By Hans Kristensen
NATO reportedly has quietly started its annual “Steadfast Noon” nuclear strike exercise in Europe. This is the exercise that practices NATO’s nuclear strike mission with “dual-capable aircraft” [equipped for nuclear weapons] and the B61 tactical nuclear bombs the United States deploys in Europe. In addition to nuclear-capable aircraft from Belgium, Germany, Italy and The Netherlands, local spotters have also seen Czech “Gripen” jet fighters and Polish F-16s.
The United States will likely also participate with either F-16s from Aviano AB in Italy or F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath in England. The non-nuclear aircraft from Czech Republic and Poland are participating under NATO’s so-called “Snowcat” (Support of Nuclear Operations with Conventional Air Tactics) program, which is used to enable military assets from non-nuclear countries to support the nuclear strike mission without being formally part of it. Polish F-16s have participated several times before, including in the Steadfast Noon exercise held at Ghedi Air Base in Italy in 2010. This year’s Steadfast Noon exercise is taking place at two locations: Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Büchel Air Base in Germany. Both bases each store an estimated 20 US B61 nuclear bombs for use by the national air forces.
This is the second year in a row that the exercise has been spread across two bases in two countries. Last year’s exercise was held at Kleine Brogel Air Base (in Belgium) and Volkel Air Base (in The Netherlands). The multi-base Steadfast Noon exercises often coincide with or proceed or follow other exercises such as “Decisive North” and “Cold Igloo.” There are currently an estimated 150 B61 bombs deployed at six bases in five European countries. Weapons were previously also deployed at England’s Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath but withdrawn sometime between 2004 and 2008. Weapons were also withdrawn from Araxos Air Base (in Greece) in 2001.
Consolidation but not complete withdrawal also happened in Germany and Turkey. In addition to the countries with nuclear-capable aircraft—Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey (note that the status of Turkey’s nuclear role is unclear, but its F-16s are still nuclear-capable), and the United States. There will likely be participation from other NATO countries under the Snowcat program.
NATO is adjusting its nuclear posture in reaction to the newly adversarial relationship with Russia. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is expected to reaffirm the continued deployment and modernization of US nuclear weapons in Europe. But there is a push from hardliners inside NATO to increase the readiness and planning for the dual-capable aircraft. Others say it is not necessary.
Last month several B-52 bombers were “forward-deployed” to Europe, in support of NATO and many see that as sufficient “signaling” at the nuclear level. Moreover, NATO’s reaction to Russia is focused on providing non-nuclear defense to Europe.
In a broader context, the nuclear exercise has not been officially announced and NATO is very tight-lipped about it because of the political sensitivity of this mission in mainly western NATO countries. The secrecy of the exercise is interesting because NATO only a few weeks ago complained that Russia was not being transparent about its “Zapad” exercise.
—Hans Kristensen directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He wrote this piece Oct. 17 for the FAS online.