How the bombs in Buchel may stay

In a recent issue of the magazine FreiRaum, we reported how Germany was leading a growing group of NATO member states who were advocating steps to ultimately lead to the removal of the American nuclear weapons from Europe – and from the German military base in Büchel. Now, after the summer, a nuclear weapons free Germany looks a lot less likely. If the Germany coalition and parliament want to get what they set out for, and what they’ve promised the Germany public they would work for, they will have to push very hard to overcome the NATO tendency of almost catatonic inertia.


In November 2011, NATO tried to get all 28 countries to agree on the future of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. While Germany and a large majority of NATO states want the bombs removed, France and a handful of others argued strongly for them to stay. Unable to find consensus among the diverging views, NATO kicked the decision making in the long grass by making it part of a “Defence and Deterrence Posture Review” (DDPR), a reassessment of NATO’s entire nuclear and conventional deterrence and defence posture that NATO hopes to adopt in May 2012. In the months after the new Strategic Concept, it seemed that the Germany and the other proponents of ending TNW deployment in Europe were winning the debate. Across the board, politicians, diplomats, experts and generals agreed that the bombs no longer serve any military role; Germany, the Netherlands and others were working behind the scenes to find a step-wise process that would be acceptable, even for the last few supporters of the old bombs. It resulted – among other things – in a paper signed by ten NATO Ambassadors proposing to increase the transparency on tactical nuclear deployments in concordance with Russia. A promising initiative, had it been the start of more to come. Now, after the summer, the tide seems to have changed.

Inside NATO sources report that the opponents of (gradual) withdrawal have hardened their opposition, arguing that the sharing of responsibility connected to nuclear deployment is the most important – or even the only – form of burden sharing that holds the Alliance together. They argue that if you take out the militarily insignificant bombs the whole thing could collapse like a house of cards.

But just as important is the dwindling enthusiasm of countries like Germany are itself. Germany seems less intent on pushing the debate on a topic as divisive as this one. Some say it has everything to do with the evaporating popularity of FDP minister Westerwelle, who has become the owner of the issue within the German context, but now seems to take the issue with him in his imminent fall.

Taking a careful look at the processes ongoing within NATO, it seems that the inability to come to a satisfactory conclusion of the TNW debate is an example of a bigger underlying problem: NATO’s decision making processes are a labyrinth of red tape and the alliance finds it easier to set up new processes to discuss, than it does to come to a conclusion on difficult issues.. Almost any plan, however small, or long overdue, is swept off the table by one or more members and members are more than ever negotiating from entrenched positions. This is partly due to the differences in worldview , and security perceptions, between the two sides of the Atlantic, between Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe, and even between France and Germany. The financial crisis has also hardened some positions. New budgetary stresses have fueled the frustration felt within the Alliance that some countries contribute more than others. By now, only the US, Greece, France, the UK and Albania are spending 2% of their GDP on defence – as all Allies agreed to do. Countries are increasingly finding it difficult to contribute military to NATO’s current out of area operations. The risk is that the tactical nukes are to stay in Europe, not because they are of any use to anyone, but because the Alliance is too afraid to address discuss, let alone decide on, the more general problem of NATO’s failing burden sharing.

Unless the tide changes again, Germany will not get what it wanted at all. Not only are the bombs likely to stay, Germany will have to seriously invest to maintain the military capabilities to fly nuclear missions, as the assigned aircraft need to be refurbished or replaced in the coming years. Germany – and others – will have to invest in a weapon that has no target, no role, an no purpose other than maintaining the facade of internal NATO agreement that everyone can see does not exist.