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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The need for nuclear sharing, or how Germany learnt to live with the bomb

It is no secret that Germany actually has nuclear weapons, although it does not own them. There are in fact around 20 US nuclear warheads permanently stationed at the German air force base in Büchel (in the middle of the Eifel region), and they are part of the NATO nuclear sharing strategy. Originally purposed for its use in case of an armed confrontation between the East and the West, the German government has agreed with the US government to keep the US nuclear stock pile in Germany as a nuclear sharing obligation.

While the broad majority of German public opinion calls for a withdrawal of the bombs out of Germany, the centre-right government has recently decided to keep the warheads in German bases. With this move, the government dropped its original plan to abandon the NATO’s nuclear sharing strategy. It was above all the idea of the liberal party FDP to abandon the sharing policy and to convince the US to pull back its WMDs. In addition, the German government has announced to invest up to 250 million Euros for a modernization of the carrying systems, namely of its own Tornado fighter jets. Originally subject for decommission and to be replaced by the modern Eurofighter Typhoon jet, the Tornados will now be kept operational until 2024.

The nuclear sharing policy has been an essential strategy used by NATO to ensure an effective deterrence and retaliation strategy in the Cold War. The original plan for nuclear warheads stationed in Germany or other NATO members was to deploy them in case of an attack by Warsaw Pact forces. Once the order was given, US and German fighter jets would have carried the warheads to the battle zones and dropped them on advancing enemy units. In such a scenario, these nuclear bombs would have been dropped on Warsaw Pact troops that had already moved deep into West German territory. Basically, most of West Germany would have become a nuclear waste land.

The nuclear bombs stationed at Büchel Air Force Base are 170kt Type B61 bombs. A modernized type – the B61-12 – is currently in development process with an estimated cost range of about 4 billion US-$ and shall be installed in Europe by 2019. Each one of the current B-61 bomb equals the Hiroshima bomb by factor thirteen. Certainly, Germany is not the only NATO member in the nuclear sharing plan. Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey also have stored a number of US nuclear weapons, between 180 and 200 in total. For NATO, a nuclear share and collective deterrence was a vital defence strategy during the Cold War, also for strategic purposes in case that the WMDs in one member would have been destroyed in the event of an enemy attack. Nowadays, although the public sees no use for nuclear sharing or for nuclear weapons per se, collective security requires a strong and sustainable first and second strike capability. The German air force maintains a training schedule with nuclear bombs, combined with American support and assistance, so the collective deterrence is still alive and working very well.

After the Cold War, many NATO members agreed on keeping a limited amount of nuclear warheads in Europe in order to maintain the collective striking capability. It was essential for NATO to ensure the security framework through a sharing strategy intact rather than concentrating nuclear striking capabilities on a single member, namely the US. Although there is no longer a single adversary as it was the case during the Cold War (namely the Soviet Union), collective security remains just as important as it was before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Through the sharing strategy, the member states are intensively committed into the collective security system, and the burden share strengthens each member’s responsibility to security – inside and outside the alliance.

In contemporary times, post-Cold-War society has gotten used to the fact that a total nuclear disarmament was a fairy tale that rose from the euphoria after the sudden and unexpected collapse of the East-West antagonism. From a military perspective, nations and collective security alliances are very well advised to sustain a minimum striking capacity and to use the strategy of redundancy. That means that several alliance members are obliged to provide a minimum striking capability with a minimum strength in ground, air, and naval forces in the first stages of an armed confrontation. Nuclear weapons are part of this strategic and tactical redundancy. If one member is unable to fulfil its military obligations within the alliance – for whatever reasons – others have to provide them.

In the Cold War, Germany has been a front-line state and a potential battle field in case of World War III. Most likely, it would have also become the first country for nuclear weapons to be used in combat. As already mentioned, Germany would have been the first one to be hit by nuclear destruction on a full scale. With the very recent policy change in collective nuclear sharing strategy, Germany has finally admitted that it has to be part of the nuclear deterrence strategy, no matter if critics might blame this policy as old-fashioned or useless. As long as it is required by the alliance, it will have to be kept alive.

Furthermore, despite the apparent lack of “obvious” threats, Germany cannot and must neither opt out of the collective security system, nor the nuclear sharing strategy. In terms of collective security, every single alliance member will have to be part of the security system and has to do its job within its own military capacity range. However, in a permanent economic crisis, the public states that the defence budget has to be the first one to be cut for overall budget reconciliation. This is in fact a dangerous and not feasible demand. A serious budget cut in defence will jeopardize the alliance member’s ability to sustainably contribute to the overall collective security framework. In the end, it also downsizes its responsibilities to the alliance, and its own national defence and security capabilities.

Germany was a main carrier for nuclear weapons, and it will go on being one. The threat of a full scale nuclear exchange might be negligible now, but the world is still a highly dangerous place, and there is a need for a strong and effective deterrence. Nuclear weapons are part of the armed forces, and Germany has finally learnt to live with the bomb. Even in case of a need for their use, it is up to the President of the United States to give the order to deploy these weapons. Germany has trained to take care of them, and they will do it in compliance with the alliance.

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