U.S. Warheads in Europe: Forward Basing Is Too Base and Forward to Tolerate

Three US-made B61 nuclear warheads.The United States currently has 200 nuclear warheads in six bases in five European countries without an all-out accord from Europe, a report says
Three US-made B61 nuclear warheads.The United States currently has 200 nuclear warheads in six bases in five European countries without an all-out accord from Europe, a report says

Five U.S. allies in NATO have called them “militarily useless,” but the United States still maintains about 240 nuclear weapons in Europe. Ours is the only country in the world that has placed its nuclear weapons of mass destruction in other peoples’ countries.

U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are stationed at Germany’s Büchel Air Base (20), Belgium’s Kleine Brogel Air Base (20), the Netherlands’ Volkel Air Base (20), and near the Mediterranean Sea at Italy’s Aviano Air Base (50), Ghedi Air Base (40), and Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base (90). These 240 H-bombs are down from a total of 7,300 at the height of the Cold War. Three of these countries (Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands), along with Luxemburg, Poland, and Norway, have formally asked that they be removed.

The 240 thermonuclear bombs called “B61s” are reported kept at-the-ready at the six bases. The B61s are 100-to-500 kiloton “variable yield” devices, eight to 40 times the destructive power of the U.S. bomb that killed 170,000 people at Hiroshima.  

All the B61s are scheduled to be replaced by the so-called B61-mod 12, a new device reportedly to be built at the Kansas City plant and then returned to Europe. They are scheduled to be used on B-2 Stealth Bombers and on jet fighter-bombers like the F-15E and its eventual replacement the F-35. Placing thermonuclear bombs on faulty war planes is arguably suicidal (a B-2 crashed on Guam in 2008; an F-15 crashed in Libya last March), and, since nuclear-armed plane crashes risk widespread catastrophe, the policy can be called reckless endangerment.

In spite of the irrationality of nuclear weapons retention, hardly a syllable in support of it has changed in 60 years. In 1962, the late Pentagon chief Robert McNamara developed a so-called “flexible response” strategy that planned for the detonation of nuclear warheads on Europe under certain circumstances. The message created fear of a Soviet invasion and self-justified huge U.S. military bases there. Six decades later, identical language is employed by nuclearists who still defend the “forward basing” of the U.S. H-bombs. “Nuclear deterrence based in Europe must remain, as it … allows for greater flexibility in deterrence,” said Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet at a 2010 NATO summit.

Between 2000 and 2010, all U.S. nuclear weapons formerly in England and Greece were removed. We can thank our anti-war and anti-nuclear friends all across Europe for unearthing the locations and numbers of these weapons because, officially, the U.S. refuses to confirm or deny their existence. Activists in Europe have marched in the thousands to bomber bases at Klein Brogel, at Buchel, and at Volke. Hundreds have been arrested undertaking “Citizen’s Weapons Inspections” modeled after the United Nations weapons inspectors—those officially sanctioned interveners who have been used by nuclear weapons states to manufacture fear of and point fingers at weak but resource-rich states like Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Iran.

Massive protests and a renewed recognition of the self-destructive effects of nuclear weapons have turned public opinion against the weapons. The deployment of U.S.  bombs in Europe, and the massive military services required to store, maintain, secure, protect, and train people to use them, have since been condemned from every quarter.

On Nov. 23, 2009, four former Dutch government ministers, including a former prime minister, declared, “A nuclear arsenal to restrain superpowers is no longer needed. In combating terrorism, deterrence with weapons of mass destruction has no purpose.”

In Feb. 2010, four senior Belgian politicians, including a former NATO secretary general, called on Belgium to urge NATO to throw out the U.S. nukes. They wrote, “The U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe have lost all military importance.”

Unanimously, the federal German parliament decided on March 26, 2010, to get rid of the last 20 U.S. weapons (at Büchel AFB). Marion Kuepker of the German Nonviolent Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Hamburg writes, “This is a small step but not the expected ‘turning point’ toward a nuclear-free world. For this we need NATO to immediately stop the British, French and U.S. modernization of the nuclear weapons and ultimately, all nuclear weapons powers must renounce the option of using them first.”

All the more reason to be in NATO’s face during its May summit in Chicago and demand the bomb’s ouster and destruction.

— John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin.

A 100-500 kiloton B61 gravity H-bomb, eight to 40 times the 12.5 kt bomb that incinerated 140,000 Japanese, at Hiroshima, August 1945.