In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
NATO and Russia Exercises Rattle Nuclear Swords Amid Ukraine War
Next week NATO plans to conduct a major exercise in Europe. The two-week-long exercise, known as Steadfast Noon and set to begin Oct. 17, will practice the handling of and attacks with non-strategic nuclear weapons and aircraft from more than half a dozen NATO countries.
The NATO exercise will more or less overlap with a Russian nuclear exercise—Grom (or Thunder)—that will practice deployment of strategic nuclear forces and possibly include test launches of nuclear missiles.
These exercises happen every year and officials insist they are not directly linked to any current world events. Except this year, they are happening at the height (so far) of the worst NATO-Russia crisis since the Cold War. Russia is continuing its seven-plus-month brutal war in Ukraine but is losing, and Russian officials are threatening use of nuclear weapons if NATO interferes directly or attacks Russian territory. The rhetoric from both sides is escalating day by day.
This is inherently dangerous because it increases the perception of threats even further and can lock the two sides deeper into escalating nuclear posturing.
This year, probably in recognition of the special circumstances and to avoid overreactions and misunderstandings next week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the Steadfast Noon exercise in advance. But he did so during the opening of the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, and his prepared remarks put both a Nuclear Planning Group meeting and the Steadfast Noon exercise right in between the paragraphs mentioning Russia’s nuclear threats and NATO’s promise to stand with Ukraine as long as it takes.
Steadfast Noon will exercise the tactical nuclear fighter wings in Europe and their ability to deliver U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs. This will involve 14 countries and up to 60 aircraft. The exercise will be centered at the Kleine Brogel airbase in Belgium, one of six bases where the U.S. Air Force deploys nuclear weapons in Europe.1 My colleague and I at the Federation of American Scientists estimate there are currently about 100 B61 bombs on the continent.
Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are part of a special nuclear sharing arrangement where the United States equips their aircraft and trains their pilots to deliver U.S. nuclear bombs. Turkey also used to be part of this arrangement, but its role is thought to have been mothballed. U.S. Air Force nuclear fighter wings in Europe will also participate. The rest of the 14 countries in the exercise don’t have a nuclear sharing role but support the nuclear mission with non-nuclear capabilities as part of the so-called SNOWCAT program.
This year, the NATO announcement explicitly mentions that Steadfast Noon will include strategic B-52 bombers. They will come from Minot AFB, a nuclear bomber base. B-52s have participated in Steadfast Noon exercises before but have not been mentioned explicitly (to my knowledge). One announcement from 2020, for example, described B-52s participating in a “two-week-long NATO exercise” but didn’t mention Steadfast Noon by name—apparently because the name Steadfast Noon was only recently officially declassified by NATO. Mentioning B-52s explicitly this time obviously enhances deterrence signaling.
NATO has previously been reluctant to explicitly mention its own nuclear weapons in its responses to Russia’s nuclear threats. (The United States even canceled a test launch of an intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile at the start of the Ukraine war.) But such caution now appears to be gone. When asked about the delicate timing of Steadfast Noon, Stoltenberg instead emphasized that the exercise, despite being long-planned, serves as a warning to Moscow: “Now is the right time to be firm and to be clear that NATO is there to protect and defend all allies… I think it would send a very wrong signal if we suddenly now cancelled a routine, long-time-planned exercise because of the war in Ukraine… So if we now created the grounds for any misunderstanding, miscalculation in Moscow about our willingness to protect and defend all allies, we would increase the risk of escalation and that's the last thing we will do.”
Moscow, of course, is using Steadfast Noon in its own rhetoric. And Russian President Vladimir Putin appears inspired by NATO’s special nuclear sharing arrangement. During a press conference with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in June, Putin proposed that Russia could equip Belarusian Su-25 jets to carry Russian nuclear bombs and train the pilots. And he said that a decision had been made to “transfer to Belarus the Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which are known to use both ballistic and cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear.”
No matter how many times officials insist that Steadfast Noon is routine and “not linked to any current events,” the public debate will link it, not least because Stoltenberg has already done so by weaving it into the condemnation of Putin’s war and nuclear threats and refusing to cancel to make sure he doesn’t escalate.
Coinciding nuclear exercises in the middle of a large-scale war with escalating operations and rhetoric are inherently dangerous because they can fuel further escalation. It’s a textbook example of what happens in a tense crisis where both sides escalate to demonstrate that they are serious about deterring each other, but therefore can’t de-escalate because it would make them look weak. It indicates that deterrence posturing is on autopilot.
By refusing to cancel—or at least delay—Steadfast Noon, NATO may unintentionally be creating a false perception that both sides are rattling their nuclear swords in the middle of a major war. It could undercut NATO’s ability to stigmatize Russia’s irresponsible nuclear behavior. NATO has many other capabilities to deter Russia and it’s not like the dual-capable aircraft mission in Europe will crumble if it is not exercised right now.
1The other bases are Buchel in Germany, Ghedi and Aviano in Italy, Volkel in the Netherlands and Incirlik in Turkey.
Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists and associate senior fellow with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The opinions expressed here are exclusively those of the author.
Photo of the NATO-led Steadfast Defender 2021 exercise shared by NATO via Flickr under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.