B61s in Europe: Sharing is Caring

One of the more glaring head-scratchers about U.S. nuclear policy is that we continue to forward deploy roughly 180 tactical B61s in Europe despite the fact that the military mission for which these weapons was originally intended – stopping a Soviet invasion of Western Europe because of inferior US/NATO conventional forces – no longer exists.

When asked in 2010 if there is a military mission performed by US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that cannot be performed by either US strategic or conventional forces, Gen. James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly said: "No." Similarly, one senior official with European Command told a task force created by the defense secretary that "We pay a king's ransom for these things and…they have no military value."

The main rationale for the B61s in Europe is as a political symbol of the U.S. commitment to NATO, particularly the newer members that border Russia. Some also argue that transatlantic ties are strengthened when the risks and costs of deploying and securing nuclear weapons are shared between the US and the respective host nations.

But the truth is that even the political value of the deployment is questionable at best (see for example the recent U.S. deployment of B52-H and B-2 nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Europe for exercises in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine) and the costs are not shared – not even close. In judging the continued need for and affordability of what is primarily a political mission (and a debatable one at that), it makes sense to have a better understanding of just how disproportionate the financial burden is and why other NATO members don’t foot more of the bill.

On June 10, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) successfully amended the FY 2015 Defense Appropriations bill to shed light on these issues by requiring the Secretary of Defense to report to Congress on the status and impact of the proportional contributions of NATO members to the cost of sustaining U.S. forward-deployed B61 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The Pentagon has already provided some Members of Congress with some information about the contributions of NATO members to the mission, but only after an informal request for information. The Quigley requirement in the defense appropriations bill would formalize the request and give it greater authority.

The acceptance of the language by the Republican majority demonstrates growing congressional concern about the rising costs of keeping U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe and the unwillingness of NATO members to bear a fair share of these expenditures.

In 2011, the Pentagon estimated that the average annual operating costs for the United States to support forward deployed nuclear weapons in Europe is approximately $100 million. The Pentagon is also planning to pay an additional $154 million to enhance security at the European military bases that store the B61s. The five European states that still host the weapons contribute to the cost of the mission by funding facility and installation costs. They also maintain their dual capable aircraft to deliver these weapons. But apart from the United States, no NATO members are believed to directly contribute to the deployment.

These costs are slated to grow significantly over the next decade. According to a 2013 Congressional Budget Office Report, the cost of U.S. tactical nuclear forces will total about $7 billion between FY 2014 and FY 2023. The vast majority of these costs, including all of the costs of the $10-$12 billion B61 life extension program and of equipping the F-35A with a nuclear capability, will be shouldered exclusively by the United States.

Given the Congressional mandate for reductions in military spending, it is not unreasonable to assess NATO’s contribution to a multi-billion dollar nuclear deployment, the mission of which is primarily political/psychological and to illustrate burden sharing.

It is especially reasonable given that most NATO members are not meeting their defense spending commitments. Only a handful of European countries meet NATO’s target of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. In 2013, only four NATO members met that target: the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Greece. The United States has over the years repeatedly urged the other members of NATO to increase military spending, most recently in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Another reason for increased financial burden sharing is that the Departments of Defense and Energy rejected a less costly refurbishment of the B61 that would have extended the life of the weapon until the early 2030s for approximately $5 billion – billions less than the current life extension plan. The pursuit of an unnecessarily extravagant refurbishment is putting greater strain on the military budget, strengthening the argument for European help.

Furthermore, it’s not clear why the United States should be pursuing such an expensive modernization plan given that that the five NATO host nations have yet to commit to spend the political capital and economic resources necessary to upgrade their existing aircraft or purchase new aircraft to deliver the new B61. For example, Germany is planning to procure a next-generation fighter aircraft that won’t be configured to carry nuclear weapons. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that a significant number of NATO members see little use for these weapons and have little interesting in paying for them. There have been some hints that the United States could pick up the slack if the current host nations begin removing tactical nuclear weapons from their soil, but that is not certain and would place the burden even more heavily on the United States.

Meanwhile, even if the current host nations do decide to purchase new dual-capable aircraft, such as the F-35A, Congress last year zeroed out the Pentagon’s $10 million research and development request to make the F-35A nuclear-capable. The cost of the dual capability, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, will compete with the conventional needs of the program, which is behind schedule and overbudget. This raises the possibility that the refurbished B61s slated to be deployed in Europe may not have aircraft to deliver them after the existing European aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons are retired over the next decade. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has argued “that without financial buy-in by the NATO partners, either the F-35 nuclear integration or through fielding of an independent or equivalent European manufactured aircraft, F-35 investment dollars should realign to the long range strike bomber.”

So to summarize the situation, the rising costs of providing political reassurance to NATO via forward deployed nuclear weapons that serve no military purpose is falling almost exclusively on the American taxpayer. Not only that, but the countries that currently host B61s might not make the investments necessary to host the weapons in the future. Yet even if they do make the investments, the U.S. Congress might not fund the needed capability for the next-generation aircraft to deliver the refurbished weapons.

That’s messed up, right?

All the more reason, then, to assess NATO’s willingness to bear more of the financial burden for forward deploying tactical nuclear weapons on their behalf.