Tim Street

29 June 2018

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This primer explains the role US-owned B61 tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) play in Europe as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements. It considers these weapons in terms of their economic, political, diplomatic and security significance, including internal NATO dynamics, US-Russia relations and international arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament regimes. 


TNWs have been deployed by the US in Europe since the mid-1950s in an arrangement known as nuclear sharing. Following the end of the Cold War the number of these weapons fell dramatically but they were not completely withdrawn. Maintaining NATO nuclear sharing has been seen as a way of maintaining alliance unity as these weapons provide an important political link between Washington and European capitals. Since 2014, NATO-Russia tensions have provided the alliance with an opportunity to highlight the supposed role that nuclear deterrence plays in keeping the peace. Concurrently, the revived salience of TNWs (particularly in US nuclear doctrine), US plans to spend $10 billion modernising its TNW arsenal, the huge cost of procuring next generation nuclear-capable strike aircraft (particularly for Germany and Belgium), and the fragility of Turkey-NATO relations, have all raised questions about the costs and benefits of NATO nuclear sharing.

Key Points

  • The US currently deploys some 180 ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons (B61 gravity bombs) across six bases in five European NATO member states: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
  • The existing B61 bombs are currently undergoing a highly expensive life extension (to the 2040s) and modernisation programme. This will make these weapons more accurate and, some say, more usable.
  • Critics highlight safety and security fears surrounding TNW and the need for states to abide by their international non-proliferation and disarmament obligations.
  • NATO nuclear weapons have not been part of strategic arms reduction negotiations between the US and Russia, despite civil society groups and some European NATO member states calling for their removal from the continent.
  • The ongoing freeze in Russia-NATO relations and President Trump’s commitment to nuclear modernisation means that achieving progress on nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament in this region is likely to be very difficult in the near-term.

Image of B61 bomb, credit: Public Domain. 

About the Author

Tim Street has been an Associate Fellow of the Sustainable Security Programme since January 2017, specialising in nuclear security and disarmament issues. From October 2015 to December 2016 Tim was Senior Programme Officer with this programme, focusing on the UK’s defence, security and conflict prevention policy. Tim has been working on peace and disarmament issues since 2005. He has variously conducted advocacy, campaign and research work with groups including Nuclear Information Service (who he is also currently a Director of), Campaign Against Arms Trade, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and Conscience. Tim recently completed his PhD exploring the politics of nuclear disarmament at Warwick University as part of a collaborative studentship with the British American Security Information Council, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.