NATO Members Train to Nuke a "Fictional" Enemy After Major Russian Drills

The alliance is tight-lipped about the annual Steadfast Noon exercise and the very existence of its nuclear capabilities.

Belgian Defense

NATO has quietly begun an annual exercise to practice how it might launch a nuclear attack during a crisis. The drills follow massive Russian war games along its borders with the alliance, including a test of new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as increasing reports of electronic and cyber attacks likely originating in Russia.

On Oct. 16, 2017, NATO personnel in Belgium and Germany kicked off this latest iteration of the alliance’s main nuclear deterrence exercise, nicknamed Steadfast Noon. Publicly available U.S. military documents describe its main goal simply as “operations plan validation.” This year's iteration involves operations at Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Büchel Air Base in Germany, where the United States maintains stores of B61 nuclear bombs.

The North Atlantic bloc rarely highlights the event and generally omits it from publicly available lists of upcoming exercises. The drills involve an entirely “fictional scenario,” one anonymous NATO official told The Wall Street Journal.

It’s hard not to see the exercise in the context of the Kremlin’s increasingly revanchist foreign policy, though. Since Russian troops seized control Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and subsequently began actively supporting separatists seeking to break away from the central government in Kiev, NATO has adopted an increasingly more militarized posture along its eastern and southern frontiers. A proposed drawdown of American nuclear weapons on the continent has effectively been on indefinite hold ever since.

Bundeswehr

A German Tornado multi-role combat aircraft.

In September 2017, approximately 13,000 troops from Russia and Belarus, conducted drills along the same borders as part of the Zapad 2017 exercise. Zapad, which means “West,” occurs once every four years. Officials in Moscow insist it is defensive in nature, but it focuses on large scale, high intensity warfare, something that sounds a lot like practicing for a conflict with the western alliance.

In addition, the Russians followed up the massive conventional demonstration with a show of nuclear force, including intercontinental ballistic missile tests by its Strategic Missile Forces. One of these involved a weapon with an all-new warhead design that seems intended to defeat ballistic missile shields such as the one the NATO is presently developing. Though experts debate how serious the danger is, there is a real concern that the Kremlin has adopted a doctrine of “escalating to de-escalate,” as well, which could involve a limited nuclear strike, further underscoring the continued importance of deterrence.

On top of that, there have also been an increasing number of reported incidents of electronic and cyber harassment against alliance members and their other European partners. These almost certainly originate in Russia and highlight the tense nature of the situation despite the lack of any active conflict.

We don’t know what exactly goes into the actual Steadfast Noon drills, regardless of whether the scenario is focused on Russian threats or not, but the main goal is undoubtedly to run through what can only be heavily regimented procedures. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has kept B61 nuclear gravity bombs at bases such as Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Büchel Air Base in Germany. There are approximately 150 to 200 of the weapons spread out between those bases, as well as additional locations in Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, with the latter location becoming increasingly controversial.

The bombs are technically “tactical nuclear weapons,” though experts and advocates routinely debate the validity of this term and whether any nuclear weapon can be seen as a limited, tactical tool. Crews can set the tactical versions of the so-called “dial-a-yield” B61 to explode with the force of anywhere from 0.3 to 170 kilotons of TNT, that upper limit being more than eight times more powerful than the Fat Man bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The United States is presently working on a new B61 Mod 12 version that will be a dual-purpose, tactical and strategic design that incorporates a GPS guidance system and a deep penetrating design.

As well as keeping those weapons forward deployed, the U.S. government maintained agreements with all of the hosts, save Turkey, to potentially share those bombs in an emergency. After an American commander released the weapons to those countries, Belgian and Dutch F-16 fighter jets and German and Italian Tornado multi-role combat aircraft – described as “dual-capable” conventional and nuclear aircraft for treaty purposes – would deliver them onto the specified targets. There are no American aircraft stationed at either Kleine Brogel or Büchel.

For the alliance to conduct a nuclear attack, American personnel at these bases would need to receive and input the appropriate codes into the B61’s Permissive Action Link, a fail-safe device to prevent unauthorized use, before then signing control of the weapons over to European crews. A simultaneous authorization from the host country’s government is reportedly necessary, too.

USAF

Weapons Storage and Security System vault in raised position holding a B61 nuclear bomb, adjacent to an F-16. The vault is within a Protective Aircraft Shelter.

The exercise likely has conventional components, as well, since any nuclear-armed jets speeding toward their targets could need to refuel on the way to and from their targets. Since the present European dual-capable aircraft aren’t low-observable in design, other elements would need to clear the way first, which could include physically destroying enemy air defenses or launching coordinated electronic or cyber attacks to disrupt those networks. NATO even has a specific term for the aerial companion missions, SNOWCAT, or Support of Nuclear Operations With Conventional Air Tactics.

But the lack of fanfare surrounding Steadfast Noon, which by all accounts should be a very visible signal to potential enemies, highlights the alliance’s complicated relations with nuclear weapons. NATO has long had to tempter its clear desire to present a strong deterrent to potential opponents, especially an increasingly aggressive Russia, with consistent domestic political and public opposition to the presence of nuclear weapons in much of Europe.  

Belgian Defense

Belgian F-16AM fighter jets.

That the B61 gravity bombs at Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Büchel Air Base in Germany are the property of the United States only makes the situation more complicated. The exercise is a “delicate balancing act,” another anonymous official told The Journal.

These issues aren’t new, of course. For decades during the Cold War, the U.S. military stockpiled and deployed a variety of nuclear bombs and missiles in NATO member countries to deter the Soviet Union, which did the same, along with its Warsaw Pact allies. France and the United Kingdom were the only other alliance members with their own nuclear arsenals. Aircraft carrying nuclear bombs was a key component of the doctrine, as Richard Crandall explained to The War Zone's Tyler Rogoway in 2016, telling him:

I was absolutely convinced I would have to nuke a Warsaw Pact nation, as that was about all we could hit with the F-111. We had a couple of targets in Russia where we would have had to recover with emergency fuel at one of the far northern bases in Norway. But really, we all knew the base would be gone and we would have to punch out. We also knew that we would not be the first nuke on the target. Every single target I ever saw had ICBMs and then SLBMs and then us on it, and then hours and hours later, the stateside B-52s and B-1s.

We always practiced World War III as starting conventional, usually with the Russians punching through the Fulda Gap. I remember looking at the plans and seeing that we had a handful of tanks to stop them, compared to thousands of Russian and East German tanks lined up just waiting to punch through. We would fall back, and back, and then stand down, load up the nukes, and then sortie. Exercise over.

Treaties and the final collapse of the Soviet Union meant that by the time the United States signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, with Russia in 2010, the B61s were the last of these U.S. weapons in Europe. And despite the fact that it is widely accepted that the bombs are there, both the United States and NATO decline to comment on them as a matter of policy.

“I think they are an absolutely pointless part of a tradition in military thinking,” former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers said in a National Geographic documentary released in 2013, becoming one of the more senior officials to ever acknowledge the bombs presence in NATO countries. “I would never have thought those silly things would still be there in 2013.”

The Netherlands Ministry of Defense

Dutch F-16 fighter jets, some of which are "dual-capable" and able to perform NATO's nuclear mission.

Most recently, the stockpile of B61s in Turkey came under renewed scrutiny following a coup attempt in 2016 that involved many members of that country’s air force, including some of that service’s top leadership. Turkish authorities arrested the commander of Icirlik Air Base, where the U.S. keeps the bombs, in the aftermath of the crisis.

At the time, The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway highlighted the potential dangers of maintaining what many consider to be largely a symbolic stockpile in that country, writing:

The idea of a country stealing nuclear weapons from the US has long been a staple of pop culture fascination, but the reality is far less sensational. Still, an incident where American nuclear weapons security was directly threatened could be a massive geopolitical failure for the United States, and if they were to fall into someone else’s hands, even those of a close former ally, it would be devastating to American credibility abroad, regardless of if they can actually be used or not.

On the other hand, if their withdrawal were made public, some say it would set a bad precedent and offer disturbing symbolism for NATO. Then again, if the alliance is that weak, than we have much bigger problems, especially considering that there would still be around 150 American nuclear bombs deployed to four other NATO countries. Will 50 less make that big of a difference? No it won’t. That is unless the US plans to leave a standing contingent of fighters at Incirlik Air Base with crews trained and ready to fly these weapons into combat at a moment’s notice, which it doesn’t.

One alternative to keeping those bombs in Turkey, and elsewhere in general, would be to continue expanding ballistic missile defenses throughout NATO, which the alliance is already doing. Earlier in October 2017, before Steadfast Noon, NATO forces conducted a major ballistic missile defense exercise called Formidable Shield 2017.

The scenario for this drill involved the first-ever instance where the alliances ships practices using traditional air defenses to protect ship-based ballistic missile defenses, demonstrating an expanding layered, integrated defensive network. During the exercise, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Donald Cook fired an SM-3 Block IB interceptor at mock ballistic missile, while Spanish and Dutch warships knocked down incoming anti-ship cruise missiles with RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles. Separately, another Arleigh Burke, the USS McFaul, conducted a European test launch of the increasingly versatile SM-6 missile.

USN

USS Donald Cook fires an SM-3 Block IB missile during Formidable Shield 2017.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agencies had two of its specially modified Gulfstream II business jets on hand for the exercise, as well. Able to fly at high altitudes, these aircraft carry various sensors to help gather data on tests for future research and development that personnel on the ground or other lower flying planes would be unable to collect.

The issue here of course is that ballistic missile defense systems have yet to conclusively prove their capabilities in testing, let alone against a real world in-coming threat. In addition to often limited engagement envelopes, the interceptors rely on data from various space-, sea-, and land-based radars, as well as other sensors, which have vulnerabilities and deficiencies themselves at present.

These limitations have come to the forefront in light of the increasing threat of North Korea’s long-range ballistic missiles and growing nuclear weapons capabilities. Critics quickly debunked U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion earlier in October 2017 that America’s ballistic missile defense shield could reliable take out threats 97 percent of the time.

Perhaps more problematic, even if the component systems work as intended, missile defense shields only protect against a select few nuclear delivery systems. Russia alone has nuclear capable aircraft and is developing ground-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, as well, neither of which a ballistic missile interceptor would be well suited to protect against. As such, they would not be a complete counter to potential nuclear attacks as a whole and it would be hard to see how they could ever truly replace the deterrent capability of nuclear weapons.  

Another alternative to American nuclear weapons in Europe would be to allow other NATO members to develop their own national stockpiles. However, one of the main arguments for the U.S. military keeping the B61s across Europe in the first place is to give alliance members that sense of localized security without the need to actually expand the number of nuclear weapon states. Neither the United States nor countries such as Belgium and Germany seem inclined to change this status quo.

Given the available options, NATO members seem inclined to want to keep the bombs on their territory, even as they try to keep the fact out of the public eye. There are already reports that Italy and the Netherlands plan to integrate the B61 on their future F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in order to maintain their ability to perform the nuclear mission. There is the suggestion that this is one the reasons why Belgium is part of that program and the capability will likely be a consideration as Germany looks to replace its Tornados, as well.

Unless a truly viable alternative appears or the security situation in Europe changes dramatically, it seems likely that the B61s, and the need to train for the hopefully remote possibility that NATO members could need to use them, will continue to be an open secret.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com