Obama’s nuclear upgrade: Euro-missiles redux?

There was brief media splash last month after Germany's ZDF TV reported that the US is planning to replace 20 nuclear bombs deployed at Büchel airbase. According to the reports, the current B61 bombs are to be replaced this year with B61-12s, a newer version that is said more accurate and less destructive (potentially making their use more "thinkable"). Alarmingly, reports indicated that the new variants can also be fired as missiles, while B61s had to be dropped from aircraft. Moscow of course immediately responded by threatening "countermeasures"—including deployment of Iskander ballistic missiles to Russia's Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad. (The Telegraph, Reuters, Sept. 23; Washington's Blog, Sept. 23)

More nostalgia for the '80s, when Reagan moved to place intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe after the Soviets placed their own intermediate-range missiles in Eastern Europe. These missiles were removed after the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—the first significant step back from the brink in the Cold War endgame. With the new deployment coming along with superpower tensions over Syria and Ukraine, there is an ominous sense that this progress is being reversed.

Ironically, it seems to be only Pravda that has noted the US response to the claim. They quoted Shelley Laver, deputy director of public affairs for the US National Nuclear Security Administration, saying that large-scale production of B61-12 will not be started until 2020, so reports that they will be deployed in Europe by the end of this year are not accurate. This is a rather equivocal and less than comforting response.

Büchel Air Base, in Rhineland-Palatinate, is home to the joint USAFLuftwaffe Tactical Air Force Wing 33 (TaktLwG 33). The Wikipedia page on the base cites a 2007 article in Der Speigel as saying: "Since 1985, the TaktLwG 33 operates German Panavia Tornado airplanes, which are capable of delivering the twenty B61 nuclear bombs, which are stored and maintained by the 702 MUNSS of the USAF. Under the NATO nuclear sharing arrangement, these twenty B61 bombs require a dual key system, with the simultaneous authorizations of Germany and the United States, before any action is taken. Since July 2007, the air base is the only location in Germany with nuclear weapons."

We thought we scored a victory a few years back when the US was forced to retreat on its planned European "missile shield." But what's coming could be even worse…