A report has slammed planned upgrades to the U.S. tactical nuclear bomb program as an “egregious” waste of money and said deployment overseas is risky, although experts point to benefits for allies in Asia.
The Stimson Center, a U.S.-based think tank, said Monday that scrapping all B61 bombs could save the U.S. more than $6 billion, adding that Washington could make Europe safer by withdrawing them from bases in foreign nations.
“The continued presence of these weapons at five sites in Europe, particularly in Turkey, raises serious risks of their seizure by terrorists or other hostile forces,” the report said.
The bombs are designated as tactical weapons, dropped from small, short-range aircraft. The report calls them all but obsolete given the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrence.
Around 50 of the bombs are stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, less than 110 km from the Syrian border. Security there is dependent on conditions in Turkey, which cut off the base’s electricity supply for several days and prohibited flights after its failed military coup last month.
Washington is believed to keep bombs in Turkey to show its commitment to the NATO member and as a deterrent to Moscow, which chipped away at Turkish territory in a series of wars until the early 20th century.
Another 130 or so B61 bombs are kept at bases in Belgium, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
The U.S. is thought to have no atomic weapons in East Asia, but it could deploy them to bases such as Guam to aid allies in the event of a security crisis that threatens them but not the U.S. itself.
Some analysts call this an important guarantee for nations such as Japan.
“U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, of which there is now only the B61 left in service, serve a crucial coupling function that links regional security crises to the possibility of nuclear escalation,” said Stephan Fruehling of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University.
“As such, the viability of the B61 capability is just as essential to East Asian allies as it is to NATO,” he said.
However, other analysts call the bombs a liability in Asia.
“Their military utility remains questionable. Their political value is suspect. Their economic costs are high,” said Ramesh Thakur of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament at the Australian National University.
“U.S. nuclear rivals will react with force modernization plans of their own, and they might become a little bit more reluctant to cooperate in reining in North Korea’s nuclear program,” he added.
Turkey’s coup attempt has stoked debate in the U.S. about Incirlik. In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times last week, a former U.S. National Security Council arms control chief likened the situation to that before the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.
“As was the case in 1979, the warning bells are ringing,” Steve Andreasen wrote.