NATO has wrapped up its annual week-long nuclear deterrence exercise, called Steadfast Noon, across southern Europe with aircraft and personnel from 14 allied countries.
“The exercise is a routine, recurring training activity, and it is not linked to any current world events,” NATO said in a statement on Oct. 18 as the exercise began. “This exercise helps to ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective.”
A different NATO country hosts Steadfast Noon each year.The alliance normally does not identify the host country, with the exception of last year when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg publicly visited Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, the main operating base for the exercise. (See ACT, December 2020.)
Hans Kristensen from the Federation of American Scientists determined that the 2021 exercise was likely hosted by Italy out of Ghedi and Aviano air bases, which are home to an estimated 15 and 20 U.S. B61-3/-4 gravity bombs, respectively. Another 65 B61-3/-4 bombs are believed to be deployed in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
The United States is developing the more accurate B61-12, which will replace all existing gravity bombs and is scheduled to have the first production unit completed in late 2021. Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands are in the process of acquiring the new F-35A fighter jet, which conducted in September its final flight test to complete the nuclear design certification process and ensure compatibility with the B61-12. (See ACT, November 2021.)
“The combination of the F-35A and B61-12 represent a significant improvement of the military capability of the NATO dual-capable aircraft posture in Europe,” Kristensen wrote in an Oct. 20 blog post.
Steadfast Noon is designed so NATO can practice and assess its nuclear capabilities deployed in Europe. The aircraft do not carry live bombs during the exercise flights.
This year’s exercise occurred during NATO’s defense ministerial meetings, which started Oct 21. “NATO’s goal is a world without nuclear weapons,” said Stoltenberg ahead of the meetings. Yet, “a world where Russia, China, and other countries like North Korea have nuclear weapons, but NATO does not, is simply not a safer world.”