Two decades beyond the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia are still brandishing more than 1,000 tactical nuclear weapons on either side of an Iron Curtain that no longer exists. This outdated nuclear standoff at the heart of Europe is costing cash-strapped governments on both sides of the Atlantic billions of dollars, rubles and Euros annually, money that is desperately needed for other things including deficit reduction. And it’s not getting less expensive.
The U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for instance, over the next few years plan to update their aging jet fighter fleets. They will need to go through the costly steps of building the F-35 Joint Strike fighter “dual capable” if it is going to be able to deliver nuclear weapons, which experts say could cost up to $10 million a plane. Tight-fisted Germany, meanwhile, will need to spend an estimated $400 million should it replace its aging fleet of Tornado jetfighters with nuclear-capable copies of the Eurofighter
That’s not a lot of money in the larger scheme of things. But in an era where every European government is reducing its contributions to NATO, that could leave the U.S. holding the bag for maintaining a policy designed to fight a war from the mid-20th century. Even Pentagon planners are open to new talks to reduce tactical nuclear weapons, given the budget pressures they are under. “They’d much rather have ships and drones – things with a demonstrated use, not tactical nukes,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a Washington-based think tank. “But all that has to take place in negotiations with Russia.”
Yet there is little political will in either Washington or Moscow right now to challenge the status quo. Some of NATO’s newest members – who just happen to be Russia’s immediate neighbors and formerly under its boot heels – believe NATO nukes serve as an implicit guarantee that the U.S. and NATO will be there should Russia revert to its old ways.
The Russians, meanwhile, are growing increasingly testy over NATO plans to install a missile defense shield aimed at Iran. Missile defense, an outgrowth of the 1980s “Star Wars” program that the U.S. still finances to the tune of more than $10 billion a year, is viewed as a strategic threat by Russia and its military is demanding either a legally binding pledge to never aim the shield at Russia or a jointly operated system. Barring those assurances, they have promised to deploy some of their aging tactical nuclear weapons closer to Europe as a countermeasure.
Those issues won’t be on the front burner when the 28 NATO heads of state meet in Chicago next month. They will focus mostly on next year’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan and how to deal with Syria and Iran. The alliance will avoid making significant changes in its “Deterrence and Defense Posture Review,” which outlines the rationale for the U.S. maintaining the five airbases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey that house about 200 tactical nuclear warheads. But pressure is mounting from Europe for a change, and it’s not just coming from countries facing severe budget crises. Germany may be under conservative leadership, but its elites are united around eliminating nuclear weapons from German soil.
“Prevailing public sentiment in Germany is strongly antinuclear, and the German government is now also committed to ending reliance on nuclear power generation,” noted a recent paper on “Nuclear Weapons in Europe and the Future of NATO” from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. “Barring a major crisis with Russia or Iran, it is very hard to see any future Germany government proposing, and the Bundestag agreeing, to sustain a nuclear delivery capability in the German air force after the Tornado is gone.”
U.S. politics, on the other hand, may be moving in the opposite direction. After President Obama, who in 2009 promised to seek “a world without nuclear weapons,” was caught off-microphone in Seoul last month telling Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that he could be more flexible after the November election on the missile defense issue, Republican candidate Mitt Romney blasted him as an appeaser. “President Obama signaled that he’s going to cave to Russia on missile defense,” he said. “But the American people have a right to know where else he plans to be flexible in a second term.” Romney’s immediate attack wasn’t just election-year politics. His distrust of Russia appears to be deep-seated.
After the Obama administration reached a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia in 2010, Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that branded the treaty as “his worst foreign policy mistake yet.” The agreement, which will reduce the number of long-range missiles that assure mutual destruction of both countries in any nuclear war, also limited the re-use of old missile silos in a Star Wars-type missile defense system.
Romney’s Cold War mentality resurfaced during a follow-up interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer after Obama’s gaffe in Seoul. Russia, Romney said, “is without question our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors."
"When Romney comes out and says Russia is our greatest strategic foe, it translates into maintaining the existing nuclear complex,” said Hurlburt of the National Security Network, which supports arms control talks. “And if you build in all the other plans to modernize the nuclear complex, then you’re talking about real money.”