By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009
The United States should keep tactical nuclear bombs in Europe and even consider modernizing older warheads on cruise missiles to maintain credibility with allies who depend on the U.S. weapons for security, according to a report released yesterday by a high-level task force appointed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
"The presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe remains a pillar of NATO unity," the report says, adding: "Some Allies have been troubled to learn that during the last decade some senior U.S. military leaders have advocated for the unilateral removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe."
The panel, officially named the Secretary of Defense Task Force on Defense Department Nuclear Weapons Management and chaired by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger, said in the report: "As long as NATO members rely on U.S. nuclear weapons for deterrence -- and as long as they maintain their own dual-capable aircraft as part of that deterrence -- no action should be taken to remove them without a thorough and deliberate process of consultation."
Gates established the task force to look into nuclear weapons issues after weaknesses in the program were discovered when a B-52 flew across the country last year carrying live warheads and shortly thereafter nuclear missile parts were found to have been unknowingly shipped to Taiwan. Last June, Gates fired Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne. In its first report, in September, the Schlesinger panel criticized the Air Force for lax security in handling nuclear weapons as top officials focused more on conventional weapons.
In yesterday's report, the Schlesinger panel said that "the most difficult challenge" facing the incoming Obama administration "will be in persuading this nation of the abiding requirement for nuclear forces." As an example, the panel called for modernization of the nuclear warheads on air-launched and sub-launched cruise missiles that are scheduled to be removed from the active stockpile. The panel said that the cruise missiles have "political value" and that their previous deployment in Europe provided "crucial deterrence and assurance elements," not just in Europe "but of allies elsewhere."
In a campaign speech last July, Barack Obama, now the president-elect, came out in support of eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons, but having the United States retain them, albeit in lower numbers, as long as other countries maintain their stockpiles.
While American cruise missiles were withdrawn from Europe in the 1990s, and overseas deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons is considered a classified matter, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which specializes in nuclear matters, recently reported that about 400 U.S. B-61 tactical nuclear bombs are stored at bases in several NATO countries, including Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters yesterday that Gates wants to review the panel's recommendations and evaluate "with the new service secretaries when they are named and with the rest of the new defense team that the Obama administration will be appointing over here."