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Commentary | 19 December 2011

Is Europe Getting What It Pays For?

Image of Edmond E. Seay III

Edmond E. Seay III | Former ELN Senior Associate Fellow and former Arms Control Adviser, US Mission to NATO

Defence Deterrence EU NATO Nuclear Weapons United States Euro-Atlantic Security

As a recently retired 26-year veteran of the US Foreign Service and a strong supporter of NATO, I wrote in the November 2011 issue of Arms Control Today that US theater nuclear weapons (TNW) in Europe deter no one and therefore cannot reassure NATO allies of the US military commitment to Europe.

With this supposed justification for US TNW in Europe removed, the logic behind continued deployment collapses rather quickly, especially in the current global economic crisis. The US Department of Defense is facing the same tough choices which have so publicly been confronting the Eurozone. There is a strong presumption that, no matter which party controls the White House following the November 2012 US presidential elections, American taxpayers will not long agree to foot the bill for something as expensive, dangerous and useless as US TNW in Europe. (A very useful issue brief on America’s shrinking appetite for funding Cold War relics appeared on the Arms Control Association’s website, December 6th 2011).

Americans would be even less likely to maintain TNW in Europe if they focused on how wildly unpopular those weapons are among the basing nations’ populations.

A final factor arguing against continued TNW deployment in Europe is the prospect of replacing, at great expense, aging fleets of dual-capable aircraft (DCA) in the very near future. (The U.S. Air Force has already started to retire large numbers of F-15 and F-16 aircraft in recent years, for example.) The only real alternative, attempting to further extend the service life of F-16 and Tornado DCA fighter-bombers, while far more affordable, would likely lead to serious disagreements with US military authorities over the certification of such aircraft as safe platforms for US B61 nuclear gravity bombs.

It would therefore behoove the 21 states which are members of both the EU and NATO to examine their positions on NATO’s nuclear posture in the context of the Eurozone crisis and of their fiscal responsibility to their own taxpaying publics. The emphasis should be on value for money — is Europe actually getting the extended deterrence it has been paying for? With emergency efforts now underway to save the Euro and to shore up Europe’s most vulnerable economies (several of which, including Greece, Portugal and even Italy, are also NATO allies), it makes absolutely no sense for European NATO members to carry on paying for the maintenance and security of US nuclear weapons in Europe as though next year were 1972 rather than 2012.

The plain fact is that US TNW in Europe are liabilities, not assets — and so are their much more numerous Russian counterparts. Understanding and acting upon this point has the potential to unlock the current stalemate between the US and Russia on issues of strategic importance: conventional arms control in Europe, missile defense cooperation, and possible follow-on negotiations to the New START Treaty regarding non-strategic (that is, TNW) and non-deployed nuclear weapons.

Europe has an important role to play in severing the Gordian knot which binds the current US-Russian strategic relationship, and can help lead the way toward economic, political, and strategic sanity, by pressing for the return of US B61s to North America in the near future. This is surely a case where pursuing unvarnished economic self-interest can benefit all parties: Europe’s populations (including Russia’s) and the United States’ as well.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.