiquated as the NATO’s; and the obsoleteness and the threat of a modern nuclear arsenal in the hands of a likely enemy, are reasons enough to foresee how the Russian government would react – by modernising its own arsenal.
“Nuclear sharing policy”
On the other hand, the European opposition to the B61-LEP is almost non-existent. In Germany, despite all the words the foreign ministry used to campaign for nuclear disarmament, the official government programme of 2009, valid today, explicitly adhered to NATO’s so called “nuclear sharing policy”, which lets European member countries without nuclear weapons of their own participate in the planning for the use of the B61 stationed on their territories.
As German chancellor Angela Merkel said in March 2009, the German government “should be careful and avoid mixing up the goals with the ways leading to them. The German government has fixed the nuclear sharing policy … to secure our influence within NATO in this highly sensitive area”.
Similar positions prevail in the other European NATO countries affected by the “nuclear sharing policy”. According to Roderich Kiesewetter, military expert at the ruling CDU party, “the small European countries consider the deployment of nuclear weapons on their territory as a political appreciation of their own position. The Turkish government has even made clear that it would readily take the B61 positioned in Germany, if we were to reject them.”
Other countries, such as Belgium and Netherlands, have also announced that they would upgrade their aircraft military capabilities, to make them compatible with the new B61 nuclear weapons. To that effect, they would command the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter airplane, to replace their F-16 and B-16 military airplanes which are unable to transport nuclear bombs. Germany still refuses to replace the similarly old Tornado planes, in the pitiful hope, as the military analyst Jochen Bittner put it in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, “that the nuclear weapons disappear faster than the military airplanes corrode”.
Like Germany, Italy also uses Tornado aircrafts, and Turkey F-16 airplanes to transport the nuclear arsenal. That is, the five European countries disposing of nuclear weapons use three different types of aircraft to transport them. As Kristensen puts it, “Adding B61-12 capability to five different types of aircraft (the U.S. military uses yet another different airplane) in six Air Forces is excessive, complex and expensive for the type of security challenges that face NATO today. More importantly, it demonstrates that the nuclear posture is patched together by leftover pieces from an outdated posture rather than reduced, streamlined and adapted to the military and fiscal realities of today.”
Despite all these technical, military, and political obstacles, German government military expert Kiesewetter argues that the NATO would reconsider the B61 LEP only if Russia were ready to disclose the dimensions and locations of its huge tactical nuclear arsenal. However, he also points out that, even in case of such a dialogue, the modernisation of the European nuclear weapons must go on. “Political weapons must be technical functional,” he said, implicitly admitting the obsoleteness of the present arsenal.
Kiesewetter’s stance chimes with NATO’s official attitude towards Russia. In the DDRP of May 2012, NATO said that in a bi-polar arms control policy “any further steps must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons,” and be considered “in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia.” In other words, says Kristensen, of the Nuclear Information Project, “Given that Russia’s non-strategic nuclear posture is not determined by NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe but by inferior conventional forces, making further NATO reductions conditioned upon Russian reciprocity and disparity would appear to effectively surrender the arms control initiative to the hardliners in the Kremlin.”
In this context, there is hardly any likelihood that Europe in the near future will achieve the “nuclear global zero”, that is, the de-alerting and elimination of all tactical nuclear weapons. Much to the despair of anti-nuclear activists and experts alike. As Otfried Nassauer puts it, “Germany has always said that it takes part of the NATO nuclear sharing policy to be able to co-decide.” It seems that this was a part of the sham existence of the B61 arsenal in Europe – extremely dangerous, obsolete, and counterproductive.