Why Germany’s nuclear mission matters

(left to right) An RAF F-35B Lightning stealth jet, a United States Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle and a French Air Force Rafale fly in formation over the English Channel during Operation Point Blank.
Editor's note:

Peter Rough and Frank A. Rose argue that the decision to withdraw U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany should not be a unilateral decision. This piece was originally published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. A translation appears below.

Earlier this month, the influential head of the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, called for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany and an end to Germany’s participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) nuclear sharing arrangements, triggering a contentious debate within the SPD. But as Mützenich’s party colleague, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, noted, such consequential steps, if they were ever decided, should not be taken unilaterally. Instead, they demand the input of allies.

As American analysts of national security affairs, we agree. And as veterans of the last Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, respectively, we can say with certainty: Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing is a bipartisan American objective of the highest order. We also believe it is in Germany’s national interest, because without German participation in NATO’s nuclear mission, the European continent will grow more dangerous and less stable.

To see why, let us examine Mützenich’s proposal, which he anchors in two arguments. First, he states that the American decision to modernize its nuclear arsenal is accelerating an arms race, thereby endangering European security. Instead of buying expensive American fighter jets to deliver nuclear weapons, he says, Germany should be an advocate for arms control and disarmament.

Unfortunately, the arms race Mützenich fears has long been underway—and not because of the United States. Over the past fifteen years, Russia has invested heavily in all aspects of its nuclear forces, but notably in so-called nonstrategic weapons that are designed to reach nearby targets in Europe. These include short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles as well as newly developed air-, sea-, and ground-launched cruise missiles. In fact, when the Russian 9M729 cruise missile threatened the future of the INF Treaty, Moscow went ahead and deployed it anyway. This led directly to the demise of the treaty. As a result, none of Russia’s medium- and intermediate-range ballistic or cruise missile capabilities are constrained by arms control agreements.

This would not be nearly as concerning if Russia were a flourishing democracy at peace with the West. However, under Vladimir Putin, Russia has launched wars against Georgia and Ukraine, forcibly changing the borders of Europe for the first time since the end of the Cold War. “It’s best not to mess with us,” Putin warned during the height of the Ukraine crisis. “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” Such blunt attempts at nuclear blackmail are a regular feature of Russian diplomacy. To make sure its messages are received across Europe, Russia turns its nuclear warnings into action: a few years ago, for example, its air force simulated a large-scale nuclear strike on Stockholm.

Even so, Russia’s foreign policy belligerence and growing nuclear arsenal do not preclude targeted risk reduction measures, or even arms control, with the West. But for such initiatives to bear fruit, Moscow needs incentives. The B61 bomb, delivered by dual-capable aircraft, is currently NATO’s only modernized, nonstrategic nuclear weapon. If Germany turns its back on that effort, Moscow will have little reason to agree to any controls on its own arsenal. To repurpose a phrase from US President Harry Truman, nuclear capabilities and arms control are “two halves of the same walnut.” Paradoxically, therefore, Germany’s contribution to nuclear sharing not only contributes to deterrence, but represents the clearest path to precisely what Mützenich desires, namely limits on nuclear weapons.

Mützenich’s second argument is that Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing yields little political benefit. To be sure, ordering the Americans to withdraw their nuclear weapons may upset Washington, he concedes, but as a member of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, Berlin’s input into U.S. and alliance strategy would not be significantly diminished.

At first blush, this argument seems persuasive, but it misses one key point: Germany’s power. Today, Germany has grown into Europe’s biggest and most important country. It is the linchpin of NATO’s nuclear policy. Germans may not always fully appreciate their own power, or feel comfortable discussing its military dimensions, but the rest of Europe takes careful note of Berlin’s decisions. If Germany surrendered its nuclear mission, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy may not be far behind. The entire nuclear sharing agreement could unravel, prompting eastern European states like Poland to reconsider their own role in NATO’s nuclear mission. The US frustration with Germany’s lagging military capabilities, which contributed to the Trump administation’s recent decision to remove one-third of US troops from Germany, would only grow. Meanwhile, Russia would almost certainly interpret Germany’s decision as weakness and move to exacerbate tensions within the alliance. At a minimum, NATO could expect Russian meddling to increase in eastern Europe, Germany’s near abroad. This would threaten the peace and security of the entire continent.

As the second wealthiest country within NATO, Germany must share in the responsibilities of the alliance. That includes nuclear deterrence. Of course, the US, but also the German air force, would have preferred if Germany, like the other nuclear sharing countries, had decided to fulfill its nuclear mission by acquiring the F-35 fighter jet, a fifth-generation plane that can operate in highly contested air defense environments. However, with the decision to acquire the less advanced F-18 fighter, Germany will have to rely on it as a stopgap solution to perform the alliance nuclear mission. But what Berlin cannot do without triggering negative developments across Europe is ditch the nuclear mission altogether.

In the late 1970s, it was an SPD chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who pushed NATO to adopt the famous “Double Track” decision. Although controversial at the time, the deployment of US intermediate-range missiles into Europe eventually yielded the INF Treaty. The world has changed in fundamental ways over the intervening forty years, but one thing remains the same: Germany matters. As a new generation of SPD leaders launches another debate over the country’s nuclear strategy, permit two American observers to remind German readers of one thing: your decisions reverberate from Moscow to Washington. Choose wisely.