Dutch Foreign Minister Timmermans: NATO allies have no say in B61 modernization

In a little-noted but revealing letter to Parliament on 25 October 2013, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans (Social-Democrat) answered questions by MP Raymond Knops (Christian-Democrat) by saying that NATO allies have no say in the U.S. modernization program of the B61 nuclear bombs and don’t have to agree. These bombs, now deployed at Dutch Air Force base Volkel and in four other NATO countries in Europe, are aging and undergo so called ‘Life Extension Programmes’ (LEP). Most experts agree that the replacement for the B61, called B61-12, will have new military capabilities, certainly in combination with the new U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Guest blog by Laurens Hogebrink*

Knops asked his questions because of reports saying that already in April 2010 the Dutch government has secretly agreed with modernization of the tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in Europe. He asked if this is true and if this implied that also the TNW in the Netherlands are to be modernized.

Timmermans’ reply has a special political relevance as the Dutch Parliament will soon vote about a motion prohibiting a nuclear task for the successor of the current F-16 fighter, which indeed will be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Referring to the U.S. Life Extension Programmes (LEP) Timmermans writes (translation mine):

The LEPs are intended to permanently guarantee the safety, security and effectiveness of these weapons, among others, which in the view of the Dutch government is necessary. The Life Extension Programme applies to American weapons. NATO allies do not have a say in the maintenance and modernization of these weapons. Therefore, agreement by these allies with modernization of the tactical nuclear weapons present in Europe is not in order(also to be translated as: not required, LH).”

Some comments:

1) The text explicitly says that the Dutch government supports the LEP of the B61. Some people have argued that the words ’safe, secure and effective’ in par. 11 in NATO’s May 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review text (referred to by Timmermans) only applied NATO having agreed technically with safety and security measures of the LEP. However, such upgrades cannot to be separated from new features providing for new military capabilities.

2) This Dutch text is revealing as it says that NATO agreement with modernization is not needed. Five points:

a. In official U.S. and NATO documents the word modernization of nuclear warheads is avoided. This is not only because NATO wants to avoid a public modernization debate like in the late 1970ies and 80ies, but also because Obama, in his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, has pledged not to develop new nuclear warheads, adding that the LEPs will not “provide for new military capabilities.” This is exactly what the plans for the B61 will do.
b. Contrary to this policy, Timmermans speaks explicitly about modernization (using this word twice). This confirms that more is at stake than just replacing aging components.
c. Timmermans states that modernization is a U.S. decision not requiring agreement by the allies. This is the usual stuff: the LEP is presented as technical and not requiring political consent. Later this will be presented as NATO allies having agreed. (According to a May 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, in early 2010 key issues had to be resolved with ‘certain NATO allies’ and in April 2010 agreement was reached with NATO allies on ‘key military characteristics of the bomb’, including a guided tailkit section. See link below).
d. Timmermans states that NATO allies do not have a say in modernization. However, in official reports to the U.S. Congress, the argument is used that the LEP for the B61 is needed for the extended deterrence requirements of the NATO allies. So, NATO allies are used for supporting a U.S. decision in which they have no say.
e. There is nothing in Timmermans’ text about possible financial consequences for the ‘hosting nations’ (costs of the LEP now estimated at $10 billion).

* Laurens Hogebrink is a nuclear disarmament expert and former IKV Pax Christi consultant

  • For the Dutch text of the letter by Timmermans, click here.
  • For the English translation of the much longer 24 October 2013 Nuclear Policy Letter by the Dutch government ((long anticipated but extremely disappointing on TNW!), click here.
  • For the U.S. GAO report referring to ‘certain allies’ and saying that in April 2010 agreement has been reached, click here, p. 13.