US accelerates plans to stockpile upgraded nuclear weapons in Europe

It’s unclear how long the planned December launch has been in the works, and a Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on the timeline.

Moving the arrival date forward came as a surprise to some longtime observers, who fear it could further inflame an already dangerous situation in Europe. The announcement at the Brussels meeting came days before NATO launched its annual nuclear exercise, known as Steadfast Noon. The two-week exercise ends on Sunday and includes some 70 aircraft. And on Wednesday, Russia staged a nuclear exercise that its defense chief described as simulating a « massive nuclear strike » in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Russia, according to the Kremlin.

« It would be weird to rush it, » said Hans Kristensen, nuclear information project director at the Federation of American Scientists, who has followed the program closely. “They said we are not responding to this situation with nuclear weapons. I don’t think they want to take that one down.

The message behind the dispatch of the first bombs in December is perhaps directed more at European allies who feel particularly vulnerable in Moscow.

« I guess he’s targeting NATO more than Russia, » said Tom Collina, director of policy at the Plowshares Fund, a disarmament group. « There are [older] B61 already there. The Russians know this. They work very well. The new ones will be newer, but that’s not really a big difference. But it may be a way to reassure the allies when they feel particularly threatened by Russia.

Two people familiar with the matter of the upcoming shipment to Europe confirmed the expedited timeline reported in the diplomatic cable. They asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The cable, which has not been released to the public before and was written for distribution throughout the Pentagon and the State Department to give decision makers insight into what was discussed between defense ministers during the NATO meeting, clearly indicates that the allies are nervous.

The document says that during the meetings, 15 NATO allies raised concerns that the alliance « must not give in to Putin’s nuclear blackmail ».

« Given the growing volume and breadth of Russia’s nuclear rhetoric, a subset of allies have requested continued consultations with NATO to ensure continued preparedness and consistent messaging, » the cable adds. .

Yet Collina also warned that any nuclear-related initiative – no matter how small – could have unintended consequences.

“It could be escalated. We will see,” he said.

The B61 is a family of nuclear bombs first developed in the early 1960s and initially demonstrated in underground nuclear testing in Nevada. A dozen versions have been developed over the decades and most of them have since been retired.

The $10 billion B61-12 life extension program is run by the Department of Energy and is intended to replace several earlier versions, including about 100 bombs stored at airbases in Germany, Italy , Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey.

The improvements address all non-nuclear aspects of the unguided bomb’s design and involve the removal of a parachute and the installation of a new tail kit and other improvements for « significantly greater accuracy », said Kristensen.

The new version is also designed for US and allied bombers and fighter jets – including B-2 and B-21 bombers and F-15, F-16, F-35 and Tornado fighter jets – to be all capable of carrying the weapon. , unlike the many older versions of the B61 which have been stored for years.

The warhead itself is one of the most versatile in the US arsenal as its explosive power can be increased or reduced depending on the target, making it a low to medium yield weapon.

The new arrival schedule is a sign that the Pentagon has determined the weapon is ready sooner than expected, Kristensen said.

He pointed out that the DoD inspector general must complete a performance review of the weapon before aircrew training, either late this year or early next year.

The Air Force conducted flight tests of the new bomb design on the F-35A in October 2021 and certified it on the F-15E in 2020. But the Pentagon reported in February that it planned to « complete certification of the nuclear design of the B61-12 ». with the F-35A before January 2023, after which the [U.S. Air Forces in Europe] will be able to start a certified training.

« I thought those two things were going to happen before you saw the physical finish, » Kristensen said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also told NATO allies in Brussels this month that the administration’s long-awaited nuclear stance review – which could be released in the coming days – would keep the policy going. Washington’s nuclear declaratory of « calculated ambiguity, » the cable reports.

This is a change from President Joe Biden’s comments during the 2020 presidential campaign, in which he said he would consider changing US policy to declare that the sole purpose of atomic weapons is to deter nuclear attack. against America or its allies, a change that nuclear disarmament groups had been calling for.

The administration has since pushed back on those comments. But Austin’s assurance to European allies that declarative US nuclear policy will remain unchanged comes as continental capitals seek a firm hand in Washington to confront nuclear-armed Russia and China.

James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Biden’s « single purpose » comments during the campaign spread across Europe, and « there was a big campaign from American allies to convince him not to. and this campaign was a success.

During the Brussels meetings, Austin also advised allies that the review would support the full modernization of the US nuclear triad, while retiring the B83 gravity bomb and ending the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile program. launched by the Trump administration.

But lawmakers oppose stopping the cruise missile program and will likely continue to fund it in upcoming defense policy legislation.


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