Why do we not know if US nuclear weapons are about to return to the UK? Because British sovereignty over military-decision making has been surrendered to the United States and NATO, argues Ian Davis.
In late August the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a US non-profit think-tank, reported that the US Air Force (USAF) had secured $50 million funding in 2024 for a project that could potentially pave the way for US nuclear weapons to return to British soil for the first time in more than 15 years. The FAS had previously reported in April 2022 that the UK was added to the list of countries where infrastructure investment is under way on “special weapons” storage sites in Europe. The other storage sites are in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, where about 100 US nuclear weapons (B61 nuclear gravity bombs) are currently stored as part of NATO’s so called nuclear sharing arrangements.
It is not clear from the evidence uncovered by FAS whether the UK is intended to become a permanent base for US nuclear weapons again, or a contingency base in the event of a crisis. The UK Government has refused to comment on the issue, because, as stated in a written reply to a parliamentary question in May 2022, “It remains longstanding UK and NATO policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons at a given location”.
Sovereignty, secrecy and the security state
It is unfathomable that we do not know what is going on at Lakenheath, 110 km northeast of London. Despite nominally being an RAF station, Lakenheath currently only hosts USAF units and personnel, including the first of a new generation of nuclear-capable US combat aircraft, the F-35A Lightning II. These aircraft were deployed as part of an additional long-term US commitment to Europe announced at the 2022 NATO Madrid Summit.
Compared to the now largely discredited notion that EU membership entailed a loss of sovereignty in any serious sense (or that the scorched earth ‘sovereignty-first’ Brexit regained it), the situation at Lakenheath represents an actual violation of UK sovereignty. Britain’s strategic dependence on the United States and NATO is far greater than Britain’s economic and social dependence has ever been on the EU. But in contrast to the egregious arguments on giving up sovereignty to EU-Brussels there appears to be little concern amongst those most concerned with sovereignty with its loss to the US and NATO-Brussels in the field of national security.
Excessive secrecy compounds this loss of sovereignty. It has surrounded every aspect of British nuclear weapons policy—from the decision to develop an ‘independent’ capability in 1947, the decision to replace Polaris in 1980, and even the protracted decision-making process to replace the Vanguard class submarines in the early 21st century, when at least there was some parliamentary debate and reporting.
And within NATO serious transparency and accountability deficits exist at four levels: within the closed inner workings of the alliance; as a result of Cold War legacy secrecy and classification rules; through poor budgetary controls and non-existent performance metrics; and weak parliamentary and public oversight.
Hence, the British public was not informed when US nuclear weapons were first based in the UK in 1954, notably at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth, but also at RAF Lakenheath. Nor were they told when they were withdrawn from Lakenheath sometime between 2004 and 2008. At that time the storage facilities were mothballed rather than dismantled, paving the way for their potential future return.
NATO nuclear sharing
It is increasingly clear, however, that the activities at Lakenheath are closely associated with developments within NATO, and especially its nuclear sharing arrangements. Only US nuclear forces are shared within NATO. They remain under US control but are matched with allied air crews in four of the five (currently) hosting countries (the exception being Turkey). The fact that Lakenheath bases USAF dual-capable aircraft suggests it would be similar there.
Although the RAF and Fleet Air Arm already operate F-35 aircraft from RAF Marham, just 25km from Lakenheath, these are the F-35B variant that is not able to carry the B61 bomb. During the Cold War, various British strike aircraft based in Germany and under NATO command were equipped with the WE.177, a British equivalent of the B61, but the last UK air-launched nuclear weapons were withdrawn by 1998.
For about two decades from the mid-1990s, NATO appeared to be moving towards consolidating fewer nuclear weapons at fewer European bases. This was done largely through unilateral (or bilateral) steps taken by the United States and the host state, with minimal discussion among allies, at least not in public.
This consolidation took place at a time when pressure was mounting in several host countries for the weapons to be withdrawn completely. Hence, some secretive withdrawals took place from Turkish bases at Akinci and Balikesir (in 1995), German bases at Memmingen and Norvenich (1996) and Ramstein (2005), the Greek base at Araxos (2001) and from Lakenheath (2004-08). It is likely that these withdrawals were discussed behind closed doors in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, but with little or no parliamentary or public debate in NATO member states.
Only in Greece and the UK, however, were US nuclear weapons withdrawn completely at this time, and it should be noted, without any severe consequences for NATO deterrence or unity. In the other five host nations, small numbers were retained largely as a political demonstration of alliance solidarity, or because consensus could not be reached within the alliance on what do with them. For example, some member states, especially in eastern Europe, were reluctant for the US nuclear weapons to be withdrawn until Russia reduced its stockpile of several thousand tactical nuclear weapons.
In the last decade, however, the United States and NATO host states have been modernising the nuclear weapons, delivery systems, bases and infrastructure. Designed in the 1960s, the B61 bombs that were once considered obsolete by the US military instead of being retired have been upgraded to extend their life and improve their accuracy. And with the exception of Turkey, all the host countries that contribute dual-capable aircraft to the nuclear sharing mission are upgrading to the F-35A.
Deterrence and the democratic deficit
The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling, including mirroring NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement by moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, have further tested the stability of so-called ‘nuclear deterrence’ in Europe. But as the Austrian ambassador to the UN First Committee recently said, the theory of deterrence “puts the security of the nuclear haves above the security of everyone else,” adding, “We simply cannot know if nuclear deterrence works in any particular crisis but we know for sure that it can fail”.
NATO has also come under pressure from within to adjust its nuclear posture in reaction to the new adversarial relationship with Russia. Poland has requested that nuclear weapons be deployed on its territory, in what would be the first expansion of NATO nuclear sharing in more than six decades, while proponents of nuclear deterrence have become even more shrill. For example, writing in NATO Review, Gregory Weaver, a former senior official in the US Department of Defense, sets out the “urgent imperative” for NATO to continue to deter Russian nuclear escalation, even after the war in Ukraine ends. He calls for additional NATO theatre nuclear capabilities (with nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles deployed on US attack submarines his weapon of choice) so that, if necessary, NATO can fight and win a limited nuclear war against Russia.
Such Strangelovian thinking, worsening geopolitics and evolving technologies are raising the danger that nuclear weapons might actually be detonated in conflict for the first time since 1945. In February, UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a public warning: “We are at the highest risk in decades of a nuclear war that could start by accident or design.” He followed with a call to action: “The so-called ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons is absurd. Nuclear-armed countries must renounce the use of these unconscionable weapons – anytime, anywhere”.
Nuclear weapons have existential implications for the whole of humanity. As Dallas Boyd, a senior advisor in the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, wrote recently in Survival magazine, “In this light, the theories and plans that govern their employment should not be the exclusive domain of a small coterie of nuclear strategists who resist outside scrutiny”. He goes on to call for nuclear policy to be democratised to include outside voices that are not wedded to the canon of nuclear strategy.
It is long past time for a political discussion and public debate within the UK on NATO’s nuclear strategy. It is also long overdue for parliament to take back control of what goes on inside Lakenheath.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: US Department of Defense via The Aviationist. A USAF F-35A drops a B61-12 dummy bomb during integration trials over California, 25 Nov, 2019.