Armed With B61-12 Nuclear Bombs, Dutch F-35A Fighters Get Close To Nuke Strike Mission

Months after Russia’s ally Belarus received tactical nuclear weapons from Moscow, there is indication that the United States is assisting the Dutch F-35A in taking on its role as a nuclear carrier platform.

Amid increased nuclear threat looming over Europe, the Netherlands announced that it had obtained “initial certification for the deterrence mission,” suggesting that some of the F-35A stealth fighters that are part of NATO’s fleet are getting closer to being fully nuclear-capable. 

The F-35A was to be certified as a “Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA)” by January 2024, according to an earlier announcement by the US Air Force, with the capability to carry the B61-12 nuclear bomb. The US Air Force has not yet disclosed if any other country or its F-35As have received certification to deploy the B61-12. 

The Dutch Air Combat Command commander Johan van Deventer posted on X: “#ACC “Ready for Operations” was the result of the US team that inspected us this week. This gives us our initial certification for the deterrence mission with the F-35. An important step in the transition. Made possible by teamwork.”

Even though The Netherlands does not have nuclear weapons, NATO’s ‘Nuclear Sharing’ doctrine enables members without nukes of their own to take part in NATO’s nuclear deployment.

As of now, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have access to other B61 family of weapons provided by the United States. The F-16 fighter jets of the Dutch Air Force are currently capable of carrying these nuclear bombs.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) anticipates announcing full operational capability with its F-35A in early 2024. However, that announcement will be made once the F-35A fighter can complete all the objectives allocated to the F-16.

With work progressing steadily on turning the aircraft into a nuclear carrier, the integration of B61-12 would likely have to be completed before that.

The operational preparedness of the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s (RNLAF) F-35A fleet was inspected by US Air Force officers who visited the Dutch Air Combat Command. Though the bombs themselves are unknown to have been made available to date, a determination was made regarding the RNLAF’s capacity to assume the nuclear strike mission with the F-35A, leading to the associated certification.

A photo was also published, which showed an RNLAF F-35A carrying the test variants of the B61-12 nuclear bombs. On its part, the B61-12 is an 825-pound, 12-foot-long bomb that features an inertial navigation system (INS) guidance package. It comprises both new parts — such as the precision guiding tail kit and reconditioned components, all of which have varying yields — from the previous B61 variants. 

All 150 or so of the older B61 variants presently housed at six European bases will probably be replaced by B61-12s. This includes bombs stationed in locations in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, where the Dutch Volkel Air Base is home to ten to fifteen B61 nuclear bombs that RNLAF F-16s deliver. 

An F-35A Lightning II equipped with a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021-USAF

The US Air Force completed the necessary flight testing, which was meant to evaluate whether the B61-12 nuclear bomb was compatible with F-35A, in 2021. However, the service also observed that the airframe still needed certification for nuclear activities. Making the stealthy F-35 nuclear capable is a part of the country’s nuclear ambitions for the future.

Older aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16C/D Fighting Falcons serve in dual-capable positions and carry the B61-12. By including the F-35A into the mix, the Air Force would have a quick and covert way to carry nuclear missiles past modern air defenses. The same rationale has been extended to NATO, which has been on the edge since Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine last year.

Eventually, the F-35A will replace these older jets in the United States and NATO as dual-capable fighter jets. This has been reflected in the zeal shown by the US in fitting and testing the weapon on an RNLAF F-35A. 

Although there is currently no proof that the new weapons are being used in Europe, there are indications that plans to send B61-12 bombs to the continent are moving forward due to the continent’s shifting strategic environment, particularly concerning Russia. This also became evident with the announcement by the Dutch Commander, as it is relatively uncommon for NATO allies to make formal declarations about their Nuclear sharing.

The announcement is significant as it comes at a time of increasing nuclear saber-rattling in the wake of Russia withdrawing from key treaties, insinuating the use of nuclear weapons, and deploying tactical nuclear weapons on the soil of Belarus.

Russia’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Continues

The possibility of a nuclear exchange between Moscow and the West has returned to the forefront of attention due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although allies concur that there is little chance of Russia intensifying the conflict in Ukraine, there is increasing divergence amongst them over the circumstances under which this risk might rise and how.

According to some US and other NATO defense officials, if Russia’s forces appear to be about to collapse or if Ukraine appears set to seize Crimea and sizable swaths of occupied territory in southern and eastern Ukraine, there may be a greater chance that Russia will launch a limited nuclear strike using a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon to prevent a significant military defeat. 

Moreover, the Belarusian President, who is the only ally that Russia has in Europe, announced in June this year that his country received tactical nuclear weapons from Russia. He went so far as to say that some of these weapons were three times more powerful than the atomic bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Iskander Ballistic missile
File Image: Iskander Ballistic missile

The Russian President stated in March that he had consented to the placement of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, citing the United States’ decades-long placement of these weapons in other European nations.

Moreover, Russia has constantly engaged in nuclear saber-rattling right from the early days of the conflict when Russian President Vladimir Putin activated his strategic command. More recently, he issued a warning in June saying that if NATO states continue to arm Kyiv with military hardware, there is a “danger” that the alliance could be pushed further into the conflict in Ukraine.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum,  he further stated that Russia’s abundance of nuclear weapons would “guarantee” its security, pointing out that Russia possessed more of these weapons than any of the NATO members.

“Nuclear weapons are created to guarantee our security in the broader sense and the existence of the Russian state,” Putin said. “But first of all, there is no need, and secondly, the very fact of talking about it reduces the possibility of the threshold for using these weapons being reduced.

“Also, we have more weapons like this than the NATO countries. They know it, and they keep driving towards negotiation on reduction.”

Putin threatened to revoke Russia’s membership in the New START nuclear weapons reduction treaty with the United States in February, putting the final agreement governing the two most enormous nuclear arsenals in the world in jeopardy. The decision was subsequently described as “reversible” by Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

Additionally, the Russian President signed into law Russia withdrawing its ratification of the global treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. Although this decision was anticipated, it shows how deeply divided the US and Russia are over the conflict in Ukraine.

Against that backdrop, the United States-led NATO has shifted its focus on building and strengthening deterrence in the region while simultaneously acknowledging that the chances of Russia using nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine remain slim.