No German pledge on nuclear-capable aircraft modernization

By Oliver Meier

The Büchel military base in southern Germany where some U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are stored.

On September 5 the Berliner Zeitung reported that at the May 2012 NATO summit Germany had silently reneged on its goal to advocate withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany and committed to spend 250 million Euro to keep nuclear-capable Tornado flying until at least 2024.

The report caused a stir of media reports and reactions in the German press and allegations that Berlin had “reversed its previous pledge to remove U.S. bombs from German soil.”

In fact, Germany has not committed to aircraft modernization. Officials interviewed by Arms Control Now argued that there is no official estimate of the costs of keeping the Tornado in service beyond 2020 and that therefore no such contribution could be pledged.

A senior NATO official speaking on Sept. 10 with Arms Control Now dismissed the numbers contained in the Berliner Zeitung as “nonsense.” He said that that “only the text of the DDPR report was discussed at the summit”, referring to the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review report. Further details, such as the Tornado’s retirement date or life-extension costs, were not on the table in Chicago, he said.

A senior German official confirmed that at the Chicago summit Berlin made no promises on a specific date until which German dual-capable aircraft would be kept in service and that the government did not commit to spending a specific amount on keeping the Tornado flying. “On these particular issues the German government entered no new commitments beyond those contained in the DDPR report,” the official said.

While the government in Chicago has agreed to “ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective for as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance,” it thus has yet to take hard decisions to keep Germany in the nuclear business and will have to explain this policy to a German public that is largely anti-nuclear.

It is believed that the United States still deploys 180-200 tactical nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Büchel airbase in Germany probably hosts 10-20 of these weapons. Under nuclear sharing arrangements, some of the B61 free-fall bombs deployed in Europe would be delivered by host nation aircraft in times of war.

The German government repeatedly stated that it intends to keep nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft in service at least until 2020 but has so far refused to give a specific date when the planes will be phased out. The successor aircraft Eurofighter is not nuclear-capable and the government has stated that it “has not examined the suitability of the Eurofighter/Typhoon as a nuclear weapons delivery system.”

The German Foreign Office reacted to the news reports by stating that government and the Foreign Minister “continue to work towards a reduction and withdrawal of substrategic weapons in Germany.”

So what happened? Apparently, the report in the Berliner Zeitung was based on an article by Karl Heinz-Kamp in the September issue of the German journal Internationale Politik. Kamp, who teaches at the NATO Defense College in Rome, argues in the IP that it would cost Germany, well, 250 million Euro to keep the Tornado flying until 2024. But Kamp does not give a source for his estimate and does not repeat these numbers in the Berliner Zeitung, even though he is cited in the article. Kamp’s numbers were then apparently combined with claims that Germany has reversed course on its pledge to advocate withdrawal of U.S. nukes, based on the DDPR report adopted at the summit.

Thus, the Berliner Zeitung article does not contain any news. But the piece – and particularly the reactions to it – demonstrate three things. First, while Germany has committed itself to nuclear sharing at the Chicago summit, the difficult decisions on funding and modernization of nuclear delivery vehicles still lie ahead for the government. Without new investments, the Tornado will be unable to deliver the newer B61-12, which will replace current nuclear bombs and are expected to arrive in Europe around 2019, well before the Tornado would be retired.

Second, the government’s line that modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe “is a national decision of the USA and should be regarded in isolation from the question of nuclear sharing within NATO,” will be hard to maintain. Elke Hoff, defense spokeswoman of the Liberal Party (the party of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle) in response to a question about the wisdom of replacing existing bombs in Europe with the more modern and more accurate B61-12, stated flatly: “We have no influence on this.”

But Gernot Erler, senior member of the German Bundestag and foreign policy expert of the opposition Social Democrats, said that modernization is a “heavy burden for future arms control talks” and that the new weapons would blur the line between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. He promised that Social Democrats would put the issue on the agenda of Parliament this fall.

Finally, involvement in nuclear sharing is still an issue that can attract a lot of attention in Germany. Even though the Berliner Zeitung article contained no original news, the story was quickly picked up by all major news media in Germany. It is thus likely that the debate on the future of nuclear sharing will continue in the run-up to the September 2013 Parliamentary elections.

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