Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki says his country wants to join NATO’s nuclear weapons-sharing program. This is a direct response to Russia’s deployment of some of its own nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. It also comes at a time when Poland is carrying out a massive conventional rearmament effort that accelerated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
Morawiecki made the remarks about Poland’s desire to be part of NATO’s nuclear weapons-sharing agreements in response to a question at a press conference held on the sidelines of a European Union meeting in Brussels, Belgium.
“The final decision will depend on our American and NATO partners. We declare our willingness to act quickly on this matter,” Morawiecki stated, according to Polesat News. “We don’t want to sit idly by while [Russian President Vladimir] Putin escalates all kinds of threats.”
Putin declared earlier this month that Russian nuclear weapons had started arriving in Belarus as part of a deal the two countries struck last summer. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared earlier this week that a “significant” part of the total nuclear munitions that Russia plans to place in his nation has already arrived.
According to earlier statements by Putin and Lukashenko, these weapons are a mix of nuclear-capable Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles and air-dropped nuclear bombs, the latter of which the Belarusian Air Force now claims it is capable of employing.
This is not the first time that the Polish authorities have publicly stated their interest in participating in NATO’s nuclear weapons-sharing program in light of Russia’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus.
“There is always the possibility of participating in the nuclear weapons sharing program,” Polish President Andrzej Duda declared in October. “We have spoken with American leaders about whether the United States is considering that possibility. The question is open.”
That same month, NATO conducted the annual iteration of its nuclear deterrence exercise, Steadfast Noon, which includes the practice of putting the alliance’s nuclear weapons deal plans into action. The Polish Army participated in that exercise, but in a supporting role and not as one of the members that would actually use nuclear munitions.
“We would like to underline that Poland did not strive to possess nuclear weapons,” a spokesman for the Polish Defense Ministry said then. “As a member of NATO, we participate in the Alliance’s nuclear policy and are also covered by the Allied Nuclear Sharing program guarantees.”
The NATO nuclear weapons sharing agreement focuses entirely on the US air-dropped B61 series nuclear bombs. The program provides for the advanced deployment of these weapons in security cameras at airbases in several member countries under US military control. In a crisis where the alliance approves their use, they would be loaded onto fighter jets belonging to the participating countries. NATO aircraft capable of using these nuclear weapons are known as Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA), referring to dual nuclear and conventional capability.
The specific details of the program are confidential and politically sensitive to many participating countries, some of which do not publicly acknowledge the presence of US nuclear weapons on their soil. Last October, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimated that there were about 100 B61s in total spread across six bases in five countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Estimates of between 150 and 200 bombs have been made in the past.
At the time, NATO had publicly recognized seven members of the shared nuclear program, it did not name them. At least this list is understood to include Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States.
Turkey continues to host weapons, but it has long been known that it no longer actively participates in nuclear sharing agreements and no longer operates DCA aircraft. The cooling of relations between the United States and Turkey after the coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016 also sparked speculation about the possibility of withdrawing B61s from the country, but there is no evidence that this has happened until the date. NATO flatly denied in 2016 a report that those bombs had moved to Romania.
The FAS suggested last year, given the sheer number of participants in NATO’s nuclear weapons-sharing program, that Turkey might still have a reserve role of some kind. He reported at the time that Greece, which no longer harbors bombs or has DCA aircraft, was also among the seven countries but again in a reserve capacity.
The UK has also hosted US nuclear weapons under the NATO nuclear sharing agreement in the past, but those bombs were removed by 2007 at the latest, according to the FAS. The US military’s FY2023 budget proposal included mention of work to modernize nuclear weapons storage facilities in the UK, suggesting plans may be underway to redeploy B61 bombs there in the future.
In response to a Freedom of Information request, The War Zone filed last year asking for details about “the UK’s current… involvement in NATO nuclear sharing agreements, whether or not the country operates dual-capable aircraft (DCA ), and/or whether the country hosts US nuclear gravity bombs of any kind,” the UK Defense Ministry said it “neither confirms nor denies” any relevant information.
The actual bombs that form the core of NATO’s nuclear weapons-sharing program are currently understood to be the B61-3 and/or -4 variants, classified by US authorities as tactical nuclear weapons. Both are of so-called “dial-a-yield” designs, in which the full explosive force of the weapon can be set before use. The B61-3 reportedly has eight different power levels: 0.3, 1.5, 5, 10, 45, 60, 80, or 170 kilotons. It is understood that B61-4 has less than only, ranging from 0.3 to 50 kilotons.
The US military is replacing most of its B61 series bombs with the newer B61-12 versions, which include remanufactured components for the B61-3, -4, -7 and -10. They also incorporate new features, notably a precision-guided tail kit. They also incorporate new features, most notably a precision-guided tail kit.
US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, B-2 Spirit bombers, and some F-16 Viper fighters are certified to use existing B61 variants. As part of the nuclear weapons sharing agreement, some Belgian, Dutch and Italian F-16s and German mobile-wing Panavia Tornado fighter jets may also deliver these weapons. In order to drop these bombs, the launcher aircraft must have special modifications to “talk” to the weapons to transmit the secure codes needed to activate them and set the yields through what are known as Permissive Action Links (PALs).
The US military has been working to integrate the B61-12 into the F-15E, F-16 and B-2, as well as the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, in support of its own and NATO needs. Future US Air Force B-21 Raider stealth bombers can also drop these bombs. Interestingly, at present, the only platforms expected to be able to make use of the new guided functionality of the B61-12 will be the F-15E, F-35A, B-2, and B-21. The F-16 will only be able to use them in their unguided mode.
Reports surfaced last year that the US military was trying to speed up the deployment of the B61-12 to Europe in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it’s unclear if this has actually started. It is known that fit checks have been carried out to ensure that the new version of the B61 will fit existing security cameras.
On the whole, at least from a technical point of view, if Poland wants to join NATO’s nuclear weapons-sharing program, it will have to modify a certain number of its fighter plans. The country already operates F-16s that could be configured for this role and is in the process of acquiring F-35As. If you were to house bombs within your borders physically, you would also need to build the necessary secure facilities. Other security policies and protocols would also need to be applied.