Germany’s Phantom Debate: Why Germany Should Not Consider the Nuclear Option

During the 2018 political summer break in Berlin, a debate that had already been considered buried in the dustbin of implausible ideas resurfaced. After Christian Hacke, a retired professor of political science, suggested that Germany ought to contemplate acquiring nuclear weapons in light of America’s waning reliability as a security guarantor, a phantom debate returned to Berlin’s strategic community. I will show why this debate about a German national nuclear arsenal is misguided. Acquisition of nuclear weaponry would not enhance Germany’s security – on the contrary, a German atomic bomb would compromise the country’s safety.

Aylin, a staff writer for Shield, is currently working towards a PhD on the role of the US in NATO during the Obama presidency. She completed an MA in War Studies at King’s College London in 2014, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Management and Governance from Zeppelin Universität, Friedrichshafen.

During the 2018 political summer break in Berlin, a debate that had already been considered buried in the dustbin of implausible ideas resurfaced. After Christian Hacke, a retired professor of political science, suggested that Germany ought to contemplate acquiring nuclear weapons in light of America’s waning reliability as a security guarantor, a phantom debate returned to Berlin’s strategic community. I will show why this debate about a German national nuclear arsenal is misguided. Acquisition of nuclear weaponry would not enhance Germany’s security – on the contrary, a German atomic bomb would compromise the country’s safety. Instead, policy-makers in Berlin should think about how and when to replace the Tornado fighters that Germany is providing as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement – a provision that entails Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey hosting American atomic bombs on their soil. Ultimately, Germany depends on NATO to ensure its security. 

Germany has been relying on the American security guarantee since it joined NATO in 1955. While the German defence establishment is more self-reliant today than it was at the turn of the 21st century, it is still a core interest of the country to link its security and defence to NATO and by extension the US. This does not mean that Germany should neglect moving towards closer defence ties with its European partners to absorb a weakening American commitment to transatlantic security. Simultaneously, Germany should not waver from a commitment to keep the Americans engaged with Germany and other European NATO members.

Legal, political, financial and strategic arguments cast doubt on such a drastic step that would break with traditional German foreign and security policy. Germany is a signatory of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty. Acquiring nuclear weapons would be in clear violation of the Treaty and would thus run counter to German interests as a country that strongly advocates a legalistic approach to international relations. German politicians shy away from publicly debating the replacement of Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement. How then could German lawmakers possibly explain to the electorate the thornier suggestion that the country needs a nuclear arsenal of its own?

Following a similar logic, Berlin has trouble spending two per cent of GDP on defence as the general public is largely opposed to an increased defence budget – something Germany’s leaders had agreed at two NATO summits in 2014 and 2016. Acquiring and maintaining a national nuclear arsenal, even a small one, is a very costly endeavour. Those suggesting Germany should go nuclear would be well-advised to talk to France and the United Kingdom on this point. Provided Germany wants to uphold its alliance commitments (contributing to NATO’s deterrence and defence in the Baltics and Poland, for example), a national nuclear arsenal would need to be developed in addition to current defence obligations, i.e. even more money would have to be spent on military affairs.

Lastly, Germany’s allies and partners would likely object to the country wanting to go nuclear. NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement was partly established to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons while at the same time extending the protective shield nuclear weapons offer. Adversarial powers such as Russia would be even less enthused about a nuclear Germany. It would present an added threat to Russian security. Also, these weapons would likely be added to NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture, which has been mainly aimed at Moscow since 2014 as a reaction to Russian aggression against Ukraine.

These arguments should convey that Germany would likely get into hot water if it seriously attempted to join the nuclear club. In sum, Germany would be well advised to stay away from going nuclear for the legal, political, financial, and strategic reasons pointed out above.

What the German government ought to instead concentrate on is the possible replacement of the 30-year-old Dual-Capable Aircraft Tornado. The US stations B-61 nuclear bombs both on German soil and that of other allies. In turn, Germany maintains the launcher system which would carry nuclear weapons to its target in the event of Russian aggression against NATO territory. Germany has postponed the debate on the replacement of the Tornado, but it will have to be scrapped by 2025 as it reaches the end of its lifespan. Berlin was scheduled to announce a replacement for the Tornado by the end of 2018, but no decision has yet been made.

It is high time German decision-makers started contemplating the question of the Tornado replacement, which is becoming increasingly time-sensitive as Washington is in the process of modernising its nuclear bombs stationed in Germany and other NATO countries. It is imperative for Germany to consider, alongside its allies, how to shape the future of NATO nuclear sharing in Germany and in Europe. Germany has no viable alternative to ensuring its security other than in the NATO framework – neither today, nor in the foreseeable future.

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