Thomas Kossendey, Germany's deputy defense minister, usually has a broad smile on his face when he walks up to speak at the lectern in the Bundestag, the German parliament's lower house. Kossendey is the kind of politician who likes to add a dash of irony to his parliamentary contributions.
Last Wednesday, however, he was in no mood for jokes. As members of parliament debated the stationing of US nuclear weapons in Germany, he seemed somewhat tormented and made sure to stick strictly to his script.
The Büchel air base in south-west Germany: The US Air Force has around 20 nuclear bombs stationed there.Foto: DPA
The member of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) knew that there was little support for his position -- that US nuclear weapons should remain in Germany. Indeed, apart from the backing of some members of his own party, he encountered widespread opposition -- even from the CDU's coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
There are around 20 American B-61 nuclear bombs still left in Germany. They are kept at the German Air Force base of the 33rd Fighter Bomber Squadron, near the village of Büchel in the south-western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Nineteen years after the end of the Cold War German Tornado fighter jet pilots still practice dropping the weapons -- which have 10 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb -- over enemy territory.
The bombs seem like a military anachronism, a relic from the era of East-West confrontation. In those days thousands of nuclear war heads were stationed in Germany, with the German military supplied the means of delivery, such as missiles, airplanes and ordnance as part of so-called "Nuclear Sharing." The concept was developed by NATO as a way of involving member states without their own nuclear weapons in planning for the use of the bombs.
After 1990 as former enemies suddenly became allies and partners, the US pulled most of its nuclear weapons out of Europe. "The situations in which one would consider the use of nuclear weapons have become extremely remote," the German government said last week in response to an enquiry by the Green Party.
Only the handful of bombs based near the village of Büchel remains. And they are here to stay, according to Germany's defense minister, Franz Josef Jung. His deputy Kossendey said those who demanded their removal called into question a "core element of the Atlantic alliance," robbed Germany of its "right to have a say" and wanted "in the end to permanently weaken the relationship between Europe and North America."
A NATO Nuclear Stalemate
Yet, top military experts at NATO headquarters in Brussels and Berlin's Defense Ministry believe the weapons are redundant. Even Washington believes the bombs are no longer required. US President George W. Bush, hardly a supporter of disarmament, let old storage sites be emptied: Four years ago, for example, the American Air Force removed its nuclear weapons from the Ramstein air base in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
According to Washington-based arms expert Hans Kristensen, 110 US nuclear weapons have also been removed from the British base at Lakenheath. Hence, US nuclear bombs are now only stored in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey -- and, of course, in Germany.
Most of these remaining depots no longer meet US Defense Department security standards, according to a report compiled by a group of experts and published by Kristensen. The report sparked a debate in the Bundestag after SPIEGEL ONLINE recently quoted from it.
The removal of nuclear weapons is likely to receive a further boost in the near future: In a rare example of unity, the two candidates vying for the US presidency, the Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are both in favor of negotiating with Russia on the issue. McCain has expressly stated that he wants to "explore ways we and Russia can reduce -- and hopefully eliminate -- deployments of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe."
For Kurt Beck, the head of the center-left SPD, that is grist to the mill. Beck, who is also governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, has argued for years that the bombs had to go. In 2005 the then SPD Defense Minister Peter Struck actually wanted to raise the issue with NATO. But his boss Chancellor Gerhard Schröder held him back: After the fall out with Bush over the Iraq war, Schröder did not want to provoke another dispute.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington Arms Control Association, thinks NATO is in a nuclear stalemate. "The allies in Europe think the US would be offended if they no longer wanted the bombs, and the US won't touch the issue, because they think they would offend the Europeans."
According to Kossendey, Berlin no longer has any particular say in the matter: The Nuclear Planning Group, which once consisted only of countries where nuclear weapons were stationed, now includes all NATO members, apart from France. Canada, Greece and Turkey gave up "nuclear sharing" a few years ago, yet they still have an equal say.
"Nuclear sharing" is "slowly going to wither away," the US defense policy analyst Jeffrey A. Larsen wrote in a study for NATO. Its silent death was "foreseeable," as Europe's aging bombers will soon be decommissioned.
At least, that is what the SPD is hoping for. From 2013 the Eurofighter, which is unsuitable for carrying nuclear weapons, will replace the Tornado fighter jets. "Then nuclear sharing is over," German security expert Hans-Peter Bartels says.
However, Defense Minister Jung has other plans. Even after the switch over to the Eurofighter he wants to keep several old Tornados in reserve for a possible nuclear war "at least until 2020." They will probably be stationed in the Bavarian air base at Lechfeld from which they could be jetted to Büchel to pick up the American bombs. Just as long as Barack Obama or John McCain has not already removed them.