COLOGNE, Germany — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has waded into Germany’s fiery debate about the decades-old pledge to retain American atomic bombs in the European nation as a way of deterring Russia.

Stoltenberg argued that only sticking to the doctrine of “nuclear sharing” would ensure Berlin's continued seat at the table of strategic decision-making within the alliance.

“NATO’s nuclear sharing is a multilateral arrangement that ensures the benefits, responsibilities and risks of nuclear deterrence are shared among allies,” he wrote in an op-ed first posted on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung website. “Politically, this is significant. It means that participating allies, like Germany, make joint decisions on nuclear policy and planning, and maintain appropriate equipment.”

The policy prescribes that a smattering of countries in Europe that don’t possess atomic weapons will host such arms on their territory and maintain the means to deploy them. In the case of Germany, there are 20 B61 bombs reportedly stored at Büchel Air Base in western Germany’s state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

If called upon, German Tornado pilots would fly the weapons into enemy territory and toss them at the targets in a lofting maneuver, releasing them during a sharp upward and backward turn to maximize bomb airtime.

Debate has flared up in recent weeks about Germany’s nuclear role, following the German Defence Ministry’s recommendation to purchase 30 F-18s for the job, as the Tornado fighter jets are expected to reach the end of their useful life by 2030.

Led by Rolf Mützenich, the chairman of the Social Democrats in parliament, a group within the governing coalition’s junior party want to exit the NATO atomic arrangement, arguing that deal, too, has outlived its usefulness.

Not so, argues Stoltenberg.

“While NATO views its own nuclear deterrent primarily as a political tool, Russia has firmly integrated its nuclear arsenal into its military strategy,” Stoltenberg wrote. “It has placed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, just 500 km from Berlin. It has threatened allies such as Denmark, Poland and Romania with nuclear strikes. Russia also forcibly and illegally annexed part of Ukraine, a country whose borders it had previously committed to respect in return for Ukraine giving up its own nuclear protection.”

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister and chief of the Christian Democrats, also cited lingering geopolitical tensions as an argument for keeping U.S. nukes in the country.

"As long as there are nuclear-weapons states who don’t want to be part of our community of values, we need a strong negotiating position,” she said last week, as reported by Die Zeit. "The deterrence capability of the nuclear-sharing arrangement serves that purpose. Those who want to give it up are weakening our security.”

To the uninitiated, the mere act of absorbing the nuclear debate here could seem like an acid trip through the various stages of Germany’s coming of age since the Cold War. It is easy to get lost in the details. The intricacies to be considered touch on anything from certifying new jets for nuclear missions, the folly of attempting an atomic bomb run with a manned fighter jet in the first place, or the deterrence value of B61 bombs in Europe when other classes of weapons would breathe much more destructive fire over the continent.

Perhaps that is why symbolic arguments aimed at preserving NATO cohesion appear to have the upper hand among Germany’s decision-makers for now.

Or as Stoltenberg put it: “All allies have agreed that as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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