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US nuke upgrade to trigger new arms race with Russia?

LONDON - Plans to upgrade the estimated 180 American tactical nuclear weapons in western Europe are expensive, dangerous and likely to trigger a dangerous reaction from Russia, according to a new report.

"Modernization ... will be a form of expensive nuclear escalation by default which can be expected to draw a hostile reaction from Moscow," said the study by the European Leadership Network (ELN) think tank, which was released on Thursday.

NATO is preparing to replace aging aircraft and antiquated free-fall nuclear bombs with precision-guided warheads carried by modern U.S. aircraft, according to the report by Edmond Seay, a former arms control adviser to NATO's U.S. mission. 

The weapons to be replaced were "originally deployed to help NATO counter massive Soviet conventional force superiority in central Europe" and are now "widely seen to have no real military purpose or value," according to a summary of the report.

The American government will be replacing these "relics of the Cold War" with precision guidance systems at a cost of $4 billion, in spite of swinging defense spending cuts, the report said.

European countries will also have to pay large amounts to replace the defense system, the summary adds

European countries, whose pilots are trained to deliver the B-61s to target, are also facing expensive decisions to replace the relevant aircraft, which are now coming to the end of their effective service lives. Each replacement aircraft – (the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter) – is slated to cost from $90 million to just over $110 million.

The nuclear force modernisation plans, if carried through, will therefore produce a “formidable increase in nuclear capabilities for NATO in Europe”, rendering these weapons more credibly usable in war-fighting scenarios with Russia.

The newly formed think tank includes a number of high-profile figures on its executive board, including former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and former foreign or defense ministers from NATO member countries such as France, Spain, Norway, Germany, Turkey and the United Kingdom, among others.

(To read the full report on ELN's site click here)

Russia has shown that it is acutely aware of NATO's plans. The country's military chief of staff said in early May that Russia could launch preemptive strikes against future NATO missile defense facilities in Europe if sufficiently threatened.

The warning indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold out U.S. plans for an anti-missile shield as a big barrier to better relations and, specifically, to Kremlin approval of deeper nuclear arms cuts. 

Washington says the shield is meant to counter a potential threat from Iran and poses no risk to Russia. Moscow maintains that it could give the West the capability to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, upsetting the strategic equilibrium between the former Cold War foes. 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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