November 15, 2020
At the end of July 2020, then United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper confirmed that nearly 12,000 US troops would soon be pulled out of Germany and shifted to new bases in Europe and the United States. This policy shift, which reportedly frustrated German and European officials, was followed by the announcement of a new defense agreement between the United States and Poland that would see the number of rotational US forces in Poland increased by nearly 1,000, with troops ostensibly coming from former garrisons in Germany. While the prevailing discussion around the deterrent effectiveness of allied basing is valid, it largely ignores the impact of these recent decisions on European and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nuclear deterrence policy. The repositioning of US forces could result in existing, potentially-obsolete deterrent structures being revitalized to answer to current and emerging threats in Europe.
Nuclear weapons have played an important role in NATO strategy from the early days of the Cold War. Since the 1990s, their once-preeminent role has been slowly reduced as the United States withdrew the majority of its low yield weapons from their forward deployed locations in Europe. Today, it is estimated there are around 150 US nuclear weapons remaining in Europe to fulfill NATO’s nuclear deterrence needs. This is bolstered by the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, where all member states, with the exception of France, are able to consult with one another regarding nuclear policy.
The remaining low yield US nuclear weapons in Europe are intended to be delivered by what are known as “dual-capable aircraft,” or DCA. These are fighter jets operated by NATO member-states capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture rests on the idea that the dual capable aircraft of specific member-states would be able to carry and deliver US nuclear weapons in the event of a crisis.
One of the countries responsible for the potential deployment of US nuclear weapons in a crisis is Germany, whose contribution to the NATO nuclear mission is provided by the Tornado fighter-bomber. The Tornado is a relatively old aircraft long overdue for replacement. Having been first designed in the mid-1970s, the aircraft is unlikely to withstand modern air defenses, such as Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system, thereby calling the effectiveness of NATO’s nuclear posture into doubt. The question of whether or not to replace the Tornado has sparked heated debate within the German government since the mid-2000s. While the continued presence of US nuclear weapons on German territory is widely unpopular, the Federal Republic has continued to participate in the initiative in the spirit of transatlantic unity and collective defense burden-sharing.
Following a 2019 decision by the German Defense Ministry that rejected the advanced American F-35 as a replacement for the Tornado, continued German participation in NATO nuclear sharing looked to be in serious jeopardy. Then, in March of 2020, German officials under the leadership of a new Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, announced a compromise in which Germany would seek to replace its aging Tornados with additional Eurofighter Typhoon jets and American F/A-18 fighters to continue participating in NATO’s nuclear mission. The decision generated immediate controversy, however, as members of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had not been consulted prior to the decision. The SPD, in addition to being a coalition partner in the German government, has historically been opposed to NATO nuclear sharing. Tensions were further inflamed by the US Ambassador to Germany calling on the SPD to “make clear” that Germany stands by its commitments to its NATO allies, as well as the US Ambassador to Poland suggesting that US nuclear weapons should be moved to Poland.
With US-German relations increasingly strained, Berlin could be prompted to reverse course on its plan to procure American fighter aircraft to continue contributing to NATO’s nuclear deterrence mission. However, this could also be an opportune moment for NATO members to discuss the effectiveness of NATO’s forward deployed nuclear deterrent. The unilateral US decision to deploy new, low-yield W76-2 nuclear warheads on submarines, specifically to counter nuclear threats posed by Russia, has shown that defense officials do not see much utility in NATO’s current nuclear deterrent. Berlin can and should take advantage of these circumstances to generate a new European discussion regarding nuclear deterrence. Potential changes to the current European deterrence structure could involve taking up French President Emmanuel Macron’s offer to expand European participation in French nuclear planning. German initiative and collaboration on this matter could help better-integrate these capabilities with US and British deterrent forces already committed to NATO.
With the increasingly volatile nature of European security and calls by both Russia and the US for expanded participation in renewed accords, Germany, France, and other European states have an opportunity to restructure nuclear deterrence in Europe. If they seize this opportunity, they could usher in a new multilateral approach to strategic stability and deterrence.
By: Andrew CarrollAuthor : YPFP