Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh (“Bombs Away,” July/August 2014) have revived an old argument: U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are militarily useless, and so there is no reason for Washington to keep them in Europe. The problem, however, is that Blechman and Rumbaugh would have the United States draw back just as new Russian capabilities threaten its NATO allies.

In recent years, Moscow has been testing midrange cruise and ballistic missiles, something explicitly forbidden under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It has also adopted a new first-use doctrine. Whereas Russia’s long-range nuclear weapons threaten NATO members on both sides of the Atlantic, these missiles would target Europe alone. U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are the strongest bulwark standing in the way; without them, the alliance’s European members could not deter a Russian strike on their own. Such a capability is particularly crucial given Moscow’s recent expansionism. On any given day, the Kremlin could move troops into Estonia, just as it did in Ukraine. If U.S. nuclear weapons were gone from the European continent, Moscow could implement invasion plans undeterred, reasonably certain that Washington wouldn’t respond with strategic nuclear strikes.

Blechman and Rumbaugh also assert that many Europeans don’t want U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory. But those who oppose hosting such weapons represent a small minority, and among NATO’s top leaders, there is a strong consensus in favor of keeping U.S. weapons on the continent. The alliance’s director of nuclear policy, Fred Frederickson, acknowledged as much in a speech this past August, saying, “There is currently . . . no debate around that [U.S. nuclear weapons] officially at NATO headquarters.” NATO’s defense posture, meanwhile, continues to rely on a mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Blechman and Rumbaugh also complain about the expense of tactical nuclear weapons. They are correct that extending the service life of the B-61 bomb, the only type of nonstrategic nuclear weapon remaining in the U.S. arsenal, will cost over $8 billion. But compared with other Pentagon projects, that program is reasonably affordable. (So far, it also has the uncommon distinction of running on time and under budget.) According to the Los Angeles Times, for example, in 2011, the U.S. Air Force purchased nearly two dozen Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs, each weighing approximately 30,000 pounds, at a cost of $15.7 million per bomb. These conventional weapons are unquestionably effective at destroying underground facilities, but unlike B-61s, they will do nothing to make Moscow think twice about invading its neighbors. (And each can be used only once.) Next to a conventional war, nuclear deterrence in Europe is a bargain. What’s more, the B-61 life-extension program will have two other important benefits: improving the weapon’s safety and enabling Washington to retire its last megaton-class bomb, the B-83.

It is true that, as Blechman and Rumbaugh point out, maintaining U.S. nuclear capabilities in Europe will require the Pentagon to replace aging fighter planes with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Equipping the F-35 to deliver nuclear bombs could raise its development cost by around $400 million across the program. But NATO members could easily share the financial burden.

Moreover, such investments would still be worthwhile even if the costs were higher. Washington’s security guarantees to its NATO allies will stay credible only so long as U.S. nuclear weapons remain on European soil. As British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in The Telegraph in April 2013, “Just relying on the United States to act on our behalf allows potential adversaries to gamble that one day the U.S. might not put itself at risk in order to deter an attack on the U.K.”

By arguing that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are militarily useless, Blechman and Rumbaugh miss the most important point of all: that such weapons are not exclusively military tools. They also serve the political purpose of assuring allies and deterring aggressors. That’s why every U.S. president from Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush deployed nuclear weapons in times of crisis—and why President Barack Obama will most likely keep them in Europe.

JAMES BLACKWELL is Special Adviser to the U.S. Air Force’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. The views expressed here are his own.


James Blackwell errs on two points. First, what he portrays as a military justification for keeping tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is really a political one. Blackwell suggests that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are necessary to deter a Russian attack on U.S. allies and thereby reassure those allies. But Blackwell assumes that Washington would be willing to break its 70-year moratorium on the use of nuclear weapons when it could instead repel Moscow with conventional forces. Even if the Russians then chose to escalate the conflict by using nuclear weapons, NATO could respond with its large and flexible strategic nuclear arsenal, to say nothing of British and French nuclear forces. The only reason for Washington to keep tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, then, would be to signal its commitment to the continent’s security.

Political considerations are certainly legitimate. If tactical nuclear weapons carried only the marginal expense of maintaining them, there would be no need to consider phasing them out. And if they provided even a minimal political advantage, they could remain in Europe indefinitely. But here’s where the second flaw in Blackwell’s argument emerges. Blackwell argues that tactical nuclear weapons are relatively cheap, ignoring the uncomfortable fact that U.S. defense spending is capped, meaning that every dollar Washington spends on tactical nuclear weapons is a dollar it cannot use elsewhere.

Regrettably, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are now nearing the end of their effective lifetimes. If they are to function beyond the next ten years, the Pentagon will need to spend over $8 billion to extend their service lives and some $400 million to equip new aircraft to carry them. Those same funds could be used to purchase 50 to 60 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, one of the U.S. Air Force’s three highest spending priorities—which is precisely the sort of opportunity cost decision-makers must weigh against whatever political message the tactical nuclear weapons might convey.

The United States has remained committed to NATO’s defense for more than 60 years, deploying U.S. troops to the continent and providing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of financial support. Russian leaders would be insane to test that commitment by invading a NATO ally. Since tactical nuclear weapons offer the United States no military advantage, they are worthwhile only if its European allies see political value in them. Yet if European leaders really cared about U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, they would gladly help pay for them. Tellingly, however, they have been unwilling to do so.

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