America still holds 480 nuclear weapons in Europe, says survey

MORE THAN a dozen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, America still keeps 480 nuclear weapons in Europe, more than twice as many as previously believed, according to an authoritative new study.

The Washington-based Natural Resources Defence Council says the weapons are under US control and stored at eight bases in six countries - Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey. The weapons are all gravity bombs. Three hundred are fitted to be dropped by US planes, and 180 by planes from local air forces.

In Britain, 110 weapons are said to be stored at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, home to 5,000 US military personnel and three squadrons of F-15 aircraft.

Germany is host to the most, with 150 kept at three bases. A further 90 apiece are in Italy and Turkey, and 20 apiece in Belgium and the Netherlands. The report, compiled from documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, military literature, and material from NGOs and other sources, is in sharp contrast with official indications that US nuclear weapons in Europe total no more than 200 or so, after "significant reductions" in recent years.

Indeed, the previous study by the NRDC itself, a privately financed arms control group, put the number of such US weapons in Europe at between 150 and 200. That was in 1998.

At the height of the Cold War, the US had 7,300 short range weapons in Europe, but that fell steeply after arms control treaties of the late 1980s.

The new report, 102 pages long, challenges the entire rationale for keeping a nuclear arsenal of any size in Europe. Pentagon officials say they are part of Nato's "strategic deterrence mission" in the region, hinting that they could be employed to counter a non-conventional threat from countries such as Iran or Syria.

But the NRDC dismisses that reasoning as "obsolete and vague". It argues long range nuclear missiles based in the US render Europe-based ones superfluous. Indeed, the presence of the latter is if anything counterproductive - "an irritant" in relations with Russia, and a factor undermining Washington's efforts to prevent countries such as Iran from acquiring nuclear arms.

In what may be no coincidence, the report appears as Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, meets his Nato counterparts in Nice for talks in which nuclear proliferation is to be a key topic. European members are divided on the issue.

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