Military Aircrews from 14 Countries Meet to Practice Handling Nukes

NATO says the annual “Steadfast Noon” exercise has nothing to do with Russia’s war—but it’s always good to be prepared.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, better known as NATO, kicked off its annual “Steadfast Noon” exercise yesterday, an alliance-wide event that simulates the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. The exercise involves 14 countries and “up to 60 aircraft of various types.” NATO emphasized that the exercise was not tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats to use nuclear arms.

Steadfast Noon began on October 17 and runs until October 30. In a news release, NATO stated the group will “exercise nuclear deterrence capabilities involving dozens of aircraft over north-western Europe” and that it “helps ensure that the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective.” Belgium is hosting the exercise, and training flights will take place over Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the North Sea. The alliance emphasizes that real nuclear weapons won’t be deployed during the exercise.

NATO also wants to make it clear that the exercise has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine and Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons. Steadfast Noon is, according to an alliance spokesperson, “a routine, recurring training activity, and it is not linked to any current world events.”

The exercise is a test of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement. Under the agreement, the United States provides nuclear weapons—currently the B61 series of nuclear free fall bombs—while NATO allies provide the aircraft and aircrews to use them. Approximately 100 B61-3 and B61-4 bombs are located at NATO member bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. All of the countries, with the exception of Turkey, provide fighter jets—the Panavia Tornado and F-16 Fighting Falcons—to deliver the bombs to targets.

The exercise will likely involve Belgian F-16s, from Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium, and other alliance aircraft. NATO states that fifth generation fighters, including the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter will also take part. B-52s will fly from Minot Air Force Base in South Dakota to take part, and surveillance and tanker aircraft will fly in support.

The United States has deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Western Europe for decades, but radically downsized the arsenal after the breakup of the USSR in 1991. The remaining 100 or so bombs have long been meant as an insurance policy in case Russia attacked NATO. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the nukes could be used only after “explicit political approval is given by NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) and authorization is received from the U.S. President and U.K. Prime Minister.”

The annual exercise takes place as it becomes clear that the weapons are not actually needed to offset Russia’s superior numbers in conventional arms. The Russian Army is theoretically larger than those of most NATO countries, but its poor performance in Ukraine has proved it to be a paper tiger. Worse, it is a paper tiger that has lost several thousand pieces of equipment in Ukraine, including 1,393 main battle tanks, and 50,000 or more claimed killed in action. Russia is no longer capable of successfully invading any country, with the possible exception of NATO’s smaller member states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Still, a neutered Russian bear doesn’t make NATO’s nukes obsolete. Russia still has hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal, weapons designated for battlefield use. If Russia were to attack NATO with tactical nuclear weapons, the alliance would need the ability to swiftly respond in kind. Unfortunately, Russia’s weakness in conventional arms means nukes on both sides won’t go away anytime soon.

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