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Tactical Nukes in Europe a "Tiny Fraction" of Cold War Arsenal, Report Says
The United States maintains between 150 and 200 B-61 gravity bombs at bases in Europe, a "tiny fraction" of its top deployment of 7,300 tactical nuclear weapons on the continent in 1971, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported in its newest edition (see GSN, Dec. 2, 2010).
"The current level represents a tiny fraction of the 1971 peak of 7,300 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Since then (with the exception of a period in the mid-1980s), the Europe-based arsenal has been shrinking. The most dramatic reductions occurred in 1986-87, when the United States withdrew nearly 2,000 weapons from European soil," wrote analysts Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen.
"The 150–200 bombs now deployed in Europe are stored at six bases in five countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey," the report states.
Aviano Air Base in Italy hosts roughly 50 weapons and Incirlik Air Base in Turkey houses 60-70 bombs, the report's authors asserted. Büchel Air Base in Germany, Ghedi Torre Air Base in Italy, Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium, and Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands each hold between 10 and 20 of the weapons, they said.
"Although the nuclear weapons are deployed at specific bases in specific countries, it is important not to think of the European deployment as fixed; a potential nuclear strike originating from a particular base would not necessarily be limited to aircraft stationed at that base," the article notes. "Aircraft from several bases and countries usually participate in nuclear loading and strike exercises, such as the annual Steadfast Noon. The May 2010 Steadfast Noon exercise at Aviano AB, for example, included more than 20 aircraft from seven countries."
The base in Belgium includes 11 underground storage vaults with a maximum capacity of four bombs each, the report says. Brussels has not determined how it would obtain delivery vehicles to succeed its fleet of F-16 fighter jets, which could be retired around 2020, the document notes.
"A series of intrusions at Kleine Brogel by unauthorized personnel in recent years has raised serious questions about security there and how the weapons are stored at the base," according to Norris and Kristensen (see GSN, Oct. 22, 2010).
Weapons stored at Büchel Air Base in Germany would be carried to targets by "German PA-200 Tornados of the 33rd Fighter Bomber Squadron; the weapons are under custody of the U.S. Air Force 702nd [Munitions Support Squadron]," the analysts wrote. "As at Kleine Brogel, 11 shelters at Büchel are equipped with underground vaults for the bombs, with a maximum capacity of 44 weapons."
Bombs at Italy's Aviano Air Base would be delivered by F-16 aircraft belonging to the U.S. Air Force's 31st Fighter Wing, according to the report. The Aviano base could hold up to 72 weapons in its 18 underground structures, it says.
"Another 10-20 B-61s are believed to be stored at Ghedi Torre AB, for delivery by Italian PA-200 Tornado aircraft of the 6th Fighter Wing; the weapons at Ghedi Torre AB are under custody of the U.S. Air Force 704th [Munitions Support Squadron]. A decade ago, the base stored 40 bombs, but it is likely that the inventory has been reduced to match the deployment at other national bases," the report states.
Bombs at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands are overseen by the U.S. Air Force's 703rd Munitions Support Squadron and would be dropped by Dutch F-16 jets, the document says.
The configuration of B-61 bombs at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is "unique in NATO," says the report.
"Most of the bombs (approximately 50) are for delivery by U.S. aircraft, but the U.S. Air Force does not have a fighter wing based at Incirlik. Requests to deploy a wing there have been turned down by Turkey, so the NATO nuclear posture at Incirlik is more of a half-posture. In a crisis, U.S. aircraft from other bases would have to first deploy to Incirlik to pick up the weapons before they could be used," the document says.
In the last 10 years, the United States has withdrawn its tactical nuclear weapons from two European air bases and the Air Force "has reduced its tactical fighter wing capacity in the United States," says the report.
The NATO Strategic Concept devised last year places less emphasis on the alliance's nonstrategic nuclear deterrent than the document's 1999 predecessor, the analysts wrote (see GSN, Nov. 24, 2010).
"Gone is the previous message that these weapons provide an essential military and political link between Europe and North America. Instead, the new Strategic Concept states that it is the strategic forces of the United States, in particular and to some extent Britain and France that provide the 'supreme guarantee of the security of the alliance,'" the article states.
"The new document commits to some form of U.S. nuclear presence in Europe by designating 'the broadest possible participation of allies in collective defense planning on nuclear roles, in peacetime basing of nuclear forces, and in command, control and consultation arrangements.'
"But the new language is much more vague than that found in the 1999 document, and could simply be met by the allies participation in Nuclear Planning Group meetings, deployment of some U.S. dual-capable aircraft in Europe (without weapons), and the allies' continued involvement in the SNOWCAT program," the document states. The Support of Nuclear Operations With Conventional Air Tactics program "enables NATO countries to participate in the nuclear strike mission even if they do not have nuclear weapons on their territory or aircraft tasked to deliver the U.S nuclear weapons," the report notes earlier.
"Unfortunately, the new Strategic Concept makes further reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe conditional on Russian reciprocity. 'In any further reductions, our aim should be to seek Russian agreement to increase transparency on its nuclear weapons in Europe and relocate these weapons away from the territory of NATO members. Any further steps must take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons,'" the NATO document states.
Russia is believed to hold roughly 2,000 deployed tactical nuclear weapons within its borders. The Obama administration has said it hopes before long to begin talks on drawing down the former Cold War rivals' tactical nuclear arsenals (see GSN, Jan. 14).
"While there are many good reasons for wanting reductions to the Russian tactical arsenal and increased transparency, NATO has in fact -- on several occasions since the end of the Cold War -- been willing to unilaterally reduce the number of U.S. weapons in Europe without making it conditional upon Russian reciprocity. NATO has done so while arguing that its weapons were not directed against Russia. Arguing now that a U.S. withdrawal from Europe is suddenly dependent on Russian reductions after all seems to turn back the clock to a time when the Soviet Union was the enemy and NATO looked to the east when sizing its
nuclear posture in Europe," the article states (Norris/Kristensen, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2011).
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