US Defense Department documents show that NATO has quietly added the United Kingdom to the list of nuclear weapons storage locations that are being upgraded.
The documents do not identify the specific facility, but it is believed to be the US Air Base at RAF Lakenheath in southeast England approximately 100 kilometers northeast of London.
Previous budget documents listed “special weapons” storage sites in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey as receiving upgrades under a 13-year NATO investment program. The Biden administration’s FY2023 defense budget request adds “the UK” to the list (see image below).
RAF Lakenheath was not on the list of “active sites” in the 2016 contract for the upgrade of the nuclear weapons storage site in Europe. The budget documents indicate the base has since been added to the list.
The US Air Force used to store nuclear gravity bombs at Lakenheath, which in the 1990s was equipped with 33 underground storage vaults. By the early 2000s, there were a total of 110 B61 gravity bombs in the vaults for delivery by F-15E aircraft of the 48th Fighter Wing.
In 2008, I disclosed that the nuclear weapons had been withdrawn from RAF Lakenheath, the first time since 1954 that the United States did not store nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom.
What’s Going On?
The addition of the United Kingdom to the list of nuclear storage locations being upgraded in Europe signals a change in the nuclear status of RAF Lakenheath. It is unclear if nuclear weapons have been returned to the base yet or NATO is upgrading the base to be capable of receiving nuclear weapons in the future if necessary.
After nuclear weapons were withdrawn nearly two decades ago, the empty storage vaults were kept in caretaker status. The F-15Es fighter-bombers retained their nuclear capability but at a lower operational level. In recent years there have been rumors about nuclear exercises at the base.
The nuclear upgrade comes as RAF Lakenheath is preparing to become the first US Air Force base in Europe equipped with the nuclear-capable F-35A Lightning. The first of the fifth-generation fighter-bombers arrived in December 2021. A total of 24 F-35As will form the 495th Fighter Squadron of the 48th Fighter Wing at the base.
The US Air Force is scheduled to begin training the nuclear units in Europe within the next year to receive the new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb that will begin full-scale production next month. It is possible the first B61-12 bombs will be shipped to Europe in 2023, where they will replace the B61-3/-4 bombs currently deployed there.
Given NATO’s cautious nuclear response to Russia’s nuclear saber rattling at the start of its invasion of Ukraine, it would be odd if the nuclear upgrade at RAF Lakenheath reflected plans to deploy additional US nuclear bombs to Europe. FAS estimates there currently are roughly 100 nuclear bombs deployed at six air bases in five European countries.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared in December 2021, that “we have no plans of stationing any nuclear weapons in any other countries than we already have these nuclear weapons as part of our deterrence and that… have been there for many, many years.” Unless NATO has changed its plans since, that seems to be a clear signal that there are currently no plans to deploy nuclear weapons to RAF Lakenheath for now (see map below).
Rather, the upgrade at RAF Lakenheath could potentially be intended to increase the flexibility of the existing nuclear deployment within Europe, without increasing the number of weapons. Adding RAF Lakenheath as an active site would potentially allow it to receive nuclear weapons from other existing locations in Europe, if that became necessary. Such a contingency could potentially involve receiving weapons withdrawn from Turkey. There are unconfirmed rumors that many of the weapons at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey have already been withdrawn and moved to other bases in Europe.
Readying RAF Lakenheath could potentially also be intended to better realign the overall nuclear posture in Europe with the rapidly deteriorating relations with Russia. This is a delicate issue because changes in NATO’s nuclear posture in Europe might trigger retaliatory changes in Russia’s nuclear posture, including potentially deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus, which recently changed its constitution to allow for just that.
This publication was made possible by generous support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.