TechNATO's nuclear capabilities: A 21st-century overview and the push for expansion

NATO's nuclear capabilities: A 21st-century overview and the push for expansion

Ohio-class submarine
Ohio-class submarine
Images source: © USNI | Public Domain
1:54 PM EDT, March 24, 2024

The Kremlin's rhetoric frequently involves nuclear blackmail aimed at the West. NATO responds with caution to these threats, but it can retaliate in the event of nuclear escalation. Poland is also expressing interest in joining the "nuclear club." Let's explore the state of NATO's nuclear arsenal in the 21st century.

Currently, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France are the three NATO members that possess nuclear weapons. By international treaties and doctrine, these weapons are considered strategic and not intended for direct battlefield use.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal includes a complete triad: land-based, air-based, and sea-based delivery systems. The land component features around 450 Minuteman missiles (LGM-30G Minuteman III), housed in underground silos, with a range of about 8,078 miles. Though capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) payloads, these missiles are currently equipped with single warheads.

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The American nuclear triad's sea-based segment comprises Trident II missiles aboard 14 Ohio-class submarines, with four additional submarines configured for Tomahawk missiles. Each submarine can carry up to 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The air-based component consists of B61 nuclear bombs, deliverable by various aircraft, from strategic B-52 bombers to versatile F-35 jets. The U.S. maintains over 5,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal.

Despite undergoing modernization, the U.S. nuclear arsenal still primarily features weaponry developed in the 1970s. Significant updates will come with the introduction of the LGM35-A Sentinel intercontinental missiles and the AGM-181 LRSO cruise missiles, exceeding a 1,553-mile range. The new B-21 Raider bombers, alongside the classic B-52s, will be equipped to carry these advanced weapons.

American nuclear weapons in Europe

Under the Nuclear Sharing program, about 100 B61 bombs are stationed at land bases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, and Italy, with some upgraded to the B61-12 model.

This program necessitates that these nations have the means to deploy nuclear weapons. At present - excluding Turkey - there's a shift towards adopting F-35 aircraft for this role.

In Nuclear Sharing, the control over these weapons remains with the United States, which decides their use, limiting the participating countries' roles to providing delivery systems for the American warheads.

Poland is keen on joining Nuclear Sharing, and the West is increasingly supporting Poland's acquisition of nuclear capabilities.

European nuclear powers

In 2023, European nuclear states don't have a full nuclear triad. The United Kingdom relies solely on its Trident II nuclear missiles, deployed on Vanguard-class nuclear-powered submarines.

France boasts a broader arsenal, with its M51.3 ballistic missiles aboard four Le Triomphant class nuclear submarines. France is also advancing its nuclear deterrent by developing next-generation submarines (SNLE 3G) and investing in high-speed, long-range ASMP-A air-launched cruise missiles from Rafale jets. A hypersonic missile, the ASN4G, is under development and expected to travel at Mach 8 and exceed a 620-mile range.

Tactical nuclear weapons, the perennial Kremlin bogeyman

Formally, NATO does not possess tactical nuclear weapons, which allegedly gives Russia an advantage. This theory assumes Russia might deploy such weapons on the battlefield, compelling NATO to withdraw. However, this overlooks NATO's capabilities and strategic positions. "Strategic Review" debunked these assumptions nearly a decade ago, noting that until the U.S. redevelops its tactical nuclear arsenal, France's ASMP-A missiles serve as a strategic and potentially tactical tool, especially given France's doctrine of using nuclear weapons as an "ultimate warning."

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