The German defense minister and Conservative Party (CDU) member Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has recently informed the US administration that Germany will buy 45 F-18 military aircraft. While the decision touches upon a vital part of Germany’s security and foreign policy, it has been taken without consulting the CDU’s coalition partner or the public.
A Comment by Alexander Sorg
After years of delay, the German government has finally decided on a replacement for the currently used Tornado aircraft. Among the announced order are 30 F-18 fighter jets that will be used to continue German’s participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement. However, the hosting of nuclear weapons in Germany is unpopular among its citizens.
Public interest is all the more important given the fact that the decision had been taken without consulting civil society, or even the consent of the Conservative’s coalition partner the Social Democrats (SPD). Unfortunately, the manner in which the decision was taken is only the tip of the iceberg in a strategy aimed at avoiding public debates. This is neither sustainable nor morally acceptable. What is needed instead, is a long-overdue discussion about nuclear weapons in Germany.
To fully understand the issue at stake, we have to look into the past. It was in 1955 when the first US nuclear weapons arrived in Germany, and it then took another three years to establish the still persisting nuclear sharing arrangement. Within this arrangement, host states provide delivery vehicles (e.g. in the form of military aircraft) which are designated for the use of nuclear warheads, once they have been released by the US President. Both nuclear weapon deployments and nuclear sharing were designed to strengthen internal coherence and external deterrence.
60 years later, Germany, together with Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, is still hosting US nuclear bombs on its soil. Currently, Germany has assigned its overaged Tornado aircraft to use nuclear weapons. Just like the Tornado, any new aircraft will have to be certificated for nuclear use by the US, and this process might take up to ten years. Waiting times are expected to be especially long, should a European aircraft have to be certified. Thus, it is unsurprising that the nuclear mission is now planned to be continued with the US produced F-18.
Still, the purchase will likely only be voted on in the German parliament in 2023. This would make it necessary to prolong the life of the existing fleet until the new aircraft is ready. According to earlier estimates by the Ministry of Defense, an extension of the use of Tornado jets until 2030 would cost about 9 billion euros – which approximates the price for an entire new fleet.
Avoiding public debate: An unsustainable strategy
Given the considerable costs of delay, it seems surprising that the German government did not decide on the matter earlier – but the reason is quite straightforward. The US deployed nuclear weapons are highly unpopular among German citizens. This sentiment is shared in other nuclear host states as well. A poll conducted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands found that respondents in all states were critical of a continuation of the existing arrangements.
In Germany, public sentiment has periodically transformed into action on the highest political level. In 2010, the parliament voted in favor of working towards an end of nuclear weapons in Germany. However, this caused considerable irritations among some NATO partners, and the endeavor was never seriously pursued.
In recent years and while being in government, the SPD has become increasingly sceptical about Germany’s role as a nuclear host state. Martin Schulz, the party’s frontrunner in the 2017 elections, promised to work towards ending the arrangement during his election campaign. Moreover, shortly after the United States decided to leave the INF treaty, the Social Democrats established a commission tasked with reevaluating the costs and benefits of nuclear sharing.
This year alone, the party’s co-leader Norbert Walter-Borjans called the existence of US weapons in Europe „problematic“ and another senior party member, Gabriela Heinrich, published a commentary in which she argues against new nuclear-capable aircraft. Consequently, some observers have speculated that the SPD does not want to take a decision on the future of nuclear weapons in Germany before 2021, to use it prominently in the next federal election campaign. It is therefore understandable that the CDU wanted to avoid discussing the issue with the SPD. However, this is not a long-term strategy.
What Germany and other nuclear host states need is an open and fact-based discussion about the costs and benefits of the current arrangement. It is for example true that the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), the main consultancy institution on nuclear questions within NATO, is open to all NATO members. However, some analysts argue that hosting nuclear weapons is tied to having a greater say in the NPG. If this is the case, the German government should clearly articulate such arguments.
The United States might view a unilateral expulsion as further proof of free-riding and restrict consultations in reaction to it. At the same time, it is often argued that the nuclear weapons stationed in Germany are militarily obsolete and only function as a political symbol. Is it worth spending billions on symbolism? Would Germany together with European partners be able to convince the US that the weapons are obsolete?
Another critical issue are Central and Eastern European views on the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe. Most of the countries in the region are supporters of a strong deterrence posture, and they might feel betrayed in the face of a growing Russian threat. There are no simple answers to these questions, but evading them is the worst option. Germany cannot ignore its citizens indefinitely, and the CDU will not succeed in continuing the current arrangement without the support of other parties.
Nuclear weapons are a matter of life and death in the most literal sense. Trying to avoid the discussion about nuclear weapons in Germany is both undemocratic and unsustainable.
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