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U.S. Carefully Considers Future of Nukes in Europe

(Mar. 15) -A fighter jet takes off from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey, a site believed to store U.S. nuclear weapons (U.S. Air Force photo). (Mar. 15) -A fighter jet takes off from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey, a site believed to store U.S. nuclear weapons (U.S. Air Force photo).

The Obama administration is proceeding with caution as it considers pulling all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, March 12).

While certain officials from Germany and other European nations are calling for removal of an estimated 200 Cold War-era nuclear arms from the continent, an imminent decision is not expected from Washington. It instead intends to weigh the matter within NATO, beginning with an April summit of foreign ministers including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. officials said.

NATO states Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway have succeeded in placing the issue on the agenda of the NATO meeting in Estonia next month.

In the pending U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, President Barack Obama appears likely to call for nuclear arms to play a more limited part in the country's program for national security. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said last month, though, that the review "will not make any decisions that preclude any option with respect to nuclear weapons and NATO."

The Obama White House is disposed toward withdrawing the tactical warheads from Europe, but is not likely to rush the move, said Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

"The Obama administration came in with a strong pledge to mend ties with the allies, and so the last thing it wants to be seen to do is to make a decision over the heads of the allies," Kristensen said."The U.S. would move these weapons tomorrow if this were just its own decision."

While older NATO states might favor withdrawal of the nuclear weapons, some newer additions to the alliance from Eastern Europe view the gravity bombs as a key representation of the NATO promise to safeguard their borders, AP reported.

Discussions on the issue could continue into 2011.

Lawmakers from multiple NATO nations in Europe have issued a letter to be delivered to Obama that urges the consideration of the matter following the conclusion of U.S.-Russian negotiations on the replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (see related GSN story, today).

"It is the sincere wish of the majority of people in Europe that tactical nuclear weapons are withdrawn from Europe and eliminated," the letter states.

The long-standing position of Washington is that its air-to-surface weapons in Europe connect the security of NATO and the United States. Still, the tactical arms are not intended for use against any particular nation and the infrastructure required to employ the weapons no longer stands at combat readiness.

A December 2008 report by an advisory panel to the U.S. Defense Department found that the time required to bring the aircraft that would fire the nuclear weapons into battle mode was "now measured in months rather than minutes."

The report detailed different views within the alliance, with some high-level U.S. officials at NATO headquarters in Belgium described as not being supportive of keeping the tactical weapons in Europe. An anonymous U.S. general was quoted to say that the nuclear bombs were no longer required as Washington could extend its nuclear umbrella to cover European allies from outside the continent.

The advisory panel, however, ultimately recommended that the weapons remain in Europe (see GSN, Jan. 9, 2009; Robert Burns, Associated Press/New York Times, March 15).

At a conference in Warsaw, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the weapons would provide "a major element of credible deterrence in the future," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 12).

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