Military Affairs

The US decided to redeploy its nuclear weapons in the UK.  Is the world facing a new arms race between NATO and Russia?

Jerguš Lajoš

The recent decision by the United States to deploy nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom for the first time in 15 years marks a fundamental shift in NATO’s defence strategy, reflecting a strategic recalibration in response to developments in the geopolitical environment. The move, which was revealed through Pentagon documents, includes the deployment of nuclear warheads at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, indicating a change in approach to strengthening the alliance’s deterrent in light of current security threats from Russia.

The redeployment of US nuclear weapons in the UK is deeply anchored in a strategy that goes beyond conventional tactical adjustments and thus represents a coherent response to a complex set of threats that have emerged since the end of the Cold War. This period saw the strategic deployment of nuclear arsenals around the world, with the UK serving as a critical node in the extended US “nuclear umbrella”. The removal of nuclear missiles from the United Kingdom in 2008 reflected a period of relative detente based on the judgment that the existential threat from Moscow had receded.

However, current threats that go beyond conventional war among states (including terrorism, cyber warfare and regional conflicts) require reliable and flexible defence approaches. The deployment of nuclear weapons and new technologies- such as the B61-12 gravity bombs, which have vastly improved capabilities compared to past trends, or the F-15E and F-35A fighter jets capable of carrying these nuclear warheads- underscore the seriousness with which NATO views the current environment of threats. In addition, in 2023, the United States allocated $50 million to build a facility labelled the “Surety Dormitory,” which is understood to be a repository for nuclear weapons. This is an explicit acknowledgement that conventional forces alone may not be sufficient to deter or defend against a nuclear-armed adversary, necessitating a reassessment of the alliance’s strategic posture.

This development may escalate tensions between NATO and Russia, with Moscow already signalling that it perceives the move as an escalation. Russia’s indicated reaction, which includes countermeasures, points to the possibility of a renewed arms race and a further destabilisation of relations between the North Atlantic Alliance and the Russian Federation. Such dynamics underline the delicate balance of power and the inherent risks of escalation in the field of nuclear policy and arms control. Actions by one party may prompt reciprocal actions by the other parties, thus starting a cycle of escalation that undermines the ultimate goal of global security and stability.

Consideration should also be given to the legal and environmental implications of the deployment of nuclear weapons at the British air base in question. The construction of new facilities, including accommodation for personnel associated with the mission, requires compliance with complex national and international legislation, including environmental impact assessments. The possibility of legal challenges from nuclear disarmament advocacy groups underlines the need for transparency and strict adherence to legal and regulatory standards in the deployment of such facilities.

Public and international reactions to the decision have been varied, with domestic views in the UK and wider international perspectives reflecting different concerns and viewpoints. Public views on nuclear weapons are often polarised and influenced by considerations of safety, environmental impact and the ethical implications of nuclear deterrence. The international community – especially NATO allies – generally supports measures perceived as strengthening collective defence capabilities, while the counterpart, in particular Russia, considers such steps provocative and destabilising.

As NATO continues to adapt its defence strategy in response to the changing dynamics of the security environment, the deployment of nuclear weapons in the UK is proving to be a critical element in the alliance’s efforts to provide a credible deterrent against potential adversaries. This decision, while aimed at strengthening deterrence, also underlines the importance of continued diplomatic efforts to address the key conflicts and tensions that contribute to the current geopolitical instability. The future stability of international security will depend not only on the effectiveness of military deterrence but also on the success of diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts and reduce the risk of their further escalation.

The strategic decision to station US nuclear weapons in the UK underlines the multilateral approach to addressing the security challenges facing NATO and its Member States. The move, which signals a broader effort to strengthen the Alliance’s deterrent capability, requires a balanced reassessment of its legal, environmental and ethical implications. As the international community navigates the complexities of the current geopolitical environment, the imperative for stability and peace remains paramount, underscoring the need for vigilance in promoting a secure and stable global order in an increasingly uncertain environment.

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