This week the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said in a study that the US army had apparently completely removed its stock of an estimated 130 nuclear weapons from the Ramstein air base. That would reduce the total US atomic weapons arsenal in Europe to about 350. It marks a fraction of what the US deployed in Europe during the Cold War.
"I think it's almost certain that the bombs aren't in Ramstein anymore," Hans M. Kristensen, author of the study, told the online version of German news magazine Der Spiegel. "In any case, there are several indications that they aren't there anymore."
"The best proof you can get"
The FAS study cited a public report by the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) from January 2007, which lists nuclear installations in Europe to receive visits in the coming months from American nuclear safety experts who usually help local teams prepare for regular technical inspections. For the first time the Ramstein air base is not on the list.
Since inspections for all US nuclear bases in Europe are mandatory, the FAS believe that the removal of Ramstein from the list is proof that it no longer contains nuclear weapons.
"The list clearly proves that the weapons are gone," Kristensen said. "The army can't store them there without regular inspections. In this business, this is the best proof you can get."
Neither the Pentagon nor the German defense ministry has officially reacted to reports of the removal of the nuclear arsenal at Ramstein.
Welcome news for anti-nuclear lobby
It remains unclear when, if at all, the nuclear weapons were removed from Ramstein.
The issue flared up in 2005 when members of Germany's previous Social Democrat-Green government vowed to take up the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from German soil at NATO amid widespread opposition across party lines about their continuing presence. Proponents of a withdrawal of the weapons argued that they were a Cold War relic and undermined the international non-proliferation process.
By the time the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, more than 2, 570 nuclear weapons were estimated to have been deployed across dozens of locations in Germany alone.
In 2005, Der Spiegel, citing unnamed German defense officials, also reported that nuclear bombs in Ramstein stored in special underground vaults had been discreetly removed during major construction work at the air base. The assumption now is that the weapons were never returned to Ramstein.
Remaining nuclear weapons raise pressure on Berlin
Reports of the likely withdrawal of the 130 nuclear weapons from Ramstein will be welcomed by Germany's anti-nuclear lobby as a boost for disarmament efforts.
But experts point out that the withdrawal also raises pressure on the government to justify the presence of the remaining US nuclear arsenal on German soil. Politicians from Germany's opposition Green Party and the Left Party have long demanded the complete pull-out of all nuclear weapons from the country.
According to the USAFE list of US nuclear installations in Europe, the only remaining US air base in Germany that contains nuclear weapons is Büchel in the country's southwest. It's believed to hold around 20 nuclear bombs in underground bunkers.
"It will now be difficult for the federal government to justify the remaining nuclear weapons in Germany," wrote Otfried Nassauer, director of the Berlin Center for Transatlantic Security in an article for Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. He argued that the nuclear weapons in Germany failed to fulfill any military purpose but rather ran up huge costs because of the need for expensive personnel to monitor them.
"Until now the federal government always told proponents of the withdrawal of nuclear weapons that Washington continued to stick to the deployment of nuclear weapons in Germany and it was Berlin's duty to show solidarity in NATO," Nassauer wrote.
"The first argument no longer holds. The federal government now needs to justify why it continues to support the storing of nuclear weapons when the US itself no longer considers it necessary in Germany."