WASHINGTON — 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 in the event of an attack on NATO.
The idea is to deter attacks by keeping the doctrine current, communicating it to would-be aggressors and using it as a bargaining chip during conflicts with a potential nuclear dimension, Cox said.
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 — as Cox called them, presumably excluding Turkey — are aging, prompting a recent wave of upgrade decisions that all came down in favor of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35.
The U.S. government kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program in 2019 over the country’s insistence on buying advanced Russian sensing and missile defense equipment capable of unmasking the American jet’s stealthy capabilities.
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.
“And we will also have some operational advantages with the F-35 since there will be opportunities for enhanced networking and integration across the force,” she added.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.