Did you know that Germany has nuclear weapons? The country that has foresworn them not just once, but thrice? In the 1950s, “never, ever” was the price of admission to the Western community. In the 1960s, Bonn had to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty to soothe the Soviet Bloc. In 1990, self-denial no. 3 bought the ticket to reunification.
Still, there are nukes in German bunkers—and suddenly in the headlines. But worry not. These B-61s, packing up to 300 kilotons, come with Old Glory stenciled on them. They are under the thumb of the U.S. President. Americans own the stuff, and the great-grandchildren of Wernher von Braun just lug the suitcases—with the full blessing of Germany’s NATO partners.
So, “German” nukes are a snoring dog story. Why, then, are they being dragged from the dark to unleash a tempest in a beer mug? Why the alarum now, given that these weapons have been around for five decades? To boot, these 20 or so bombs are a miniscule fraction of those 6,000 U.S. tactical weapons stationed in Western Europe at the height of the Cold War.
Finger the usual suspects of domestic politics—specifically, Germany’s grand old party, the Social Democrats (SPD), who once brought forth giants like chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, the father of the Euromissile deployment in the early 1980s. The SPD is down to 15 percent in the polls while Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are on a roll, riding toward the 40 percent mark on the back of Corona. It’s an old story. In a perfect storm, the skipper is the person to trust.
So, what are the sinking Social Democrats (SPD) to do when the nation’s health and economy are at stake and Conservative parties like Merkel’s outflank the left with trillions in public spending?
Go for peace, harmony, and understanding in a country allergic to military power after catastrophic defeat in two world wars. The pacifist temptation was triggered by a pile of high-class junk. In decades past, a fleet of now obsolete German Tornado bombers have been carrying the nuclear load. Britain’s Royal Air Force retired these jalopies last year, replacing them with fifth-generation F-35s. So, Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, wants to buy 45 U.S.-made F/A-18 Hornets to bring the German Air Force up to date. They are not quite state-of-the-art, but a good buy. The Hornets cost around $70 million, 40 less than the home-built Eurofighters, also known as Typhoons. Even better, the F/A-18 is configured for nuclear missions, which will keep Berlin in the business for a couple of decades.
On the other hand, kill the deal, and Germany is out—a nuclear nobody. Disarmament-by-obsolescence is precisely the ploy of the SPD left, which imagines that anti-nuclearism is a winner in the battle for votes. The game has an old tradition, going back to the campaigns against German rearmament in the Fifties and the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the Eighties. Keep the stuff out, and Germany won’t rile the Russians.
The SPD’s ambitious caucus leader, Rolf Mützenich, opined: “Nuclear weapons in Germany don’t enhance, but diminish our security.” So, no nukes would be a godsend. The new motif, what else, is Donald Trump, “who no longer views nuclear weapons as tools of deterrence, but of war-fighting.” Hence, he is courting deadly escalation; hence, out with the devil’s work. A novice plucked from obscurity, the party’s co-chair Norbert Walter-Borjans, inveighs against “inhuman weapons” in the hands of a “freakish U.S. president.”
Parroting each other, this duo recalls toddlers who clap their hands over their eyes and crow: “Now you see me, now you don’t.” Closed eyes don’t abolish reality.
Eliminate a few bombs on German aircraft, and the country remains a target, no matter what. Think about Russian planners, as they contemplate a westward lunge. Their worst problem is not some 20 German nukes under America’s lock and key. It is an array of U.S. bases at the center of U.S. capabilities in Europe—like Ramstein, the headquarters of the U.S. Air Force. Or Spangdahlem, which houses the 52nd Fighter Wing. Plus, a dozen Army bases. Strung out along a north-south barrier, they pack an enormous punch, and they are bridgeheads for rapid reinforcement. So, they are ideal targets for pre-emption, even with nuclear weapons, because Russia must assume the presence of U.S. nukes. Too bad that these places are all on German soil.
Desperate to score points, the SPD’s amateur strategists, flanked by the ex-Communist Left Party, are blind to the consequences. To keep the Fatherland out of harm’s way, it is not enough to eliminate a few American nukes in German strike aircraft. You must go all the way and rid the country of “freakish” Mr. Trump and his armories. They are the targets that matter most. What do we call this? “Neutrality.” Opting out will bring kudos from Vladimir Putin, who in this respect is no different from Stalin and successors. They have always strained to pluck the German linchpin from the European balance. Keep going down this road, and at its very end lurks the disintegration of NATO. If bottled up behind the Rhine, why would the U.S. military stay in Europe and face Russia without the German bulwark, the strongest power in Europe?
So what if America is sidelined? Why not entrust security to Germany’s French friends? This is soufflé in the sky. “Extended deterrence”—protecting non-nuclear allies—doesn’t just grow out of missile silos in the far-away Dakotas. It requires forward-deployment to signal to Russia: If you attack Germany, you attack us. So, the French would have to move nuclear assets eastward. That is as likely as selling the Eiffel Tower to Disneyland. But even if the French did, their nuclear weapons would still not substitute for the American panoply. Even in the age of overkill, numbers matter. A Russian planner is a lot more impressed by thousands of U.S. warheads than by the puny 280 the French can muster. There is safety in redundancy. To boot, peace-minded Social Democrats would have to explain to their flock why French nukes are any less “inhuman” than the American kind.
So, Frau Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s defense chief, knows what she is doing by replacing her obsolete Tornado squadrons. Non-nuclear Germany will continue to have a say over nuclear policy—along with the United States, Belgium, Holland, Italy, and Turkey. The historical irony of the left’s revolt is delicious. NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangement was concocted more than half a century ago to please the Germans.
In the Sixties, the Federal Republic was thought to itch for a finger on the trigger, and it was flirting with De Gaulle’s France as a counterweight to the United States. So, it was time to throw Bonn a bone. Old-timers remember the Multilateral Force (MLF), a transparent sham. The Europeans would provide the ships, and the Americans the missiles. But only Washington could launch them.
For the Europeans, it was all pay and no profit. The MLF sank even before leaving the docks. Then, NATO invented the current nuclear-sharing system. Its Nuclear Planning Group has a real say over targeting and rules of engagement. The United States still clutches the trigger, but the country hosting the strike aircraft has a de facto veto over the launch. The government can simply order its pilots to stay on the ground.
The longevity of the arrangement proves its worth. Bolting from it amounts to a fool’s errand. Germany would still remain a target, yet have no say over the Alliance’s nuclear strategy. Better to have a finger in the pie (and one on the safety) than to be home alone. The politics are horrifying. For the Germans to go on the wagon would be a boon to Putin’s Russia, which has broken the INF Treaty of 1986—no intermediate-range nuclear weapons on either side. Mr. Putin is building smarter and more precise cruise missiles to target Europe, and Europe only. So, Euromissile Crisis, Act II.1
In the first act, in the early 1980s, the SPD and the Greens unleashed millions of anti-nuclear demonstrators, but did not prevail. The Alliance countered the Soviet build-up with missiles of its own. Nor can Mr. Putin count on German pacifism this time. Nuclear sharing is just too good a deal. For the price of 45 F/A-18s, Berlin can keep the deterrence fabric intact and maintain oversight over nuclear strategy. Evading isolation, Berlin will signal the Kremlin that Atlantis is stronger than the fury over Donald Trump.
Right now, signaling is as urgent as can be. Putin is on an expansionist roll and pressing on NATO’s new members in the east. Opting out by nixing the F/A-18 is all pain and no gain— even for the too-clever-by-half Social Democrats. Exorcizing nukes drives the party farther to the left—and farther away from real power. Up on his cloud, chain smoker Helmut Schmidt must be reaching for another pack to keep cool. This chancellor fell when he could no longer stem his comrades’ anti-nuclear revolt in the early 1980s. His demise opened the way for sixteen years of Helmut Kohl, the SPD’s Conservative nemesis.
1. Back in the Seventies, the Soviet Union fielded SS-20 missiles and Backfire bombers capable of hitting only European, but not American, targets. So, chancellor Helmut Schmidt raised the alarm over “decoupling” as opposed to “seamless deterrence.” This led to the ”dual-track decision:” Counter-deploy with Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles to restore the balance or to force the Soviets to scrap its new weapons. The strategy worked. After counter-deployment, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to disarmament. Some 1200 missiles went to the scrap heap.