Nuclear sharing in Europe: leveraging a ban to quit nuclear dependency

November 12, 2013

By Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm, ICAN campaigner in Germany

In addition to the nine nuclear-armed states, there are five NATO states with nuclear weapons on their soil. 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey still host forward-deployed US B-61 thermonuclear gravity bombs.

They offer zero military value – in fact, the fighter jets that are responsible for carrying and dropping these bombs, should such an order be given, are barely able to leave EU territory without refueling. Most NATO-states are opposed to nuclear sharing, a dangerous relic of the cold war. Despite multiple bipartisan parliamentary resolutions and coalition agreements which have called for their removal, successive German governments have failed to do so. The next coalition government agreement, which is currently in negotiations, should be unequivocally calling for their withdrawal.

Instead, the weapons are expected to undergo the most ambitious modernization program yet. New details have come to light over the course of the revision and approval of the budget. Their cost has spiraled out of control, from an initial $3.9 billion estimated in 2010, to an estimated $10.4 billion. With 400 B-61s due for modernization, that is approximately $25 million a pop, dwarfing even the cost of solid-gold replicas. The German government’s disarmament envoy is already asking: “Is the money spent on life-extension of nuclear warheads well-spent?”

The new B-61s are expected between 2019 and 2022. The window of opportunity to rid Europe of these American weapons is therefore limited, but similar to other consensus-based bodies dealing with nuclear weapons, NATO faces deadlock.

However, more is at stake here. The US National Nuclear Security Administration is really testing the parameters on what constitutes a “life extension program”. The Obama administration had pledged that any modernization would not entail new designs, nor “support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” Yet the new B-61 Mod 12 will no longer be a free-falling bomb, but rather a laser-guided, precision cruise missile with a guided tail-kit to be manufactured by Boeing. The new bomb will merge the capabilities of a whole range of different previous B-61-designs, making it an “all-in-one nuclear bomb on steroids,” in the words of Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.

This is indeed a weapon with new capabilities. The fact that its development continues should not be surprising though: it is nothing if not consistent with the kind of “good faith” the NPT nuclear weapons states have been showing lately, epitomized by their repeated refusals to even acknowledge the humanitarian consequences of their weapons.

If NATO states cannot get their act together, increased international pressure is needed. The Humanitarian Initiative has grown from 16 states in 2012 to 125 states now. This is quite possibly the tipping point, replacing yesterday’s theoretical deterrence considerations with a new focus on the actual humanitarian consequences of these weapons. These consequences are such that, according to 125 states, it “is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.” Stating as much should not constitute a stretch for Europeans, as four NATO and six EU states already did. Answering a parliamentary interpellation supported by ICAN campaigners in Germany, the German government claimed on October 11 the quoted passage to be inconsistent with NATO posture, according to which nuclear weapons should indeed be used under certain circumstances.

Yet Germans are united in their rejection of nuclear weapons, with as many as 96 percent favoring a treaty banning nuclear weapons in a 2007 representative poll. Once negotiations for a ban treaty are underway, it will be hard for any German government to snub the initiative. As a host of US nuclear weapons, it would be difficult to ratify any ban treaty, but the controversy would generate considerable domestic pressure in favor of a ban. This would not go unnoticed with NATO partners, who would ultimately have to concede withdrawal. Given the pace of modernization, such pressures can be brought to bear even before the new B-61s are deployed.

Non-nuclear weapon states have few other options than to change the rules, and change the game. An unequivocal legal rejection of nuclear weapons will pave the way for the stigmatization of all weapons of mass destruction. It will increase the pressure on nuclear weapon states, and in so doing facilitate the concrete implementation of disarmament and non-proliferation measures. These include the step-by-step agenda as well as the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from NATO states in Europe.

Any residual risk of a nuclear weapon detonation is unacceptable, which is why they must be eliminated. It is in Germany’s and in Europe’s interest to ban nuclear weapons, now.



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