Both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia are holding their annual nuclear drills this month amidst the war still raging in Ukraine. And both NATO & Russia are accusing each other of nuclear threats.
However, the periodic and regular nature of their drills has lent them a legitimacy that can be portrayed as independent of the tenuous geopolitical situation. Nevertheless, with allegations of nuclear brinkmanship flying thick and fast, it is difficult to detach them from the larger politico-military context.
Steadfast Noon & GROM
Steadfast Noon will have the United States Air Force’s (USAF) B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers fly in from Minot Air Base in North Dakota and Belgian F-16s – the latter of which is hosting the exercise at the Klein Brogel air base.
The exercises will begin on Monday and last till October 30. Russia’s Grom (meaning ‘thunder’) too will be launched concurrently with the NATO drills.
While little is known about Grom, the Norwegian website Faktisk reported Russia having moved eleven Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers at the Russian air base of Olenya on the Kola Peninsula, 60 miles south of Murmansk.
Interestingly, the latest accusations of Russia being nuclear threatening came only from unnamed officials. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby himself recognized the “routine” nature of Russia’s ‘Grom’ exercises while pointing to how they would involve large-scale maneuvers of its strategic nuclear forces, including live missile launches.
“While Russia probably believes this exercise will help it project power, particularly in light of recent events, we know that Russian nuclear units train extensively at this time of year,” Kirby Reuters quoted Kirby, adding that the “exercise is not linked to any real-world events or what Russia is doing.”
Reuters then quoted an unnamed US official, who said the Russian drills were expected to be carried out about the same time as NATO’s own ‘Steadfast Noon.’
“We believe that Russian nuclear rhetoric and its decision to proceed with this exercise while at war with Ukraine is irresponsible. Brandishing nuclear weapons to coerce the United States and its allies is irresponsible,” the official added.
The Americans have a lot of options to respond to Russia’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) since they retired such systems in the early 1990s, according to a former US intelligence officer who identified himself as John Smith.
Since the United Soviet Socialists Republic (USSR) had disintegrated at the time, the measure to retire TNWs must have been borne out of a genuine de-escalation measure and military redundancy, as there was no war-like state with Russia.
These TNWs had a yield between 0.072 kilotons (kt) to 0.1 kt and were designed for use against large-scale Soviet combat formations “on the march to NATO forces,” Smith writes.
Being left with only strategic nuclear weapons would entail conducting a disproportionately powerful strike that will not prevent nuclear escalation beyond an operational theatre.
“Those who assume Biden’s response to Russia’s potential use of nukes must entail using our own nukes must have a death wish. This is because our only recourse would be to use high-yield warheads resulting in destruction on a global scale,” Smith said in the article on the American Thinker.
With Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin himself “(not finding) any need to make any changes to what we’re doing right now,” he gave an official imprimatur to the assessment that the Russian threats are just that – threats. Austin made the statement in a press conference following a closed-door meeting with NATO’s nuclear planning group.
Who is Likely to Use Nukes (First)?
Analysts from the RAND Corporation, a leading think-tank known for its hawkish positions on China and Russia, observe that Moscow has not yet shown signs of readying/arming its TNWs.
Edward Geist, a policy researcher, said in an interview with the New York Magazine that the “US intelligence community (does not) seem to be seeing indicators of the (expected) steps if they (Russia) were about to use one of their non-strategic nuclear weapons.”
“Only a part of their strategic nuclear forces is actually sitting on missiles and ready to be used at any particular time. They have missiles in silos, and they have some missiles on submarines. Some of those things are always ready to fire, but the non-strategic nuclear weapons are stored in central facilities separate from their delivery system,” Geist said.
He further explained that they hadn’t seen tactical battlefield missiles like the Iskander – used widely by Russia against Ukraine haven’t been mated with non-strategic (tactical) nuclear warheads.
“In order to combine the two, you’d have to move things around. You’d have to take the launch system and the warhead to the same place, and we haven’t seen that activity,” he added.
Given that Russia has consistently clarified it is not interested in a war with NATO or the US, it is also unlikely to directly use even a low-yield TNW, given the high risk of escalation. Russia rather points to the US and NATO exercises like the Steadfast Noon having nuclear delivery components built into their drills, particularly the B61-12 nuclear bomb.
The B61-12 use has been mentioned in reports and never in official statements, with the latest saying that it is the Belgian F-16s that will be trained to use the bombs.
“Belgian F-16 will train how to drop nuclear weapons, while ground crews will exercise how to transport the weapons from underground bunkers and attach them to aircraft while observing all the procedures,” said the report.
Moreover, NATO’s nuclear policy states that member nations can use US nuclear warheads on their territory in the event of a military emergency. In July 2019, a body affiliated with NATO unintentionally confirmed the presence of roughly 150 US nuclear weapons in Europe in a report.
The Defense and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Body said, “These bombs are stored at six US and European bases – Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in The Netherlands, and Incirlik in Turkey.”
Eurasia Daily estimates the number of such nuclear bombs to be around 100. The Belgian newspaper De Morgen published a copy of the document, which was later widely reported, and amidst backlash, the report was subsequently withdrawn.
NATO officials tried salvaging the situation by pointing to how it was not an official document of the military bloc, but the mere mention of the fact was confirmation of the long-held suspicion.
B-61 Nuclear Bomb – Making Russia Jittery
Since the last year, Steadfast Noon has practiced using the B61-12 type bomb to “ensure the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of NATO’s nuclear deterrent.”
The drills included warplanes capable of carrying nuclear bombs, as well as reconnaissance aircraft and tanker aircraft. These fighters included the Dutch and Belgian F-16s, Germany’s Luftwaffe Tornados, and Czechia’s Swedish-made SAAB Gripens.
Russia had been voicing concerns about the usage (albeit without a charge) of a B61-12 since August 2017, when it was tested by an F-15E bomber at the Tonopah test site in Nevada.
The B61-12 will replace the B61-3, 4, 7, and 10 models as a part of a life extension program. In April of the same year, it used an F-16 to drop the bomb.
A promotional video from 2019 called the B-52 Nuclear Alert Mission showed a B-52 flying with a formation of four F-35s and two F-16s, opening its main belly internal bay and releasing a cruise missile. The pilots are also wearing special helmets meant for nuclear explosion environments.