With the recent announcement of initial nuclear certification for the Dutch Royal Air Force's (KLu) F-35A fighter-bombers, the landscape of NATO's nuclear deterrence is poised for change.
The ‘Double Key’ Principle
NATO's nuclear deterrence operates under the ‘double key' principle. It involves the storage of US B-61 tactical nuclear bombs in five of its member states, with the provision that in any situation necessitating their use, these states will provide the fighter-bombers required for their deployment under exclusive US control.
The F-35A Fighter-Bombers
In anticipation of this responsibility, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands have made the decision to switch to F-35A aircraft, replacing their older F-16 or Tornado aircraft. Of these four nations, only Italy and the Netherlands have so far been the recipients of the F-35A.
The Dutch Royal Air Force (KLu) has taken a proactive stance by leading the way in implementing the B61-12, a variant of the B61, which is slated to replace the B61-3, B61-4, and B-61-7.
Initial Nuclear Certification
The initial certification for the nuclear mission of Dutch F-35A was made public following an inspection by a US team. This is not to say that the full operational capacity of the Dutch F-35A has been approved. That will only be declared once they can carry out all missions currently performed by the F-16s.
It is noteworthy to mention that the KLu's F-16s can carry B61-3 and B61-4 from the Volkel airbase, where at least 15 units are believed to be stored.
On another note, the Pentagon had originally planned to deploy the first B61-12 units in Europe from 2024. This timeline may be brought forward due to the shifting geostrategic context.
The B61-12 is adaptable, being capable of use in ‘guided' mode with a rear-mounted kit or in ‘unguided' mode. In the latter instance, it is dropped by ‘gravity' over the intended target. The B61-12's potency ranges from 0.3 to 50 kilotons, the equivalent of 50,000 tons of TNT. This powerful weapon signals a significant development in air force capabilities and NATO's nuclear deterrence strategy.