Why do we have nuclear weapons

USA modernize atomic bombs in Germany

"I see myself as the target of possible attacks," says Elke Koller with an uneasy voice. The pensioner lives near the air force base in Büchel in Rhineland-Palatinate in southwest Germany; She can hear the practice flights of the fighter jets. But the noise bothers them less than the fact that atomic bombs are stored on the nearby air base. They are the last American atomic bombs that have remained on German territory. Experts estimate that there are 15 to 20, the exact number is a secret.

"At first I believed that the bombs would be gone in two or three years," the 77-year-old peace activist recalls the time after the end of the Cold War. "I thought they just forgot to clear them up." But the atomic bombs are still in Büchel today. They are stored in underground tombs, guarded by heavily armed US soldiers. A newly built, massive fence protects the facility. The atomic bombs will soon even get a "lift": they will be exchanged for a new, more powerful model.

Under the "nuclear protective umbrella"

During the Cold War, the United States had armed Western Europe extensively with nuclear weapons to prevent the Soviet Union from attacking. The US government withdrew many of these weapons after 1991, but left an estimated 150 atomic bombs in Europe today. They are spread across several countries: Italy, Turkey, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Many Germans do not know that they are in the small town of Büchel with its 1200 inhabitants. Even peace activist Elke Koller was not aware of this when she moved to the area in 1980: "That was a total shock for me." She only found out about it from the press in the mid-1990s. The federal government has never officially confirmed that there are atomic bombs in Büchel.

Flown to the destination by German pilots

Büchel was chosen as the location for a reason: The "Tactical Air Force Wing 33" of the German Armed Forces is stationed here. If it came to an attack with nuclear weapons, pilots of the air force would fly the atomic bombs with German tornado fighter planes to the target and drop them.

"Nuclear participation" is the name of this model, through which the non-nuclear weapon state Germany can participate in the US atomic bombs. The tasks are clearly distributed: the codes for arming the atomic bombs only know the US military, but their dropping would be the task of German soldiers.

The air force base Büchel in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate

Old aircraft deterrence

The atomic bombs are "a clear deterrent signal for any potential opponent," says the Nuclear Posture Review, in which the US government described its nuclear strategy in February 2018. But are the bombs in Büchel really a deterrent?

The German Tornado-type fighter planes, which are earmarked for their possible drop, were built in the 1980s. Today they are technically obsolete and in need of repair. Experts doubt that they could overcome Russian state-of-the-art air defenses. The federal government has not yet made the long overdue decision on a successor to the aging tornado.

From a military point of view, the nuclear weapons stored in Germany are "definitely not a so-called game changer," concludes Tobias Lindner, defense expert for the Greens in the Bundestag. So not decisive for military success or failure. Rather, Lindner regards it as an "expensive, dangerous and antiquated symbolic contribution to being able to have a say within NATO".

Exchange of information in NATO

The strategic planning for the nuclear protective shield over Western Europe is in the hands of NATO. More precisely in the nuclear planning group, in which the defense ministers of all NATO countries sit - with the exception of the nuclear power France, which does not participate at its own request. There the USA regularly informs its allies about the status of their nuclear planning. Members of the German government emphasize time and again that being able to have a say in this NATO body is extremely important for Germany.

The German Tornado fighter aircraft would fly the US atomic bombs to their destination in an emergency

Nuclear weapons expert Hans Kristensen, one of the world's best experts on the subject, has also heard this argument from representatives of the German Ministry of Defense. "They think that gives them the opportunity to influence US thinking about the use of nuclear weapons," says Kristensen. The Danish scientist is director of the Nuclear Information Projects in the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "As far as I can tell, it's a complete fantasy."

"Without Germany it will collapse"

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Kristensen emphasized that he had not heard from any representative of the US Army or the Pentagon who had "taken special German views on the use of nuclear weapons into account".

Politicians of the ruling parties in Berlin disagree: "The moment we withdraw, nobody will ask us how NATO's nuclear strategy should be further developed," says defense politician Fritz Felgentreu, who sits for the Social Democrats in the Bundestag.

Demonstrators who demand the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons regularly gather at Büchel Air Base

But it is not just about having a say and access to information, emphasizes NATO expert Heinrich Brauss. Until July 2018, the now retired Lieutenant General also advised the defense alliance on deterrence issues. "If Germany withdraws from nuclear participation and burden-sharing, then the other countries such as Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands will also withdraw," suspects Brauss, who was NATO's Secretary General for Defense Policy and Force Planning.

Without a militarily important country like Germany, "the entire system would be severely shaken or collapse completely". Because, argues Brauss, "then why should the US bear the nuclear risk alone when it comes to protecting Europe?"

The Russia factor

Ten years ago, on March 26, 2010, the Bundestag called on the federal government by a large majority to "advocate the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany". But none of the three federal governments that have been in office since then under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel has dared to take this step. Since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in violation of international law in 2014 and stationed nuclear-capable medium-range missiles in western Russia, a withdrawal of the bombs seems more unlikely than ever.

"We are demonstrating that we are on the side of the Americans," says a Bundeswehr tornado pilot who was stationed in Büchel for a long time. "If we stopped taking part, the US would put a lot of pressure on us." As is well known, US President Donald Trump never misses an opportunity to demand a greater commitment to their own security from the European NATO allies.

Expensive modernization program

Ten years after the Bundestag decision, the US atomic bombs of the B61-3 and B61-4 types, which are a good 30 years old and have reached the end of their lifespan, are due to be modernized. They are to be replaced by the brand new B61-12, which is steerable and can therefore hit targets much more accurately. According to nuclear weapons expert Kristensen, this is "a significant military advantage".

This is what the brand new US atomic bomb, type B61-12, looks like

The US is spending an estimated ten billion dollars on the entire modernization program. "There are calculations according to which it would be cheaper to build the bomb out of solid gold," emphasizes Kristensen.

"Operation Bomb Swap"

Critics now fear that the new, more precisely deployable bombs could increase the risk of a nuclear attack. "Personally, I am very worried that the East-West conflict will flare up again in full," says Elke Koller, who received the Aachen Peace Prize in 2019 for her work against nuclear weapons. Armaments expert Tobias Lindner from the Greens also considers the "crossing of a nuclear threshold" with the new generation of nuclear weapons to be more conceivable.

When the new atomic bombs will arrive in the small German town of Büchel has not yet been determined - experts do not expect this to happen until 2022 at the earliest. In any case, the replacement of the bombs will take place with the greatest possible secrecy, speculates an air force pilot who operates the air base in Büchel knows like the back of his hand. "Then the airfield is closed and an American plane arrives - and you don't know whether it brought Coca-Cola or picked up bombs."