By Xie Hao
According to recent foreign media reports, relevant documents from the US Department of Defense show that the US plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons at Royal Air Force (RAF) Base Lakenheath in the UK to counter threats from Russia. If this goes ahead, it will be the first time in more than a decade that the US has deployed nuclear weapons in the UK. It is reported that the nuclear weapon to be deployed this time is the new B61-12 nuclear bomb. The maximum yield of this nuclear bomb is 50,000 tons. Amid ongoing geopolitical tensions, the re-deployment of advanced tactical nuclear weapons by the US in the UK is expected to escalate nuclear tensions in Europe and severely impact regional peace and stability.
In fact, the US has long had plans to redeploy nuclear weapons in the UK. In the FY2023 defense budget, the US clearly plans to invest $384 million to upgrade and reconfigure the nuclear bomb storage facilities of six NATO member states, including the UK, to meet the requirements for the deployment of the B61-12 nuclear bomb. In 2023, the US Congress formally approved $50 million in funding for the Air Force to build dormitories at RAF Lakenheath base for personnel performing potential surety missions. At the time, some analysts believed that the potential surety mission referred to in the project was the storage of nuclear weapons, and that the US move was to prepare for the deployment of nuclear weapons in the UK.
As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine drags on, the US has several considerations in its plan to redeploy nuclear weapons in the UK.
On one hand, it aims to strengthen strategic deterrence against Russia. The US first deployed nuclear weapons in the UK in 1954, and in the 1990s the US Air Force built over 10 underground storage bunkers at Lakenheath base to store a significant number of nuclear bombs. It was not until 2008 that the US withdrew these nuclear bombs, believing that the threat from Russia had diminished. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US has been upgrading its nuclear arsenals in Europe, with the planned redeployment in the UK being a specific measure.
On the other hand, it aims to increase the security of US nuclear deployments in Europe. Under NATO's nuclear sharing mechanism, the US currently deploys about 100 nuclear bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. These countries naturally become priority targets for Russia. Compared to these countries, the UK is further away from Russia and relatively less vulnerable to attack. If the nuclear weapons deployed on the European continent became inoperable, those deployed in the UK would serve as a backup.
In recent years, the US has been stepping up its efforts to deploy global nuclear forces and seek nuclear deterrence advantages around the world. For example, the US has established a trilateral security partnership with the UK and Australia to cooperate on nuclear submarines, offered so-called extended deterrence to Japan and ROK, and accelerated the modernization of European nuclear arsenals. Regardless of the pretext or justification used by the US, these actions are likely to exacerbate global nuclear proliferation risks, trigger more instability and stimulate a global nuclear arms race. As the world's largest nuclear power, the US needs to seriously assume the responsibilities of a nuclear power, rather than being a major source of international nuclear security risks.
(The author is from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.)