Nuclear weapons owned by the United States have been deployed in Europe since the mid-1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized their storage at allied North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bases on the continent for use against the Soviet Union. Though NATO officially declares itself a “nuclear alliance,” it does not own any nuclear weapons.
Historically, the United States has deployed both nuclear bombs and nuclear-armed missiles to allied
European states, including Greece and the United Kingdom, but since the end of the Cold War the total
arsenal has been reduced to air-launched tactical, or nonstrategic nuclear bombs.
Today, under NATO’s nuclear sharing program, the remaining bombs complement the alliance’s collective security deterrent against threats, principally Russia. Alongside NATO member the United Kingdom’s arsenal, U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe are consistent with Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. Fellow member France, who re-joined the alliance in 2009, does not commit its own nuclear arsenal to the alliance’s extended deterrent.
Beyond the alliance’s three nuclear powers, five others participate in U.S. nuclear sharing: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Seven more participate in the Support of Nuclear Operations With Conventional Air Tactics (SNOWCAT), providing assistance in nuclear missions through conventional air support: Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Poland and Romania.
All 30 members of the alliance excluding France are also a part of the Nuclear Planning Group, which discusses policy issues. The North Atlantic Council remains NATO’s ultimate authority, and member states retain control over their own nuclear forces.
How many and where?
The United States and its NATO allies do not disclose exact figures for its European-deployed stockpiles.
In 2021, it is estimated that there are 100 U.S.-owned nuclear weapons stored in five NATO member states across six bases: Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel Air Base in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi Air Bases in Italy, Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, and Incirlik in Turkey.
In 2019, a leaked report (shown below) was seen by Belgian newspaper De Morgen, which said that American nuclear weapons “are stored at six US and European bases — Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in The Netherlands, and Incirlik in Turkey.”
Are the weapons armed?
The weapons are not armed or deployed on aircraft; they are kept in WS3 underground vaults in national airbases, and the Permissive Action Link (PAL) codes used to arm them remain in American hands.
What kinds of U.S. nuclear weapons are in Europe?
U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe consist entirely of B61-3 and -4 gravity bombs deployed by dual-capable aircraft. Now undergoing modernization under the NNSA’s B61-12 Life Extension Plan, updated warheads are scheduled for deployment by 2024 alongside delivery vehicle modernization programs of host nations. This B61-12 variant will include a new tail kit to improve both efficiency and accuracy. It will also allow variable yield capability, with a yield ranging from 0.3 KT to 170 KT and allow for both strategic and tactical use.
A B61 bomb is a tactical nuclear weapon, which is generally understood to be smaller and more ‘usable’ than strategic nuclear weapons (such as the type the UK owns).
How would the weapons be deployed?
To be used, the bombs would be loaded onto dual-capable NATO-designated fighters. Each country is in the process of modernizing its nuclearcapable fighters to either the F-35A, the F-18 Super Hornet, or the Eurofighter Typhoon.
How might a nuclear war begin? What might the outcome look like?
During an escalating hypothetical conflict between NATO and Russia, a single nuclear warning shot from Russia into Poland could invite an allied nuclear response: a B61 dropped on a military site in Kaliningrad, for example. This in turn could prompt a Russian escalation, and then — if things continue down that path — all-out nuclear war with the United States, resulting in at least 91.5 million casualties worldwide, according to a 2019 simulation from Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. At that point, we could confront levels of horror that have been confined to theory and fiction for 77 years. If, for example, an 800-kiloton Russian intercontinental ballistic missile detonated 1.8 miles above the White House, there could be half a million fatalities and people might endure third-degree burns from Silver Spring, Md., to Alexandria, Va., according to Nukemap, a modeling website created by nuclear-weapons historian Alex Wellerstein.
Locations illustration by armscontrol.org
Excerpt of leaked report by De Morgen: