In early August, we reported that in the latest effort to spend the US defense budget the Pentagon was preparing to upgrade the US nuclear bomb arsenal, at a cost that had been estimated to range between $355 billion an up to $1 trillion. On Monday, a US-based think tank, The Stimson Center, responded to this proposal when it released a report titled "B61 Life Extension Program: Costs and Policy Considerations" which slammed the planned upgrades to the U.S. tactical nuclear bomb program as an “egregious” waste of money and said deployment overseas is risky.
The report added that Washington could make Europe safer by withdrawing the nuclear bombs from bases in foreign nations, particularly envisioning recent events in Turkey and specifically the 50 or more US B61 nuclear bombs held at Incirlik air base. As a reminder, in the aftermath of the July 15 failed coup, Turkish authorities blocked the Incirlik base off completely, cutting the facility’s electric power and prohibiting any aircraft from flying in or out of the airfield.
“The continued presence of these weapons at five sites in Europe, particularly in Turkey, raises serious risks of their seizure by terrorists or other hostile forces,” the report said. The bombs are designated as tactical weapons, dropped from small, short-range aircraft. The report calls them all but obsolete given the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrence.
“From a security point of view, it’s a roll of the dice to continue to have approximately 50 of America’s nuclear weapons stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, just 70 miles from the Syrian border,” said report co-author Laicie Heeley. “These weapons have zero utility on the European battlefield and today are more of a liability than asset to our NATO allies,” said Heeley, a fellow with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the Stimson Center.
Around 50 of the bombs are stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, less than 110 km from the Syrian border. Security there is dependent on conditions in Turkey, which in recent weeks has turned increasingly belligerent toward the US.
The US brought tactical nuclear bombs to Europe and Turkey in 1950s and 1960s, allegedly to deal with Soviet tank armies that it was feared would pour onto the European battlefield in the event of World War III. Most of the American nuclear arsenals were retracted from Europe in the early 1990s after the fall of the USSR, yet an estimated 180 obsolete nuclear B61 drop bombs are still stored at six European air bases in NATO member states Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
The development of modern missile air defenses have nullified the A-bomb’s potential, as no bomber would be allowed to approach, let alone fly over, enemy territory.
Still, the US National Nuclear Security Administration plans to spend $US8 billion to extend service of an estimated 480 out of a total 800 B61 bombs the US still has in stock, the report says. These expenditures are planned within the framework of a 30-year, $1-trillion program, as Washington intends to modernize the American nuclear triad.
“These bombs are ill-suited for modern warfare and incredibly costly,” said Stimson Center co-founder and report co-author Barry Blechman.
Washington is believed to keep bombs in Turkey to show its commitment to the NATO member and as a deterrent to Moscow, which chipped away at Turkish territory in a series of wars until the early 20th century. Another 130 or so B61 bombs are kept at bases in Belgium, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
The report suggests the “immediate removal” of all B61 nuclear weapons from Europe and discontinuation of the procurement of B61s. In this way the Pentagon would save over $6 billion which could be used to bolster the US military presence in Europe. “The smart move would be to remove these weapons from Europe and double down to strengthen conventional forces that actually protect our NATO allies,” Blechman proposed.
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Some analysts call the continued presence of nuclear bombs an important guarantee if only as a symbolic form of deterrence. “U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, of which there is now only the B61 left in service, serve a crucial coupling function that links regional security crises to the possibility of nuclear escalation,” said Stephan Fruehling of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University.
“As such, the viability of the B61 capability is just as essential to East Asian allies as it is to NATO,” he said.
Others disagree: “Their military utility remains questionable. Their political value is suspect. Their economic costs are high,” said Ramesh Thakur of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University.
“U.S. nuclear rivals will react with force modernization plans of their own, and they might become a little bit more reluctant to cooperate in reining in North Korea’s nuclear program,” he added.
Turkey’s coup attempt has stoked debate in the U.S. about Incirlik. In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times last week, a former U.S. National Security Council arms control chief likened the situation to that before the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran. In his article published on August 11, the former Director for Defense Policy and Arms Control on the White House National Security Council, Steve Andreasen, wrote that the B61 tactical nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik have become a hot potato rather than geopolitical argument.
“What if the Turkish base commander at Incirlik had ordered his troops surrounding the perimeter of the base to turn their guns on the US soldiers that reportedly guard US nuclear storage bunkers there?” said the former top White House arms control official. The ex-White House weapons chief suggested other hair-raising scenarios involving the Incirlik nuclear arsenal.
“As was the case in 1979, the warning bells are ringing,” Steve Andreasen wrote.