* Text Fwd: Rick Rozoff on Dec. 2, 2009
U.S.-NATO Pact: 200 Thermonuclear Bombs In Europe
Wednesday, Dec. 02, 2009
What to Do About Europe's Secret Nukes
By Eben Harrell
Is Italy capable of delivering a thermonuclear strike? Could the Belgians and the Dutch drop hydrogen bombs on enemy targets? And what about Germany — a country where fear of atomkraft is so great that the last government opposed all civilian nuclear power? Germany's air force couldn't possibly be training to deliver bombs 13 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima, could it?
It is Europe's dirty secret that the list of nuclear-capable countries extends beyond those — Britain and France — who have built their own weapons. Nuclear bombs are stored on air-force bases in Italy, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands — and planes from each of those countries are capable of delivering them. The Federation of American Scientists believes that there are some 200 B61 thermonuclear gravity bombs scattered across these four countries. Under a NATO agreement struck during the Cold War, the bombs, which are technically owned by the United States, can be transferred to the control of a host nation's air force in times of conflict. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dutch, Belgian, Italian and German pilots remain ready to engage in nuclear war. (See pictures of the worst nuclear disasters of all time.)
These weapons are more than an anachronism or historical oddity. They are a violation of the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the 1968 agreement governing nuclear weapons that acts as one of the linchpins of global security by providing a legal restraint on the nuclear ambitions of rogue states. Because "nuclear burden-sharing," as the dispersion of B61s in Europe is called, was set up before the NPT came into force, it is technically legal. But as signatories to the NPT, the four European countries and the U.S. have pledged "not to receive the transfer ... of nuclear weapons or control over such weapons directly, or indirectly." That, of course, is precisely what the long-standing NATO arrangement entails.
While burden-sharing was generally tolerated during the Cold War, it has become an irritant at recent NPT review conferences, where the nonaligned countries have used it as an example of the U.S.'s failure to take serious steps toward nuclear disarmament — part of its obligation under the treaty. The issue re-entered the public discourse in Europe last year, when a U.S. Air Force report found that the European air-force bases storing the weapons were failing to meet basic security requirements to safeguard the weapons. These revelations cemented the unpopularity of the agreement. Belgium's Parliament had already unanimously requested that NATO withdraw the weapons, while a 2006 poll found that almost 70% of people in the four countries want the U.S. nukes withdrawn. In October, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle declared that "Germany has to set a good example when it comes to disarmament by getting the atomic weapons stationed in this country removed." Westerwelle added that President Barack Obama's speech in Prague in April, in which the President called for countries to renew the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, had "opened the door" to a nuclear-weapons-free Europe. (See pictures of Obama's eight months of diplomacy.)
But the U.S. and NATO military leaderships remain protective of the weapons. As recently as December 2008, the Secretary of Defense Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, said the weapons were an important guarantee of NATO security and also supported nonproliferation efforts by preventing allied states from developing their own weapons programs. The report concluded that the presence of B61s in Europe "remains an essential political and military link between European and North American members of the alliance."
These justifications infuriated arms-control experts, who pointed out that NATO countries continue to be protected by the hundreds of land- and submarine-based long-range nuclear-tipped missiles. "The nuclear umbrella can be continued by long-range forces just like it was in the Pacific after [nuclear] weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991," says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who closely monitors nuclear weapons in Europe. As for the concern that allied countries might be driven to develop their own nuclear-weapons programs, Kristensen was scathing in a recent blog post: "How many [European] countries would seriously consider acquiring their own weapons if things changed? Denmark? Iceland? Lithuania? Luxembourg? Portugal? Seriously!" (Read "Reducing Nuclear Weapons: How Much Is Possible?")
President Obama's ongoing "nuclear posture review" and NATO's own review of its strategic concept may call for an end to the burden-sharing arrangement. But if Obama fails to address the issue — and if NATO doesn't come to an agreement — countries may choose to take their own steps to get rid of the weapons. In 2001, when the Greek air force ordered a new fighter jet, it chose a model that could not carry the B61, forcing the U.S. to withdraw its weapons there. Germany may soon retire its own Tornado fighter jet, opting instead for the Eurofighter, which can't carry B61s. "NATO countries are currently answering the question backward. We are allowing aircraft selection to determine our posture," says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Given that Europe's nuclear arsenal is so unpopular, potentially unsafe and a hindrance to global nonproliferation efforts, it's time for it to go.
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