In 1991, U.S. President George H. W. Bush decided to retire almost all the tactical nuclear weapons operated by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. His reasons were simple: these short-range weapons were militarily useless and imposed significant burdens on the armed forces in terms of money, manpower, and time. Twenty-three years later, only one type of tactical nuclear weapon remains in the U.S. inventory: the B-61 gravity bomb. In addition to the several hundred B-61s located at home, the United States currently deploys around 180 of them in Europe, at bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. In the event of a nuclear conflict on the continent, NATO would deliver the bombs via U.S.-built F-15 or F-16 aircraft or European-built Tornado fighters, operated by some combination of Belgian, Dutch, German, Italian, and U.S. crews. Originally intended to prevent Soviet forces from penetrating Western Europe, the planes could travel as far east as Russia. But owing to their slower speed and lower altitude, they would be much more vulnerable to Russia’s ground-based air defenses than would longer-range strategic bombers and missiles.
Such impractical plans are remnants of the Cold War, when the conventional forces of the United States and its allies were thought to be so inferior to those of the Soviet Union that NATO tried to deter Moscow by threatening to use nuclear weapons first. Tens of millions of Germans, Poles, and other Europeans would have been killed in such a tactical conflict. But even at the time, few believed that the weapons would have been able to stop a Soviet attack. Since detonating tactical nuclear bombs would have likely triggered a strategic nuclear exchange, Western policymakers reasoned that the fear of such escalation would prevent the Soviets from attacking in the first place. But Soviet plans called for the massive use of nuclear weapons at the very onset of any form of conflict in Europe, making the tactical weapons