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NATO: Help buy your nuclear catch-22

On June 15, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance “must adapt to the fact that Russia now considers (NATO) its adversary,” while he said there are no plans for NATO military involvement inside Ukraine. In light of the ongoing situation in Ukraine, it is clear NATO is reassessing its defense strategy in response to recent Russian aggression. Increased reliance on U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe should not be part of NATO’s adaptation.

The Obama administration is reassuring U.S. commitment to NATO and simultaneously wants more defense-spending from NATO members. It is time to address the elephant in the room‑‑the lack of a burden-sharing plan to pay for modernizing U.S. B61 tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. The United States should insist our allies pay for part of the cost rather than dumping the entire cost on U.S. taxpayers.

{mosads}Some members of Congress, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), have proposed NATO pay for half of the B61 modernization program. This is something NATO may be unwilling to do. Many parliamentarians disagree with stationing U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe to begin with; a requirement to pay half the cost would be the perfect opportunity to voice their opposition loud and clear. The House leadership on the Armed Services Committee would not allow Sanchez’s amendment a debate. Perhaps they were afraid it’s a reasonable idea that could have majority support in a time of budget belt‑tightening.

Luckily the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee was willing to consider the idea. On June 10, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) reached agreement with Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and successfully included a section in the annual defense appropriations Manager’s Amendment. Quigley’s section requires the Pentagon to outline proportional contributions for NATO allies in a cost-sharing plan for the B61 bomb’s modernization. Quigley and Frelinghuysen demonstrated a statesman-like ability to compromise on this timely issue.

The administration is shouting from the rooftops about the importance of B61 tactical nuclear bombs remaining in Europe. Last year Congress considered the B61 a top defense spending priority and the administration is committed to extending the bomb’s service life. In 2012 NATO stated any decision to reduce or remove B61s from Europe would need unanimous approval of its 28 members. As for now, the B61 seems here to stay despite reasonable doubts about its strategic value.

Experts question the B61’s credibility to deter Russian hostilities. It is a dangerous gamble to assume the B61 would alter Russia’s calculations if it moved on the Baltics as it did in Ukraine. Would Russia think the consequences of annexing a region of Estonia outweighed the benefits if NATO deployed the B61 in response? Would NATO think the benefits of nuking a region of Estonia to stop Russian troops outweighed the consequences of another Russian land-grab? It is a catch-22, nobody wins.

Indeed, there may be better ways of defending the alliance. However, if NATO wants to rely on an antiquated nuclear weapon system for part of its protection, it is time to share the bill on this pricey bomb.

Roughly 200 B61s are deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, with another 200 in the United States. It would total $12 billion to extend the weapon’s service life another 30 years. Once finished, each bomb will have cost twice their weight in solid gold.

Though outrageously expensive, the military value of this weapon has been described by the former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, General James Cartwright, as “practically of nil.” In other words, an officer who was responsible for the nuclear arsenal sees no scenario where the B61 would be deployed or detonated in a conflict.

In less than a decade from now, the United States will have spent $30 million per bomb to keep them around through the 2050’s. If there is no situation to warrant using the B61, it is hard to argue they deter anything but funding for real priorities. Nonetheless, so long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO wants them. Which is why now is as good a time as any for NATO to chip on the cost to modernize the weapon.

What’s really needed is more cooperation, communication, joint exercises, sharing best-practices and developing those practices until eastern European NATO members are confident in their own ability to defend themselves. What is not needed are modernized tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe through the 2050’s.

However, the powers that be are unyielding in their commitment to this golden bomb and strongly encourage burden-sharing in paying for NATO’s defense. Given those circumstances, it is time for NATO to pay some of the $12 billion modernization of the B61 nuclear bomb. So long as NATO shelters under a nuclear umbrella, it can hold up their portion of that umbrella.

Tamerlani is the program assistant for Nuclear Disarmament at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Tags Rodney Frelinghuysen

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