Guarded by U.S. soldiers, an estimated 22 U.S. nuclear weapons are locked away in the bunkers under the Fliegerhorst Buechel, an airbase in Rhineland-Palatinate run by the German Luftwaffe. The B-61 thermonuclear bombs, which can be dropped from low-flying jets at high speeds, signify the ultimate nuclear deterrent: They're 13 times more devastating than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945.
As part of a nuclear weapons sharing deal with the United States, the German Luftwaffe pilots in their Panavia Tornado bombers stationed at Buechel are training in the deployment of the weapons.
Germany's Rheinische Post newspaper Wednesday reported that the German Bundeswehr plans to decommission its entire Tornado fleet by 2013, at the latest. The move would essentially end the nuclear weapons sharing deal with the United States and force Washington to either take the bombs back or station them elsewhere in Europe.
The German Defense Ministry Wednesday issued a statement denying that it would decommission all of its Tornado jets by 2013.
"The usage of the weapons system Tornado is planned beyond 2020," a spokesman said in a statement. "The time frame of final decommissioning has not yet been decided."
The statement didn't, however, deny that Berlin might decommission selected Tornado units -- which experts say is likely to happen due to severe budget pressures weighing on the Bundeswehr.
Germany recently decided to pull out its Tornado jets from Afghanistan and, in turn, up the number of troops serving with the International Security Assistance Force to an estimated 5,000 by the end of this month. The successor to the Tornado, the Eurofighter Typhoon jet, a twin-engine canard-delta wing multirole aircraft built by a multinational European consortium, isn't equipped to drop the B-61.
That means the nuclear sharing deal isn't yet completely secured. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has long advocated ridding German soil of the remaining nuclear weapons, in his view an unnecessary remnant of the Cold War.
The German position could spark a row with the United States, Britain and neighboring France within NATO. The alliance plans to hold on to the nuclear deterrent and wants to continue its policy of stationing nuclear weapons at strategic locations across Europe.