U.S. Air Force Restoring Nuclear Assets in Britain: Tactical Warheads to Return as F-35 Squadrons Forward Deployed

The U.S. Air Force is in the process of re-establishing its forward deployed nuclear forces in the United Kingdom, according to multiple reports from a range of Western sources. The service’s budget justification package for 2024 notes the planned construction of a “surety dormitory” at Royal Air Force base RAF Lakenheath – with “surety” being a term commonly used in the Pentagon and the Department of Energy to refer to the ability to keep nuclear weapons safe and secure. The document projected “the arrival of the potential Surety mission and the bed down of the two F-35 squadrons,” with construction of facilities that appear intended to help support a nuclear deployment set to begin in 2024 and conclude in 2026. Britain was notably added to the Department of Defence’s FY2023 budgetary documentary for the NATO Security Investment Program as follows: “NATO is wrapping up a thirteen-year, $384 million infrastructure investment program at storage sites in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and Turkey” – with the UK listed alongside all other states on the continent that already host American nuclear weapons and are party to nuclear sharing agreements. This investment was intended to “upgrade security measures, communication systems, and facilities.” 

The U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons from the United Kingdom in 2008, with reports of a redeployment coming as two new F-35 squadrons are set to imminently deploy to RAF Lakenheath. The F-35 was developed largely with a nuclear delivery role in mind under the Joint Strike Fighter program, and combines stealth capabilities and a relatively high endurance with the ability to carry B61 tactical nuclear bombs. RAF Lakenheath had 33 WS3 vaults installed in the 1990s each with a capacity for four B61 bombs for a maximum capacity of 132. This capacity is sufficient to allow the U.S. Air Force to surge F-35 deployments for nuclear strike missions across Europe. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defence for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defence Programs Harold Smith notably stated at the time nuclear weapons were withdrawn that the vaults for housing B61s were “mothballed in such a way that if we chose to go back into those bases we can do it.” F-35s have been deployed very actively in Eastern Europe including to collect data on and engage in electronic warfare ‘battles’ with Russian air defence systems. The fighter’s advanced avionics, including very potent sensor and electronic warfare suites, combine with its advanced stealth capabilities and very large numbers to make it a dangerous nuclear delivery asset. Issues with the fighter still number at close to 800, however, with the aircraft unlikely to be considered fully ready for high intensity combat before near the end of the decade.