NATO confirms Belgium-based nuclear deterrence exercise

NATO confirms Belgium-based nuclear deterrence exercise
Credit: Belga

NATO will begin a routine nuclear deterrence exercise on Monday from Kleine-Brogel Air Base in Limburg, against a backdrop of tensions with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

In an unprecedented display of transparency, the alliance issued a statement confirming that the exercise, dubbed ‘Steadfast Noon,’ would take place. It had already been announced by NATO’s Secretary General, Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg, and Belgian Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder.

According to the Atlantic Alliance, NATO air forces will train their nuclear deterrent capabilities over northwest Europe between 17 and 30 October. The exercise has been presented by NATO as a “routine and recurring training activity” not linked “to any current global event.”

Fourteen countries, 60 aircraft involved

‘Steadfast Noon’ involves 14 countries and up to 60 aircraft of various types, including fourth- and fifth-generation fighters as well as surveillance aircraft and air-to-air refuelling tankers. As in previous years, American B-52 strategic, long-range bombers will be taking part, NATO said. This year, they will depart from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Training flights will take place over Belgium, which is hosting the exercise, as well as over the North Sea and the UK. No live weapons will be used, according to NATO, which also said that no aircraft would come within 1,000 km of Russian territory.

Several sources had confirmed to the Belga News Agency on Saturday last that the Kleine-Brogel base would be the focal point of the exercise.

Burden-sharing arrangement

‘Steadfast Noon’ is organised each year by a different NATO ally from among those that have accepted a nuclear task within the alliance – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Turkey – under a 'burden-sharing' arrangement.

The participation of allied air forces is broader, however, as previous editions of ‘Steadtast Noon’ have seen Polish F-16 and Czech Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighters engaged in escort missions, under the name SNOWCAT (Support of Nuclear Operations With Conventional Air Tactics).

In Belgium, the Kleine-Brogel base has already hosted several editions of Steadfast Noon, including in 2012 and 2017. It is equipped with dual-capability (conventional and nuclear) F-16 fighter-bombers grouped in the 31st and 349th squadrons.

'Preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression'

According to Hans Kristensen, an expert in nuclear weapons at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), it is believed to house between 10 and 20 American B61-3/4 gravity bombs that can be deployed by the F-16s of the 10th Tactical Wing and an American detachment, the 701st Munitions Support Squadron (701 MUNSS).

These “tactical” bombs are to be replaced in the next few years by a new version of the device, the B61-12, at the end of a development programme that will have cost some $10 billion.

“This exercise helps to ensure the credibility, effectiveness and security of our nuclear deterrent,” Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu was quoted as saying in the statement.

NATO points out that its new Strategic Concept, adopted by the heads of state and government of the 30 allied countries at a summit in June in Madrid, clearly states that “the fundamental purpose of Nato’s nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression.”

Russia says it is closely monitoring military exercises near its border

It emphasises that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”

Mr. Stoltenberg had announced the exercise on Tuesday, prior to a meeting of allied defence ministers, notably within the Nuclear Planning Group. “This is a routine training exercise, which takes place every year, and to cancel it would be a bad signal” to Russia, he told reporters, implying that Russia had been informed.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last Friday that Russia was closely monitoring all regular NATO military exercises near its borders, according to the state-run Tass news agency.

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