‘Nuclear weapons sharing’ in Europe

Gatineau Park trees

One obscure but troubling legacy of the Cold War is the American nuclear weapons that are deployed in Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands under NATO nuclear weapons sharing agreements. The arsenals consist of 150 B61 gravity bombs held in US custody, apparently for the enduring purpose of deterring a Soviet/Russian tank invasion of Europe. The bombs can be tailored to different yields: with different versions capable of producing explosions with between 0.3 and 340 megatonnes of power. In total, about 3,155 of these bombs were made, with between 1,200 and 1,900 still in service worldwide. A 1994 variant has a hardened casing and can be used as a nuclear bunker buster.

Apparently, these weapons were in place during the negotiation of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and two arguments were privately maintained about why this usage is not in contravention of the treaty. The first was that, since the bombs were under American control, they had not been illegally transferred from a nuclear-weapons state to a non-nuclear weapon state in violation of Article I of the Treaty. The second was that the weapons would not be used “unless and until a decision were made to go to war, at which the treaty would no longer be controlling.”

The latter argument strikes me as exceptionally weak – as does the general rationale for maintaining these weapons. The existing arsenals of American submarine launched missiles, land-based ICBMs, nuclear-equipped bombers, and nuclear cruise missiles would seem sufficient to serve any conceivable purpose for which these bombs might be used. I am also willing to bet that your average Belgian, Italian, or Dutch citizen isn’t too pleased to have the things within their borders.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

10 thoughts on “‘Nuclear weapons sharing’ in Europe”

  1. I don’t want to live in a world where the Dutch don’t have nuclear weapons!

  2. Maclean’s Magazine > Canada’s Nuclear Legacy

    Canada’s history as a staging area for nuclear weapons was shrouded in secrecy for decades, but to the people of a small town in Quebec it struck all too close to home. Just before 4 p.m. on Nov. 10, 1950, St-Alexandre-de-Kamouraska on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City was rocked by an explosion. Townsfolk saw a thick cloud of yellow smoke spiralling up 1,000 m above the middle of the river, which is 20 km wide at that point. Then came the low rumble that shook houses for 40 km around. It was 40 years before officials finally admitted what had happened: a U.S. Air Force plane had accidentally detonated an atomic bomb over Canada.

    Fortunately, the weapon’s plutonium-uranium core was not present. What exploded so dramatically over the St. Lawrence was a 2,200-kg chemical charge used to detonate the Mark IV bomb, dropped by a U.S. Air Force B-50 bomber that had run into trouble during a flight from Goose Bay, Labrador, to the United States. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Pentagon concocted a bogus cover story about small bombs being jettisoned into the river to explain away the explosion that shook St-Alexandre. The true story came to light only in the 1990s, as the full extent of Canada’s involvement with U.S. nuclear weapons became known. Now, a new study by three American researchers, based on previously secret Pentagon documents and published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, makes clear that Canada hosted five kinds of U.S. nukes over more than three decades – from 1950 to 1984.

  3. “At the height of Canada’s involvement with atomic weapons in the late 1960s, according to Ottawa researcher John Clearwater, between 250 and 450 warheads were available to Canadian forces.”

  4. America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore

    The weapons at Incirlik are stored in vaults in the floor of the protective aircraft shelters. The shelters are inside a security perimeter. The United States and its NATO allies recently invested $160 million on security upgrades for nuclear weapons, the most visible aspect of which is new security perimeter at Incirlik visible in satellite images. And, of course, if the coup plotters have accessed a weapon, it would require someone to enter a code to arm it. It would not be a simple thing to snatch and use a U.S. nuclear weapon. Coup plotters generally have other things to worry about.

    At the same time, if a hostile junta were to seize control of a country with U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in it, things might be dicier. An airbase is a not a fortress; it is not intended to withstand a siege by the host government any more than an embassy might. Use control devices such as “Permissive Action Links” can prevent someone from easily using a stolen weapon, but may eventually be bypassed. There has long been talk about developing security features that would render a lost or stolen weapon a “paperweight” but that’s mostly been just that — talk.

  5. In 1950 America moved its first bombs to Britain. In the subsequent decades it stashed a vast trove of nuclear weapons across Europe, numbering over 7,000 at their peak in 1971. Many were small devices known as tactical, or non-strategic, nuclear weapons. They were capable of exploding with yields of as little as a fraction of a kiloton—far smaller than the 15-kilotonne bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The smallest of them could fit into a backpack.

    Today only about 150 remain. These are b61 free-fall bombs whose yield can be set anywhere from a third of a kilotonne to more than 170. They remain in American custody in peacetime and could be released only by a presidential order—but European pilots still train to drop them. Italy and Turkey are thought to have the most, perhaps 60 to 70 each, with smaller numbers in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

    Nor is Incirlik the only cause for security concerns. In 2008 an American air-force review concluded that most European bases hosting weapons did not meet its standards. Support buildings, fencing, lighting and security systems were all deemed in need of repair. Two years later, peace activists entered a base in Belgium and roamed near its b61 vaults for an hour.

    It is not entirely clear that the enemy would appreciate the distinction, however. And the military case for b61s is dubious for other reasons. The planes—if not destroyed on the ground—would struggle to get through Russian air defences. So America would probably use stealth bombers dispatched from across the Atlantic or submarine-launched missiles armed with a new low-yield warhead built under the Trump administration. nato acknowledges that its “supreme guarantee” is provided by American, British and French strategic forces in this way, rather than by the Europe-based b61s.

  6. The “p3”—America, Britain and France, the three nuclear-armed nato allies that hold permanent seats on the un Security Council—have two related concerns. First, that Germany may go soft on its involvement in nato’s “nuclear sharing” arrangements, under which America stations up to 20 atomic bombs at Büchel Air Base in western Germany, while Germany maintains a fleet of dual-capable aircraft (dcas), from which they can be launched. Second, that the incoming government may flirt with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (tpnw), an international disarmament effort.

    The first issue is familiar. Nuclear sharing, also practised by Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey, gives countries without their own nuclear weapons an important stake in nato’s nuclear planning. But Germans have long been uneasy about the presence of American nukes on their soil; in the early 1980s over 1m marched against the deployment of Pershing II missiles. Successive governments have vowed to seek the removal of nuclear bombs, only to yield to pressure from allies.


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