U.S. Tactical Nuclear Arms Mission Could Shift Among NATO Jets

A U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 494th Fighter Squadron, based out of Royal Air Force Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, flies above Norway, last September. Such dual-capable U.S. strike aircraft deployed at bases in Europe could be tapped for a nuclear role, as some NATO allies' jets retire.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
March 26, 2014, 9:05 a.m.

If NATO part­ners even­tu­ally cease to main­tain at­tack air­craft cap­able of de­liv­er­ing fielded U.S. nuc­le­ar bombs, then al­lied jets could “pick up the load.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh raised that pos­sib­il­ity dur­ing a con­gres­sion­al hear­ing earli­er this month when asked about con­tin­gency plan­ning for a po­ten­tial fu­ture in which some European na­tions that cur­rently host U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons opt to re­tire — and not re­place — today’s air­craft that are cap­able of car­ry­ing either nuc­le­ar or con­ven­tion­al mu­ni­tions.

Five NATO coun­tries — Bel­gi­um, Ger­many, Italy, the Neth­er­lands and Tur­key — are un­der­stood to host a net total of few­er than 200 B-61 grav­ity bombs, though the United States does not form­ally ac­know­ledge nuc­le­ar-basing de­tails.

“As NATO na­tions — if they choose not to up­grade their own nuc­le­ar air­craft cap­ab­il­it­ies, then oth­er NATO na­tions that have those cap­ab­il­it­ies from an op­er­a­tion­al per­spect­ive will pick up the load,” Welsh said dur­ing a March 14 ap­pear­ance be­fore the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “That’ll be a NATO policy de­cision. The U.S. will be part of that dis­cus­sion. We do have the ca­pa­city to pick up the load.”

In his re­marks, Welsh did not defin­it­ively make clear wheth­er the U.S. Air Force or oth­er al­li­ance mem­bers would take on the ad­di­tion­al air­craft mis­sion re­spons­ib­il­ity.

Still, the gen­er­al’s com­ments sug­gest the Pentagon is plan­ning for its tac­tic­al nuc­le­ar weapons role in Europe to con­tin­ue, ir­re­spect­ive of the fu­ture air-de­liv­ery cap­ab­il­ity of NATO host­ing states. Arms con­trol ad­voc­ates had pre­vi­ously ar­gued that the United States should with­draw its non­stra­tegic weapons from the con­tin­ent if NATO part­ners do not mod­ern­ize their dual-cap­able air­craft.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s 2013 un­clas­si­fied re­port to Con­gress on nuc­le­ar-em­ploy­ment guid­ance states that the U.S. mil­it­ary would “main­tain the cap­ab­il­ity to for­ward-de­ploy nuc­le­ar weapons with heavy bombers and dual-cap­able air­craft in sup­port of ex­ten­ded de­terrence and as­sur­ance of U.S. al­lies and part­ners.”

Nuc­le­ar weapons con­tin­ue to be a “core com­pon­ent” of NATO’s de­terrence against ag­gres­sion in Europe, the al­li­ance stated in its 2012 De­terrence and De­fense Pos­ture Re­view. At the same time, the al­lies also said they were pre­pared to con­sider re­duc­tions to the cur­rent num­ber of tac­tic­al atom­ic arms as­signed to the de­fense of NATO na­tions.

De­fense De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Cyn­thia Smith in an e-mail to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire said Welsh’s com­ments were in line with these U.S. and NATO policies.

The Pentagon and Air Force did not re­spond to sep­ar­ate re­quests for com­ment on wheth­er any oth­er coun­tries be­sides the United States were be­ing con­sidered for pos­sibly tak­ing on a new role in the NATO B-61 air de­liv­ery mis­sion.

However, ac­cord­ing to is­sue ex­pert Hans Kristensen, the United States is the only NATO coun­try with the cur­rent mil­it­ary ca­pa­city to handle the ex­tra bur­den.

The Air Force has nuc­le­ar-cap­able jets based in Italy, Ger­many and the United King­dom that could take on a lar­ger share of the nuc­le­ar bombs, said Kristensen, who closely mon­it­ors de­vel­op­ments in the NATO atom­ic mis­sion.

“The U.S. cer­tainly has the ca­pa­city in its Air Force to pick up the slack,” Kristensen, who dir­ects the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ic­an Sci­ent­ists’ Nuc­le­ar In­form­a­tion Pro­ject, said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view.

At the core of the is­sue is aging air­craft. All five host na­tions of the nuc­le­ar bombs field either dual-cap­able F-16 or Tor­nado strike air­craft slated for re­tire­ment in the 2020s.

Some of the coun­tries have said the at­tack-plane re­place­ments they plan on pur­chas­ing would be dual cap­able, while oth­ers have hin­ted they would al­low the nuc­le­ar-de­liv­ery role to ex­pire along with the air­craft re­tire­ments.

Most of the cur­rent host­ing na­tions are signed up or in talks to ac­quire the F-35 Joint Strike Fight­er, which is in­ten­ded to in­clude a fu­ture ver­sion cap­able of car­ry­ing the B-61 nuc­le­ar bomb.

“There is one over­all trend, which is none of them can af­ford as much as they wanted,” Kristensen said of the NATO part­ner states’ abil­ity to buy the new air­craft.

The Dutch gov­ern­ment in Janu­ary con­firmed that some of the Joint Strike Fight­ers it plans to pur­chase could have a nuc­le­ar role, ig­nor­ing a 2012 res­ol­u­tion by its par­lia­ment ur­ging that the jets not have a dual cap­ab­il­ity.

“The Bel­gians will prob­ably fol­low the Dutch in whatever they do,” in terms of de­cid­ing wheth­er to buy new mul­tir­ole air­craft, Kristensen said. He noted that the Bel­gian par­lia­ment had passed a res­ol­u­tion call­ing for the with­draw­al of U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons from the coun­try.

Bel­gi­um re­portedly is in talks to also pur­chase the Lock­heed Mar­tin-pro­duced F-35 to re­place its aging fleet of F-16 jets.

Tur­key is plan­ning on re­pla­cing its F-16 fight­ers with F-35s. Some of those new jets are ex­pec­ted to be dual-cap­able, so that Ank­ara can main­tain its role in NATO’s nuc­le­ar-de­terrence mis­sion, ac­cord­ing to Aaron Stein, an as­so­ci­ate fel­low at the Roy­al United Ser­vices In­sti­tute in Lon­don.

Italy also is plan­ning to ac­quire the Joint Strike Fight­er, though on­go­ing budget cuts could mean that Rome re­duces its cur­rent or­der of 90 planes.

The Itali­ans have been cut­ting back their JSF plans for sev­er­al years — not just in terms of unit quant­ity, but also in the amount of train­ing hours their pi­lots will get on the planes, ac­cord­ing to Kristensen.

Of all the NATO nuc­le­ar-weapons hosts, Ger­many has giv­en the strongest in­dic­a­tions it will al­low its par­ti­cip­a­tion in the role to even­tu­ally lapse. Ber­lin is re­pla­cing its dual-cap­able Tor­nado air­craft with the Eurofight­er Typhoon, which is not de­signed to carry the B-61 bomb.

The Ger­man gov­ern­ment already has ex­ten­ded the ser­vice life of its Tor­na­dos un­til the 2025-to-2030 time frame, Kristensen said.

“Bey­ond that, it be­gins to get shaky, be­cause air­craft only fly for so long,” he said.

“It is up to each ally to de­cide what mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­it­ies they ac­quire or re­tain. This in­cludes air­craft which can carry nuc­le­ar weapons,” a NATO of­fi­cial based at al­li­ance headquar­ters in Brus­sels said in a writ­ten state­ment. “We would ex­pect al­lies who con­trib­ute to NATO’s nuc­le­ar shar­ing ar­range­ments to in­form al­lies should their con­tri­bu­tion change.”

The of­fi­cial provided the com­ments to GSN on con­di­tion of not be­ing named.

Some NATO mem­ber states in Cent­ral and East­ern Europe fa­vor con­tin­ued de­ploy­ment of the grav­ity bombs as a sig­nal to Rus­sia, but it re­mains un­clear how that might af­fect which na­tions play a role in the mis­sion. The NATO pro-nuc­le­ar con­tin­gent is seen to have got­ten a boost fol­low­ing Rus­sia’s re­cent an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, which has promp­ted new con­cerns about po­ten­tial fur­ther in­cur­sions in­to former So­viet or Warsaw Pact states.

However, Steven Pifer, head of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Arms Con­trol and Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Ini­ti­at­ive, said there is little chance of these na­tions tak­ing on the tac­tic­al-bomb de­liv­ery role.

“I think from NATO’s per­spect­ive, mov­ing nuc­le­ar weapons in­to a Cent­ral European coun­try would be seen as pro­voc­at­ive [to­ward Rus­sia], but also mil­it­ar­ily more vul­ner­able,” the one­time U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Ukraine said to GSN.

If any NATO coun­tries from East­ern Europe were in­ter­ested in host­ing U.S. nuc­le­ar bombs, there would be “enorm­ous polit­ic­al obstacles” stand­ing in the way, Kristensen agreed.

NATO lead­ers know it would be destabil­iz­ing to shift de­ployed U.S. tac­tic­al war­heads east­ward, per­haps even more so in the con­text of the cur­rent sky-high ten­sions with Rus­sia over its in­cur­sion in Ukraine, Pifer sug­ges­ted.

“I’ve ac­tu­ally heard a cent­ral European rep­res­ent­at­ive say half-jok­ingly, if the Ger­man’s don’t want them, we’ll take them,” he said.

Moreover, “none of the coun­tries in the west­ern part of NATO would touch this with a 10-foot pole,” said Kristensen.

The mat­ter of con­tinu­ing to de­ploy U.S. tac­tic­al weapons in Europe at all re­mains con­sid­er­ably con­tro­ver­sial.

A grow­ing view in Bel­gi­um, Ger­many and the Neth­er­lands is that the nuc­le­ar bombs serve little mil­it­ary value and should be with­drawn. Some ar­gue the nuc­le­ar ar­sen­als based in France, the United King­dom and the United States are suf­fi­cient for provid­ing de­terrence for the en­tire al­li­ance.

This all makes Wash­ing­ton the most likely NATO mem­ber to take up the ad­di­tion­al nuc­le­ar-de­liv­ery re­spons­ib­il­ity, ana­lysts agreed.

The U.S. mil­it­ary already has fight­er wings in Europe with the cap­ab­il­ity of de­liv­er­ing the B-61 bomb. Nuc­le­ar-cap­able U.S. jets that could be giv­en the mis­sion in­clude F-16 air­craft based at Avi­ano Air Base in Italy, F-15E jets at Roy­al Air Force Laken­heath based in the United King­dom, and F-16s fielded at Spang­dah­lem Air Base in Ger­many, ac­cord­ing to re­cent data com­piled by Kristensen and fel­low FAS nuc­le­ar ana­lyst Robert Nor­ris.

The U.S. mul­tir­ole planes de­ployed in Europe do not presently have B-61 bombs as­signed to them, but that could change, ac­cord­ing to the nuc­le­ar forces ex­perts.

“It wouldn’t be that the U.S. would have to add a wing,” Kristensen said. “It could just con­tin­ue with the wings it already has.”

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