The U.K. may once again become a place to store American nuclear warheads. The Pentagon’s budget request for the fiscal year 2023 suggests that weapons of this type could return to British soil.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2023 budget request for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) exhibits that the military alliance has added the U.K. to the list of countries expected to receive $384 million in investments to store “special weapons”. According to official figures, other countries receiving this funding are Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, where some 150 American B-61 nuclear bombs are stored.
At the same time, the U.S. has not yet officially announced its intention to expand its nuclear arsenals in Europe. The move will give the U.S. Air Force F-35A and F-15E Strike Eagle based in U.K. immediate access to B61 bombs, including the latest B61-12 variant that boasts improved accuracy.
The U.K. MoD did not comment on the upgrades mentioned in the U.S. budget. One British official said, “We will not report anything about this, as it concerns the storage of nuclear weapons.” But the news comes just four months after the arrival at Lakenheath of America’s first new-generation nuclear-capable combat aircraft, the F-35A Lightning II, the first such deployment in Europe.
Hans Christensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists, was the first to announce that the U.K. had “quietly” joined the infrastructure programme. Though not budgeted, Christensen said the former U.S. Air Force base at Lakenheath, near Cambridge, East Anglia, was the most likely location for nuclear weapons storage. Christensen said he believes the storage facilities are being upgraded to accommodate new B61-12 bombs if needed. Christensen also said he doubts the Biden administration plans to increase the U.S. nuclear arsenal in Europe.
The U.S. decommissioned its Lakenheath base and nuclear weapons storage facility in 2008. Before they were mothballed, 33 underground storage facilities could hold 110 atomic bombs, as per FAS.
The B61 munitions were stored there for more than half a century. At the time of withdrawal, gravity bombs were considered militarily obsolete, and high hopes were placed on the further disarmament of the nuclear powers.
B61-12 nuclear bombs
In October 2015, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the U.S. Air Force successfully tested the new B61-12 bomb. A press release published after the test on the official website of NNSA states that the tests were carried out without the use of a nuclear charge at the Tonopah test site in Nevada.
The test bomb drop, carried out on October 20, was one of the final tests in the B61-12 test series. The U.S. Air Force used the F-15E fighter as the carrier of the bomb.
The B61-12 bomb is a deeply modernized version of the B61 ammunition, developed back in the middle of the last century. When creating the twelfth version of the atomic bomb, engineers used a new tail unit developed by Boeing. Thanks to the new tail section, the B61-12 bomb can correct its flight and more accurately hit its targets. While designing the new bomb, the developers abandoned the use of satellite guidance systems in their electronic system. Also, the B61-12 does not have a parachute system.
NNSA reports that the B61-12 will replace the B61 bombs of the third, fourth, seventh and tenth generations, which are in service with the U.S. Armed Forces.
The B61 bomb is designed to be dropped from aircraft, including jets. The length of the ammunition is approximately 3.5 m., the diameter is 33 cm, and the weight is more than 300 kg. The dimensions and weight of the bombs may vary slightly depending on the modification.
In December 2021, The Americans began the serial assembly of a new generation of nuclear bombs. On December 4, the press service of the NNSA announced the completion of the assembly of the first production unit of B61-12.
The full-scale production of the B61-12 is scheduled to begin in May 2022 and be completed by 2026. At the same time, the production is not of a ‘new ammunition’ but the conversion of the bombs of versions B61-3, B61-4 and B61-7 into a new version of B61-12. Since B61-11 is newer, it will remain in the arsenal of strategic aviation.
The program for the production of new bombs is several years behind schedule. The B61-12 nuclear bomb and the W88 Alteration 370 warhead were developed and successfully tested several years ago. But in 2019, NNSA announced a problem that commercial capacitors were not reliable enough to guarantee 20-30 years of ammunition life. Therefore, after replacing unreliable elements, the B61-12 program required re-testing.
In the U.S.Air Force, B-21 Raider heavy bomber, F-35A, F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-16C/D Fighting Falcon MLU (and Panavia PA 200 Tornado, British) are capable of carrying nuclear bombs.