Jeffrey LewisAraxos, A-Bombs & Alcohol

Kingston Reif at Nukes of Hazard noticed a “quote of the day” from a former Air Force nuclear weapons officer who claimed that US nuclear weapons had been stored at a NATO airbase manned by unmotivated conscripts and an alcoholic commander.  Turns out, he was writing about Greece.

Brent Hoffman, a former city councilman in Sioux City, IA, wrote an otherwise unremarkable op-ed in the Sioux City Journal about the decline of the nuclear mission since his time in the Air Force, along the way dropping this chestnut:

Through the years, I worked with other people, aircraft and weapons, ranging from a hand-picked team of perfectionists developing the B-2 bomber, to an unmotivated group of foreign military transcripts at an undisclosed NATO base, complete with an alcoholic commander and about 20 nuclear weapons. Those weapons have since been relocated. I’d like to tell you more, but it would be both unwise and illegal.

Ah, yes, it might be unwise and illegal to say more. But what about telling the story twice in slightly different ways? Hoffman told the story differently to the Sioux City Journal when he entered office, providing enough details to reveal that he was station at Araxos Air Base in Greece around 1999:

[Hoffman and his late wife] met at their church in Alexandria, Va., and dated for two years before marrying in 1998. Shortly after their marriage, Hoffman was posted to a base in Greece.

“I think it was God’s will that I was there. They had a mission that was archaic and dangerous,” he said, explaining he could not be more specific for security reasons.

When stationed later at the Pentagon, he said he drafted a report that helped lead to changing that situation.

The details all add up.  The US reportedly removed the nuclear weapons from Araxos in early 2001 — just in time for Hoffman to do a post-1998 tour in Greece, then return and  take credit for their removal.  Also, Greece has conscription. And ouzo.
I don’t know the identity of the commander of the Hellenic Air Force‘s 116 Combat Wing circa 1999 — but I’ll bet he’s pretty damn angry about being called a drunk.  If he is sober enough to sit in front of a computer, that is.


  1. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    I read that piece as well, but didn’t try to sleuth out the details. Well done! Ouzo’s on me.

  2. VS (History)

    And my two cents worth of contribution on which was the antiquated mission that was archaic and dangerous.

    During the Cold War the orders of the Greek fighter-bombers was to nuke targets in Bulgaria and I believe also in Romania. The orders were not recalled even well into the ’90s, after the disollution of the Warsaw Pact. Another sign of how seriously NATO takes its European TNW component.

    This thing with TNW in Europe is a circus. Perhaps Hoffman described one of the most grotesque sides of it, but the whole thing is just a joke.

  3. InsiderThreat (History)

    Just a joke?

    What happens if they leave Incirlik?

    Would these weapons NEVER be used–even against Iran?

  4. Tom Sauer (History)

    Does anybody know whether this was a unilateral decision taken by the US, or whether this decision has been taken after a debate within NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group ? In other words, was a consensus within NATO needed in 2001 to withdraw these US tactical nuclear weapons from Greece ?

    I ask the question because at this very moment the consensus rule inside NATO is the biggest hurdle to withdraw the remaining US tacnukes from Europe. Apart from a couple of Cold War bureaucrats, there is a societal and political consensus within Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands in favor of their early removal. But because nuclear weapon state France, ironically the only NATO state that does not participate in the NPG, does not like to talk about the removal out of fear that the next discussion will be a debate about the French ‘force de frappe’, supported by defense bureaucrats from Estonia, these weapons seem to be destined to stay in Europe forever.

    I have recently written a Harvard Discussion Paper on this topic together with my colleague Bob van der Zwaan from the Netherlands:

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I believe it was a “bilateral” US-Greece decision (ie a unilateral US one) to respond to an unacceptable on-the-ground situation.

      The argument that forward-deployed US nuclear weapons could only be withdrawn on the basis of a consensus decision within NATO is a new one. Depending on your outlook, it is a sober recognition that the security benefits from forward deployed nuclear weapons now primarily accrue to the states closest to Russia rather than the host nations or a bullshit excuse to keep the Germans in the business (as in “Sure, we’ll remove them, just as soon as you convince your nice Polish neighbors to agree.”) out of fear that the next withdrawal sets off a cascade of withdrawals.

      Your call, really.

  5. Tom Sauer (History)

    If the US withdrew the US tacnukes from Greece unilaterally because of an unacceptable on-the-ground situation in 2001, the US should do it again in Belgium. See your own excellent blog from the beginning of 2010:

    And according to a Pentagon report not only in Belgium:

    You are right that the security benefits, or better the perception of these benefits, are bigger in Eastern Europe (should we start using this term again ?) than in Western Europe. But does anybody believe that Obama, Perry, or another Bush will use atomic weapons in the future to defend the Baltic States against Russia, with whom we are – by the way – trying to cooperate on ballistic missile defense ? If the Baltic states need to be reassured, there are other, more credible ways.

    Wat I am suggesting is that the Obama administration better acts “unilaterally” (here, you have a European that likes US unilateralism :)) instead of waiting until all NATO members formally agree. As you insinuated, the US has withdrawn hundreds or even thousands of tacnukes from Europe in the past (there were 7000 once upon a time), silently and unilaterally. Even the INF bilateral agreement was agreed without much (or any) discussion with the European allies ! Why being so prudent now ? The withdrawal of the 200 remaining US tacnukes from European soil are low-hanging fruit for an American president that made nuclear disarmament one of his foreign policy priorities. The over-time withdrawal would send the right signal to the rest of the world. Or do we wait until other nuclear weapon state start deploying nuclear weapons on other territory’s soil as well, like Pakistan in Saudi-Arabia (after Iran crossed the red line) ? Curious what our reaction will be.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “Why being so prudent now? The withdrawal of the 200 remaining US tacnukes from European soil are low-hanging fruit for an American president that made nuclear disarmament one of his foreign policy priorities.”

      My guess would be that it is politically harder to take out the last 200 than the first 200. The absolute number being removed is not as important as the void left when you finish. At that point an incremental change becomes a change in kind, and those who want to keep “some” cannot overlook the difference.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, the only important threshold is whatever number is necessary to justify two locations in Europe, which is probably somewhere around the current number.

  6. Tom Sauer (History)

    To take out the last 200 US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe is politically more difficult than the first 200. That is only correct under the assumption that these weapons are militarily and/or politically still useful. (By the way, how can they be political useful without being military useful ?) It is exactly that assumption that both governments and societies in Germany, and the Low Countries (the Netherlands, and Belgium) question. In 2009, German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier (SPD) stated that these weapons ‘are absolutely senseless today’. His successor Guido Westerwelle (FDP) repeated that these weapons ‘are a relic of the Cold War’. Even Karl-Heinz Kampf (NATO Defense College), not known as a flower power guy, recently admitted that ‘the critics of the US nuclear presence in Europe have a point when they state that the current strategic rationale for nuclear bombs on European soil is at best doubtful’. The withdrawal will therefore not be felt like a void; on the contrary, it will be felt like a relief.

    Let me support the assumption that there is no place anymore for US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe with just one argument: how legitimate is it, sitting on a pile of thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in NATO, and living in a paradise (compared to many other places in the world), to ask Iran, that is situated in a much more volatile region, not to acquire nuclear weapons ?

    Even if you still believe that the US/NATO/Europe anno 2011 still needs US tactical nuclear weapons on Europe’s territory, why should they be located 2 member states (read Italy and Turkey) ? Why not 5, 4, 3, or 1 ? Because this issue is not an issue in Italy and Turkey ? And why the current number of weapons (150-200) ? Why not 500, 400, 50, 40, 5, 4 ? These numbers seem very arbitrary.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think the place to start is by asking what problem are you trying to solve?

      Let me begin by noting that my pet peeve — or at least one of the pets in the menagerie — is the assertion of political utility for systems with no military utility. I simply do not understand how a suboptimal allocation of defense resources on behalf of an ally can be more reassuring than an optimal one.

      I have been told repeatedly by the most senior NATO officials that the gravity bombs in Europe have no military utility.

      I believe the continuing assertion of political utility, therefore, represents a policy failure to align our defense forces, policies and postures with the role that conventional and nuclear weapons play. This is the problem I am trying to solve: a suboptimal defense posture. We ought to move purposefully to achieve the proper alignment.

      In my view, the correct alignment is one in which consultation and burden-sharing are grounded only in systems with military utility. (Actually, to be slightly more precise, the software of the relationship should be freestanding to permit changes to hardware as necessary.)

      Pulling the weapons out immediately, like the Baltimore Colts leaving town, isn’t satisfactory. The weapons need to be removed in the context of alterations to how NATO, as an alliance, performs consultation and burden-sharing. Ultimately, of course, that will mean the removal of the weapons.

      All of this is general in nature. The only specific near-term threat is the unacceptable security situation at some host country bases, including those in Belgium. (I would argue that the local failures in security are rooted in the misalignment in our policy. After all, what is the failure to provide security other than a shirking of the burden to be shared?)

      The lousy security situation at air bases like Kleine Brogel is a real security threat. (It doesn’t matter that the activists didn’t open a vault. If a country doesn’t take the business of securing nuclear weapons seriously enough to hire a dog master, it is simply not a responsible steward of nuclear weapons.) The United States should immediately remove all nuclear weapons at air bases that do not meet security standards. I believe these problems are widespread enough to justify the immediate consolidation of all US nuclear weapons to two sites (US airbases where the US provides the security), pending the discussion I outlined above.

      The issue with a single site is that no one NATO country would accept being the warehouse for NATO’s nuclear weapons. Well, no one country that is already a host state. We could probably put them at that secret prisons in Eastern Europe without too much fuss.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “To take out the last 200 US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe is politically more difficult than the first 200. That is only correct under the assumption that these weapons are militarily and/or politically still useful.”

      Well, . . . it’s correct under the assumption that influential decision makers demand that the stockpiles be there. Now, that demand should be based on the military and/or political utility of the stockpiles, but I suppose there could be other reasons. They may disagree with the calculation of utility; they could believe the stockpile has symbolic significance beyond any practical use; or they could seek to use the stockpile as a bargaining chip in a related or unrelated arena. You (or I) may not consider their reasons legitimate, but that doesn’t mean they won’t continue to think that way. Has anyone asked, say, the Poles whether there is anything that in their minds could compensate for the loss of the tacnuke stockpiles?

  7. Tom Sauer (History)

    So, we agree, Jeffrey that the US tacnukes have no military and therefore no political role anymore, if I understand you well.
    But “pulling the weapons out IMMEDIATELY…isn’t satisfactory”. Hello ? The basic reason why these weapons have no utility anymore is the historic turn in international politics in 1989/1991, exactly 20 years ago. With a lot of empathy, I understand that the Bush,Sr administration had a wait and see attitude, and that the NATO Strategic Concept of 1991 did not move the goalposts very much. But two years later, it was already clear that Russia had only a GNP as big as Portugal, and that the biggest danger were the so-called loose nukes (esp. tactical nukes). There were voices inside the Clinton administration that wanted to withdraw the US tacnukes from Europe, but bureaucratic inertia made that the US Nuclear Posture Review of 1993-1994 was a complete failure (see my PhD turned into a book, published by I.B.Tauris in 2005, titled Nuclear Inertia. US Nuclear Weapons Policy after the Cold War; another excellent book is called Elusive Consensus by Janne Nolan).
    And what about 1999 ? Another missed opportunity with NATO’s (second) Strategic Concept. What about the US NPR in 2010 (!) AFTER the Kissinger & co piece in 2007 (which explicitly recommended the withdrawal) and after Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009 ? And what about last year’s NATO Strategic Concept ? Some small openings on this issue of the tacnukes, but basically kicking this issue forward to the on-going NATO Defense and Deterrence Review. If this Review decides in May 2012 that it would be in everybody’s interest to withdraw the remaining tacnukes, I would not call that “immediate”.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      We agree that the few hundred B61 gravity bombs in Europe have no military utility. So does every senior NATO and allied official I have ever asked, at least off the record.

      What unique benefit does immediate withdrawal accomplish, other than immediate withdrawal?

      I can solve the security problem with consolidation. More time would be useful to alter the consultation and burden-sharing arrangements so that they do not depend on forward-deployed bombs with no military utility. I don’t like most of the things I might have to do to reassure the Poles and others if I pull them out tomorrow. (Actually tomorrow, September 1, is the anniversary of the Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Surely you would wait two days to pull them out, right?)

    • John Schilling (History)

      “So we agree … that the US tacnukes have no military and therefore no political role anymore”

      The political role of nuclear weapons is based on their perceived, rather than actual, military utility. If anyone anywhere happens to disagree with all us extremely smart people here and instead e.g. foolishly believes that forward-deployed B61s are militarily useful weapons, then those weapons have real political utility when dealing with those people.

      Even people who understand that the weapons have no military utility can put them to real political use. They can use such weapons to threaten an adversary who in his ignorance believes the weapons might be used against him. They can use such weapons to reassure naive allies who do not recognize that the weapons cannot or will not be used to defend them.

      And, of course, it is possible that it just might be us clever wonks who are wrong about the military utility of Euro-B61s, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. There seem to be people who believe that the weapons have real military utility, therefore they do have real political utility, and we ought to put some thought into how we retire that tool in favor of something better. Secure the bombs carefully, yes. Retire them precipitously, no. Consult with allies in the process, definitely.

  8. Scott Monje (History)

    By coincidence, I happened across this from Nikolai Sokov–one of Jeffrey’s colleagues at MIIS. He suggests that it might be best to move the core of the current debate in Europe away from the question of whether Russia is a threat and toward an effort to teach officials (especially East European officials, who–through no fault of their own–were generally kept out of the arms control discussions and negotiations of the past) the basics of just what nuclear weapons are and what they can and cannot do. (He notes that “the debate increasingly grows emotional and political.”)

  9. Tom Sauer (History)

    Excellent paper by Sokov; thanks for posting it.

    Suggestion: East European diplomats who work at NATO Headquarters can take a 30 minute train to the Universiteit Antwerpen, where I will start teaching the course (seminar) Arms Control and Proliferation from February 2012 onwards. (No joke). Just in time for being able to finalize NATO’s Defense and Deterrence Posture in May 2012 🙂

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Niets te danken!

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