Ausgabe 21/2005

Nuclear Weapons Europe's Atomic Anachronism

In early May, Germany's government said it was high time the US got its last remaining nuclear weapons out of Germany. Now -- out of fear of more trans-Atlantic strife -- the Germans are hesitating and hoping the situation will quietly solve itself.

By and Alexander Szandar

Germany still stores enough nuclear bombs to do more than 1,000 times the damage done in Hiroshima.

Germany still stores enough nuclear bombs to do more than 1,000 times the damage done in Hiroshima.

The attractions of the small German town of Buechel, population 1,200, are neatly listed on the town's home page: an ancient beech tree called the Schmitzbuche ("a gem for hikers"), the Easter bazaar, Buechel's carnival celebrations and, last but not least, St. Josef's Chapel, built by "Gretchen Thome, a former knitting teacher and Buechel's postmaster for many years." But the Web site conveniently ignores another salient feature of this small community, located not far from the city of Cochem on the Mosel River: Buechel has the potential of transforming the world into a nuclear inferno. Beneath the local military airfield, about 20 American B-61 nuclear bombs are stored in underground bunkers, heavily guarded by the 702nd Munitions Special Support Squadron, a special unit of the US Army.

At the command of the president of the United States, these weapons of mass destruction can be attached to German Tornado fighter jets within a very short period of time. The aircraft, flying low to avoid enemy radar, are capable of carrying their deadly payloads to targets deep within Russia, essentially spiriting them into the country "beneath the fence," to quote the manufacturer's enthusiastic marketing prose. With 17,000 tons of explosive force, each weapon is at least ten times as destructive as the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

The Cold War ended more than 15 years ago, and yet the bombs of Buechel still have the potential to turn vast portions of Eastern and Central Europe into a nuclear wasteland. A total of about 480 nuclear weapons are currently being stored in Europe, with experts estimating that about 150 of these bombs are on German soil.

Seemingly unfazed by the fact that the Warsaw Pact countries have long since ceased to be enemies of the West, the United States, the supreme power within NATO, continues to support and practice the doctrine of "nuclear participation." What this means is that non-nuclear states like Germany are at least permitted to play a supporting role in handling the US' destructive arsenals. But these weapons, once intended to strengthen the bonds among NATO members in the face of the threat from the East, have since become an absurd relic of days gone by.

This seemingly obvious conclusion has taken Germany's Red-Green coalition (of Social Democrats and the Green Party) some time to reach. Defense Minister Peter Struck recently announced that Berlin plans to "raise the issue" in NATO. Germany's top diplomat, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, said that talking about withdrawal would obviously be a "reasonable initiative."

UN seat or weapons withdrawl?

That was in early May. Fischer's and Struck's remarks were met with applause within the Red-Green camp, and other politicians followed suit. Green Party leader Claudia Roth said that nuclear weapons should be "removed and destroyed," while Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy spokesman for Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party, or SPD, demanded that the US weapons "disappear from German soil."

But it was a brief and fleeting moment of triumph for opponents of US nuclear weapons. The two ministers soon backed down from their earlier, bold positions and began vacillating. Suddenly, Struck and Fischer seemed to be shocked by their own courage, perhaps realizing that as unnecessary as the weapons are, eliminating them raises delicate issues. The US government continues to hold fast to the nuclear option, as the West's last trump card against potential threats that may not even be clearly discernible today.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, in particular, has little interest in displeasing the Americans. The Iraq controversy hasn't been forgotten. Moreover, it's become clear that without Washington's approval, Germany will never stand a chance of acquiring a coveted permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

It was the defense minister who raised the issue at a cabinet meeting in early May, while the chancellor was travelling in Turkey. The Free Democratic Party, or FDP, had just let it be known that it wanted the US nuclear weapons removed from Germany. At that point, the Red-Green coalition could "not tacitly bury the matter," said Struck, adding that "we will somehow have to deal with this." Fischer agreed. The two cabinet ministers then agreed to discuss the issue with their boss, the chancellor, and propose that Germany develop a joint position with the remaining Western European countries also storing US weapons. This would pave the way for separate discussions of the fate of America's nuclear weapons, both within NATO and in Washington. The possibility of Germany going it alone is not considered an option. The sensibilities of other NATO partners that play host to US nuclear weapons are highly variable, as Berlin has learned while sounding out the issue. The Belgian senate, for example, has spoken out in favor of withdrawal of the weapons, but Brussels, loathe to tarnish the trans-Atlantic relationship, has remained reticent. Politicians in Italy and the Netherlands have also shown little interest in addressing the issue. And for Turkey, with potentially dangerous neighbors like Iran, the American nuclear shield is much more important than for the Europeans.

Meanwhile, Struck and Fischer have abandoned their efforts, fearing possible retribution. Their meeting with the chancellor to discuss the issue has not been scheduled yet, and whether it will even come about before the upcoming meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on June 9 is uncertain at this point. Although the NATO meeting would give Struck the opportunity to discuss the issue with other NATO members, he now seems far more likely to drop the Red-Green initiative than to continue to support the removal of the nuclear weapons.

Banking on backup insurance

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Defense Minister Peter Struck both hope America's nuclear arsenal will quietly be phased out.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Defense Minister Peter Struck both hope America's nuclear arsenal will quietly be phased out.

"The German government will have to decide whether it wants to place the issue on the agenda," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told Struck during a visit to Berlin two weeks ago. Gerhard Schröder is keeping a low profile, but his diplomatic advisors haven't bothered to conceal their opinions of Fischer's and Struck's efforts, which they say are "entirely politically motivated" and would cause "real problems" with the Americans -- one reason why the issue isn't even being raised in Washington.

Ultimately, what is at issue here is no less than the approval of a NATO strategy worked out in 1999, under which nuclear weapons continue to play an important role. Also at issue is the termination of Germany's bilateral treaties with the United States that govern the stationing of nuclear weapons and the "participation" of the Germans.

During the Iraq war, it became abundantly clear just how important loyalty to treaties is to the Americans. Despite all differences of opinion, Washington never forgot the fact that its German ally granted the US military the necessary flyover rights and continued to protect US military bases in places like Ramstein and Frankfurt. The United States sees its nuclear weapons in Europe as a sort of backup insurance for the event that the situation changes dramatically in Russia, but also as a means of deterring so-called rogue states from launching attacks with chemical or biological weapons. The Americans also want to use their nuclear weapons as collateral in possible future negotiations with Moscow over disarmament.

The United States brought its first nuclear weapons into the former West Germany in March 1955. The first weapons were aerial bombs, followed by artillery grenades, cruise missiles, rockets and mines. In 1957, then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer demanded that the German military also receive these modern weapons. German forces were then equipped with nuclear-compatible heavy artillery guns with a maximum range of 30 kilometers and missiles with ranges of more than 700 kilometers.

But the Americans retained control over the warheads themselves. NATO introduced a sort of consultative procedure in 1962 and, beginning in 1969, the "directly affected states" within the alliance were given the right to participate in decisions over deployment of nuclear weapons. However, this right was also made contingent upon the "time and circumstances" of a war. Indeed, the German government does not hold a true veto to this day. As a result, one of the first official actions of every German chancellor is to write a highly confidential letter to the US president, asserting Germany's right to be informed and consulted.

For many years, this insistence on being kept in the loop prompted German government and military officials, as well as politicians, to actively participate in the nuclear insanity of regular "Wintex-Cimex" exercises held in a government bomb shelter hidden deep in the cliffs of the Ahr River valley, about 30 kilometers south of Bonn. In 1989, the Americans introduced an even more outlandish twist into the simulation. Under their new scenario, nuclear bombs were to be dropped on West Germany and East Germany in an effort to halt a fictitious attack by Warsaw Pact countries. For the first time in decades, the Germans refused to play along, and then Chancellor Helmut Kohl even told the Americans that Germany had had "enough of this nonsense!"

Quiet pull-outs

Beginning in 1986, the Americans pulled out thousands of nuclear mines, missiles and bombs from Europe, leaving less than 500 nuclear warheads behind. But even this remaining arsenal has long been considered excessive and unnecessary by top military officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels and by German defense officials in Berlin.

The problem could resolve itself in a few years. Beginning in 2013, the Tornados flown by the Buechel fighter bomber squadron will be replaced by the Eurofighter, a combat aircraft developed by Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. But the Eurofighter is not equipped to deploy nuclear warheads, and the defense ministry has repeatedly affirmed that it will not be reconfigured to do so.

Then, according to SPD defense expert Hans-Peter Bartels, the German defense ministry could "do away with" the Buechel squadron and its approximately 40 aircraft. The air force could order fewer than the planned 180 Eurofighters, saving many billions of euros.

Struck's military planners have also noted with interest that the Americans have quietly removed the 130 nuclear bombs they had previously stored in bunkers at the US air base in Ramstein. They were moved for security reasons, presumably to locations in the United States. The Americans plan an extensive renovation of the air base, and their nuclear arsenal was moved to protect it from possible damage during construction -- or inquisitive construction workers. Perhaps, as many officials in Berlin may be silently hoping, the bombs will never return.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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