Defense News
April 13, 2022

NATO planners put the F-35 front and center in European nuclear deterrence

Following Germany’s decision to buy a fleet of F-35s, NATO planners have begun updating the alliance’s nuclear sharing mechanics to account for the jet’s next-gen capabilities, a key NATO official said this week.

“We’re moving fast and furiously towards F-35 modernization and incorporating those into our planning and into our exercising and things like that as those capabilities come online,” said Jessica Cox, director of the NATO nuclear policy directorate in Brussels.

“By the end of the decade, most if not all of our allies will have transitioned,” she added, speaking during an online discussion of the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center, a Washington-based think tank.

The alliance’s nuclear sharing concept goes back to the 1960s. It prescribes that non-nuclear weapon countries in Europe would strap relatively small-yield atomic bombs onto their dual-capable aircraft and drop them on adversary military positions….

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The United States military stores around 150 B-61 gravity bombs in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey for that mission, according to a recent accounting in an article by the British-based Chatham House think tank.

But the F-16 and Tornado aircraft set aside for the job by a “core” group of European allies…are aging, prompting a recent wave of upgrade decisions that all came down in favor of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35.

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Most recently, the new German government picked the F-35 specifically for the nuclear sharing mission, committing to up to 35 copies. The decision followed a lengthy discussion in Germany about Berlin’s continued participation in the nuclear sharing responsibility in the first place, a debate that appears to have abated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Cox said the aircraft’s advanced features also will boost the capabilities of alliance members and F-35 customers like Poland, Denmark or Norway who might be tasked with supporting actual nuclear sharing missions. For example, the F-35 is thought to be better at penetrating air- and missile-defense networks, requiring fewer accompanying fighters, she said.

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