U.S. Tactical Nukes in Europe Not Worth the Cost, Watchdog Says

A U.S. B-61 nuclear gravity bomb, shown in an undated photo. U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons stationed in Europe provide an insufficient security benefit to justify the cost of their upkeep, an independent watchdog told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a written statement on Wednesday (AP Photo/U.S. Defense Department).
A U.S. B-61 nuclear gravity bomb, shown in an undated photo. U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons stationed in Europe provide an insufficient security benefit to justify the cost of their upkeep, an independent watchdog told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a written statement on Wednesday (AP Photo/U.S. Defense Department).

The increasing cost of maintaining an aging force of U.S. tactical nuclear bombs in Europe is not matched by the defense value the weapons provide, particularly in light of the United States' massive budget problems, a government watchdog said in a Wednesday letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (see GSN, Sept. 21, 2011).

The United States is broadly believed to maintain approximately 200 B-61 gravity bombs at six bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey as a holdover from the Cold War.

The continued presence of the weapons in Europe has repeatedly been called into question by nonproliferation advocates, military analysts who question their utility as tensions cooled in the post-Soviet era, and now fiscal hawks (see GSN, July 20, 2011).

"Continuing to spend billions of dollars on weapons whose military efficacy is questionable at best and whose security is not assured is not justifiable," the Project on Government Oversight told the Pentagon chief.

The organization reported that the total price tag for increasing the service life of the B-61 bombs has shot up to roughly $5.2 billion from an earlier estimate of $4 billion (see GSN, June 16, 2011). The expense of maintaining the short-range weapons fielded in Europe has increased from roughly $1.6 billion to about $2.1 billion, the letter states.

The B-61 life extension program is "unlike prior life extension programs" as it is intended "to accomplish a variety of goals -- such as considering previously untried design options and concepts -- in addition to replacing the bomb's aging components," the Government Accountability Office said in a report.

Due to the expense and the number of complications associated with the B-61 overhaul, congressional lawmakers put a hold on $134 million in fiscal 2012 funds intended for the life-extension program until the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration completes a comprehensive expense and blueprints analysis.

Capitol Hill also requested that the JASON panel of independent scientific experts study whether the planned overhaul of the B-61s would change the bombs' nuclear capabilities. The advisers' analysis was to focus on "the extent to which the nuclear scope is needed to enhance the safety, security, and maintainability of a refurbished B-61 and whether changes to the weapon will affect its long-term safety, security, reliability, and military characteristics."

There are a number of issues with the deployment of B-61s in Turkey that undermine their utility, the Project on Government Oversight stated.

Roughly 50 of the nuclear warheads fielded at a military installation in Incirlik are intended for delivery by U.S. bombers, but the U.S. Air Force does not have a fighter unit at Incirlik. Ankara has rejected repeated requests to field such a unit, which means 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," wrote experts Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen in an early 2011 report for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

An additional 10-20 gravity bombs deployed at Incirlik are intended for fielding by Turkish F-16s, but the fighter jets have yet to to be approved for nuclear-weapon bombing missions, Norris and Kristensen said.

Germany,  where some 22 U.S. B-61s are understood to be kept at the Buechel air base, plans to replace nuclear-ready Tornado fighter planes with the Eurofighter Typhoon that would not have the same capacity, according to previous reporting (see GSN, Oct. 7. 2010).

"According to sources the effective combat radius of current and proposed dual-capable aircraft makes any successful, independent bombing mission more difficult," the POGO letter reads. "Currently, ranges to potential adversary targets outside NATO-friendly territories are such that multiple, in-flight refueling would be required. The concern is that these aircraft would run out of gas before reaching their targets (to say nothing of returning to base)."

The organization also called into question the ability of NATO host countries to protect the nuclear weapons. "A 2008 report by a U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Review states that security at the host-nation locations is varied and often does not meet U.S. nuclear weapons protection standards. Physical facilities such as structures, fences, lights, and alarm systems are not well maintained. In addition, host-nation military personnel charged with the security mission are sometimes conscripts" that have not received appropriate training in nuclear security or been adequately vetted.

"The NATO alliance was built on the concept of burden-sharing among nations," the letter states. "Since its inception, the U.S. has borne the lion's share of the military costs. ... European members must agree to bear an increased share of the costs for these weapons. The U.S. should not be responsible for continuing to pay the majority of the cost to maintain a nuclear weapons capability in European countries, particularly given our nation's financial constraints" (Danielle Brian, Project on Government Oversight, Feb. 1).

The nuclear disarmament organization Global Zero on Friday urged Russia and the United States to place into storage all tactical nuclear weapons now deployed in Europe. The matter should be addressed within broader talks early next year on drawing down the nations' nuclear arsenals "to as low as 1,000 total weapons each," according to a report from the Global Zero NATO-Russia Commission.

Such talks would come about two years after the Feb. 5, 2011, entry into force of the New START accord, which requires Russia and the United States by 2018 to reduce their arsenals of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems.

Norris and Kristensen in 2009 estimated that Russia still had roughly 2,050 fielded tactical nuclear weapons.

"Removing tactical nuclear weapons from European combat bases is something that the United States and Russia could start working on right away. It would get arms negotiations back on track and open the door to a next round of U.S.-Russian reductions, including both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons," former U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt, a lead negotiator for the first START pact, said in a release (Global Zero release, Feb. 3).

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller in a January interview with the International Herald Tribune noted that the White House wants to see post-New START arms control negotiations with Russia to look at cuts to three categories of weapons: fielded long-range arms, nonfielded long-range arms and tactical weapons.

"The president made it very clear that we want to tackle all three categories in the next arms reduction negotiations with Russia," Gottemoeller said.

Gottemoeller acknowledged that a reduction in the number of U.S. gravity bombs fielded in Europe could be on the table while emphasizing "I am not saying that we are making an official proposal at this point. But you have to have an idea what the trade-offs might be."

The assistant secretary said the Obama administration has prioritized transparency actions that could precede any new arms control negotiations with Moscow. 

"In the meantime, there is some important homework that we have to do within the NATO alliance -- the NATO Deterrence and Defense Posture Review is taking place right now. We know that NATO is committed to an extended deterrent and will remain a nuclear alliance for as long as nuclear weapons exist," she said (see GSN, Jan. 3).

The upcoming NATO summit in Chicago this May would be a chance for member nations to reach agreement on what alliance posture should be for tactical nuclear arms, Gottemoeller said (U.S. Department of State release, Jan. 19).

February 3, 2012
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The increasing cost of maintaining an aging force of U.S. tactical nuclear bombs in Europe is not matched by the defense value the weapons provide, particularly in light of the United States' massive budget problems, a government watchdog said in a Wednesday letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.