In early June, the U.S. Air Force announced the deployment to Europe of three B-52 and two B-2 bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons to partake in military exercises with allies in the region. During the deployment, which will span approximately two weeks, the bombers will conduct training flights in the U.S. European Command area of operations.
The announcement of the Pentagon’s training mission comes in the wake of tensions between the United States and Russia after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and continued threats against eastern Ukraine. The deployment of the bombers is largely seen as a means of reassuring our NATO allies alarmed by Russian actions, particularly the newer members in Central Europe bordering Russia.
In a press release announcing the deployment, U.S. Strategic Command head Adm. Cecil Haney stated, “The training and integration of strategic forces demonstrates to our nation’s leaders and allies that we have the right mix of aircraft and expertise to respond to a variety of potential threats and situations.”
But wait a minute.
Don’t we already have 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs deployed in five European nations, the primary mission and raison d’etre of which is to assure our NATO allies?
If the answer is “Yes” (and it is), it begs the following question: If B61s in Europe are in fact fulfilling their mission of calming the nerves of our allies in the face of Russian threats, what is the need for additional assurance provided by strategic bombers?
The only logical conclusion to draw is that the B61s stationed in Europe do not in fact provide assurance to our NATO allies because they are militarily useless and politically divisive.
Almost everyone agrees that tactical nuclear weapons in Europe have no military value. This argument is not new and has been advanced by military and government officials for decades. Colin Powell favored abandoning them in the 1990s, when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2010, when asked if there was a military mission provided by tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that could not be provided by either U.S. strategic or conventional forces, General James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff flatly stated, “No.”
But the question that still ignites a fierce debate is whether or not the bombs in Europe retain any political value that justifies their continued deployment and modernization.
Those who support keeping B61s deployed in Europe argue that the bombs are a political symbol of Washington’s commitment to NATO, and that their removal would signal a reduced U.S. commitment to the alliance. But what kind of political signal do B61s send when the U.S. tacitly admits that those weapons no longer have much value and feels the need to deploy the assurance of long-range bombers?
There is disagreement within NATO itself about the continued need for the deployment of tactical nuclear bombs, a reality which is likely to grow more controversial as the five host nations near difficult and expensive decisions about whether and how to replace the aging aircraft that would deliver these weapons.
As Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh argue in a fantastic piece in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, “What ultimately deters NATO’s foes are the United States’ substantial strategic nuclear forces: the long-range bombers, strategic submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are based in the United States and stand ready to deliver nearly 2,000 nuclear bombs and warheads within a matter of hours. Even a small portion of this force could devastate any nation foolish enough to test U.S. resolve. Although they are not located on European soil, these weapons provide the actual basis for the U.S. nuclear umbrella.”
At a time when President Obama has lessened U.S. dependence on nuclear weapons in our national security policy, there is a separate and very legitimate question about whether the U.S. should be using nuclear bombers to send signals to allies and adversaries in Europe and Asia.
However, the Air Force’s recent deployment of nuclear-capable bombers to Europe is a not-so-subtle reminder of the uselessness of the forward deployed tactical weapons.