The US-German Tactical Nuclear Weapons Dilemma

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By Alex Bollfrass – The presidential campaign inboxes are brimming with proposals for nuclear disarmament and bold stockpile reductions from a rich variety of geographic, partisan, governmental, and ideological senders. The bulk of these recommendations focus on such questions as who moves first, how reductions could be verified, and how such agreements would be enforced.

As the next administration considers implementing these proposals, a small but potentially hazardous stumbling block will require immediate attention and delicate handling: marketing a major reform to US nuclear policy to certain allies under its nuclear umbrella. Despite these governments’ consistent pro-disarmament records, they also believe that the ultimate guarantee of US protection is the presence of tactical nuclear weapons on their territory. Turkey, Japan, and Germany share common concerns; the pitfalls, complexities, and remedies are particularly illustrative in the case of Germany.

The German public has historically been in favor of nuclear disarmament, and the current government of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats set the elimination of weapons of mass destruction as a policy objective in their coalition agreement. At the same time, an estimated one to two dozen aircraft-borne tactical nuclear weapons are deployed on German soil. To launch, they require both US and the host governments’ consent. Political attention to their presence has often embarrassed both governing parties. The Christian Democrats in particular may worry about re-igniting public consciousness of their existence in anticipation of next year’s fall election.

These US tactical weapons were initially deployed in Germany during the Cold War to counter the Warsaw Pact’s conventional military advantage, but have not been removed due to a mixture of four reasons. The first is inertia. Changes in strategic and nuclear matters are always viewed with suspicious anxiety, and are difficult to accomplish in the institutional context of NATO. Another is symbolism, because the arms are seen by both sides as America’s commitment to Germany’s security. Third, partaking in nuclear sharing gives Germany greater clout within NATO. Finally, US tactical arms are welcomed in Germany in response to Russian tactical weapons.

For more than a decade and a half, the conventional military balance has been tipped in NATO’s favor. Russia’s response has been to increase reliance on its tactical nuclear weapons (whose numbers are unknown to other governments, but is estimated to be up to 3,000). This leaves Germany conflicted about its shared tactical arms. While a thorough defense analysis might indicate that the US weapons cannot fulfill either their deterrence or war-fighting mission, the traditions of deterrence doctrine magnify their significance to a counterweight of great symbolic value.

Even by the standards of nuclear weapons, tactical bombs in Europe are unique in their poor risk/benefit ratio. If they were merely of questionable value, there would be no harm in maintaining the US and Russian tactical weapons. However, due to their size and deployment patterns, these weapons are most vulnerable to theft and unauthorized use, and are often cited as a terrorist group’s shortest path to a nuclear device. All parties have an interest in withdrawing their deployment in the long run.

If it aims to enlist the German government’s support in a major nuclear weapons initiative, the incoming US administration should be mindful that German nuclear views are formulated with a focus on Russia. Fortunately, a benefit of Russia’s effort to reclaim its status and rebuild its army into a capable fighting force is that it will not need to rely on the dubious protection afforded by tactical nuclear weapons. In fact, Prime Minister Putin has already boasted that “there are some technological developments in the non-nuclear, in conventional weapons which make the nuclear weapons in certain cases obsolete. So why would we need nuclear weapons if we have other means?”[1]

The incoming administration should take advantage of the opportunity. Cooperation on an issue of such obvious long-term mutual interest would be the first step in reversing the trajectory of Russian-Western relations after the August war with Georgia. Germany has been eager to improve that relationship, and would not resist discussions over tactical arms as its foundation.

A US administration advancing a nuclear weapons agenda that goes beyond traditional arms control and limitations measures will need to reassure Germany and similarly positioned states that such deliberations would not diminish US dedication to its security. Early consultations on how to transition from a nuclear extended deterrence to a conventional assurance must be a crucial part of any major new initiatives. It will also free allied governments to support a new administration’s plans for multilateral arsenal reductions politically and diplomatically. A failure to work with allies could yield a tepid public response and private resistance from governments in favor of nuclear disarmament.

Extended deterrence in the Atlantic security environment lends itself to denuclearization. There are challenges, to be sure, but if it can work anywhere, it is there. As an adaptation by North Americans, Europeans, and Russians to the realities of the post-Cold War environment, it is worth pursuing alone. Beyond that, it would serve as a model for more thorny environments in which regional security problems are dominated by nuclear weapons and insecurities.

[1] From simultaneous translation, Meeting of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Valdai Discussion Club, Sochi, September 11, 2008

Alex Bollfrass is a Research Assistant for the Nuclear Weapons and International Security Program of the Stimson Center.


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