Europe Demands ‘a Greater Role for Nuclear Weapons’
Europe wants to improve its use of nuclear power in response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has paired its increased aggression and buildup of conventional forces with an expanded nuclear program, and Europe—especially Eastern Europe—is getting scared.
“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and Moscow’s associated nuclear threats, have triggered a new discussion in nato about enhancing its nuclear deterrent,” wrote the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (swp), a think tank responsible for advising the German Parliament, this month.
“Some Central European states are demanding a greater role for nuclear weapons in order to more credibly deter further Russian aggression in Europe,” it wrote. nato’s current policy says that it will only use nuclear weapons under “extremely remote” circumstances. These Central European states want that updated to a stronger threat.
Russia has given them good reason to fear. The Federal College for Security Studies (baks), a German government think tank that advises on defense and security, wrote last year that Russia has been playing “military mind games” with its nuclear weapons—for example, simulating a nuclear attack on Poland.
Since 2008, “the nuclear arsenal of Russia has been steadily strengthened and improved,” it wrote. “New ballistic missile systems have been introduced and stocked with more warheads. Modern submarines replaced the models originating from the times of the Cold War. Far-reaching cruise missiles were tested, resulting in a serious violation of the disbarment treaty on intermediate-range missiles.”
“There is a fear that Moscow reduced its nuclear inhibitions threshold and that it will increasingly include nuclear threats in its policy toward its neighbors and nato,” it wrote.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continually emphasizes in his speeches that Russia is a nuclear power. Russian nuclear bombers constantly probe nato’s air defenses.
In response to all this, “[a] debate about revising the Alliance’s nuclear doctrine is likely to be unavoidable during and after the mid-2016 Warsaw nato summit,” wrote the swp. baks agreed, writing, “The question of nuclear deterrence, in the last two decades more of a side issue, is forcing itself into the foreground.”
Just six years ago, Germany’s vice chancellor wanted nato’s nuclear weapons out of Germany. Now they’re there to stay, and some Polish leaders are calling for nato nukes on their territory.
Instead of reducing nuclear arms, these German think tanks are talking about becoming better at using them. “Nuclear-capable nato fighter jets, which can be fitted with U.S. nuclear bombs, have a response time of about 30 days,” wrote baks in a separate article. “This imbalance has led to calls to reduce response times … and to step up military exercises in the use of nuclear weapons.”
“A tighter integration of nuclear weapons into defense planning is also conceivable by more closely linking conventional and nuclear defense and deterrence capabilities,” write the swp. The think tank noted that “the growing role of nuclear weapons” could mean “including nuclear-capable systems in exercises and holding more frequent and more realistic maneuvers.” In doing so, “nato would be following the example set by Russia, which since the annexation of Crimea has demonstrated the integration of its conventional and nuclear forces in a series of exercises.”
Behind this somewhat opaque terminology is a dangerous trend. A nation expects to use conventional forces (tanks, planes, ships, soldiers, etc.) at some point. But nuclear deterrence is the part of the military a nation hopes to never use. By mixing the two together, it is much more likely that a nation will use nuclear weapons.
Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium all have American B-61 nuclear bombs ready to fly on their own planes. These bombs are variable yield bombs. One variant currently stationed in Europe can be set to give off an explosion 50 times smaller or 10 times larger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Many fear that because a smaller bomb will lead to a much smaller number of casualties, It is much more likely to be used. “What going small does is to make the weapon more thinkable,” said former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James E. Cartwright.
America is in the process of upgrading these bombs, as part of a $1 trillion upgrade program, into the B-61 Model 12. One important new feature will be the conversion of these weapons into smart bombs. These upgrades are highly controversial. A highly accurate “small” nuclear bomb is a completely different weapon than a massive nuke designed to wipe out entire cities—and it is much more useful.
Whether Europe gets these bombs remains to be seen. America doesn’t plan to deploy the new bomb until the 2020s, and the smart-bomb capabilities require it to be launched from an F-35. Germany does not plan on purchasing any F-35s, though Italy and the Netherlands do. But the fact that America is pouring so much money into upgrading the bombs shows that no one is planning on removing them from Europe any time soon.
The Trumpet has long pointed to the role Russia’s aggression is playing in forcing Europe to unite—especially militarily. “The more bellicose and dangerous Russia grows, the more we must watch Europe,” wrote Trumpet columnist Brad Macdonald in 2007. “Europe’s reaction to Russian ambition is more important than the growing power of Russia itself.”
Europe quickly reversed its defense cuts after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Europe and nato are in the middle of restricting Russia’s forces, aiming to counteract this threat. As baks noted, “To the surprise of many allies, Germany of all countries, made a special effort to build up new defense capabilities in Eastern Europe.” This renewed focus on nuclear power is the most dangerous manifestation of this trend yet.
This trend could also see America give Europe more control over American bombs In European territory.
“Nuclear weapons are a horrific menace. … the crucial question is, does the United States really have control over those bombs?” wrote editor in chief Gerald Flurry in 2014.
“They remain under U.S. control unless permission is given to hand them over to the host nation in times of war,” he wrote. “However, following a series of blunders over the years, the security of these nukes has been called into question.” In 2008, the United States Air Force concluded that most of the U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites do not meet proper security standards. In 2010, a peace activist was able to walk on to one of the bases and videotape for more than an hour.
Reducing the response times of these bombs and better integrating them with military forces would almost certainly mean giving the host nations more control over them—reducing the number of steps to get these bombs out of U.S. control and onto European planes.
America probably won’t have a problem with that. It completely trusts Europe. But as Europe wants to become better prepared to use nuclear weapons, it is vital to consider whether this is wise.
Even 20th-century history should cause us to take note when Europe starts talking about “a greater role for nuclear weapons.” Russia is unquestionably a dangerous threat. But Europe’s history—both recent and distant—should sound a stark warning on the dangers of enhancing its nuclear power.
For more on the dangers of America’s nuclear weapons in Europe, read Mr. Flurry’s article “Europe’s Nuclear Secret.”