Use of Nuclear Weapons

German pilots can only use nuclear weapons with prior approval by the US President. He/she has the sole authority to clear the use of the weapons. In a defense situation, the German Chancellor is the commander-in-chief of the German pilots. This setup could in principle prevent the use of these weapons – and Germany cannot initiate such a use. As soon as German pilots had the power to deploy nuclear weapons, Germany would be in violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) according to the majority of the treaty’s parties.

The use of nuclear weapons is practiced annually, also by German pilots, during the NATO exercise Steadfast Noon. In addition to the US and the host countries, the exercise involves countries that offer air support for nuclear missions (Support Nuclear Operations with Conventional Air Tactics / SNOWCAT). The SNOWCAT countries are the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Poland, and Romania.

NATO’s actual operational plans are not public. In principle, the Alliance assesses the likelihood of using nuclear weapons as very low.

NATO does not explicitly rule out nuclear first use, that is the initial use of nuclear weapons by NATO forces in a conventional conflict. This nuclear first use could lead to a nuclear counterstrike and further nuclear escalation. Other use cases for weapons in nuclear sharing arrangements include responding to an adversary’s nuclear first strike with retaliatory nuclear strikes.

Flight ranges and air defense. Combat radii of different nuclear-weapons-capable aircraft starting from Büchel. Also depicted are Russian air defense capabilities.

The map shows the ranges of delivery systems that would take off from Büchel Air Base and illustrates a practical problem with NATO’s current deployment. It is easy to see that combat ranges barely extend beyond NATO partner countries (this applies even more to the US bombs stationed in Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands). The map also shows Russian air defense positions. In principle, NATO partners can perform aerial refueling for range extension. However, this is only possible in areas with Allied air sovereignty. Therefore, it is unclear which military targets could be engaged from Büchel Air Base.