Unarmed B61-12 test article. Image – USAF

On June 1, 2024, the Netherlands made history, becoming the first country to officially assign its F-35A stealth fighters to the nuclear strike role, a significant milestone for NATO’s military prowess. This follows the F-35 A’s certification to carry the B61-12 thermonuclear bomb in October 2023. Introducing a 5th generation, nuclear-capable stealth fighter into Europe dramatically boosts NATO’s capabilities and is expected to elicit a strong response from Russia, which may leverage this development to justify advancing its own nuclear arsenal.

Balance of Power

The fortification of the NATO alliance in 1949 served as a direct countermeasure to Russian aggression, ensuring that an attack on one meant an attack on all participating members. One year later, in 1950, the U.S. deployed nuclear weapons to Europe to strengthen the alliance’s stance against Russia’s vast military. Around 100 B61 gravity bombs remain stored in six U.S. air bases throughout Europe, despite the conclusion of the Cold War. (This number is an estimation, as current U.S. nuclear stockpiles are classified.)

The balance of power in global nuclear strategy has long hinged on the United States’ nuclear triad. The Cold War era, land, air and sea components currently consist of: 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) armed with Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and 66 B-52H and B-2A Spirit bombers capable of delivering nuclear gravity bombs and cruise missiles.

With all three legs undergoing costly upgrades, critics have begun to debate the efficacy of decades-old nuclear deterrent tactics on the modern landscape, particularly concerning the maintenance of B61 bombs overseas. Critics argue that the U.S. nuclear triad alone is a sufficient deterrent, while proponents contend that these weapons symbolize the U.S. commitment to NATO and could serve as a valuable bargaining chip in future arms control negotiations with Russia.


In a significant and provocative development, Russia announced in March 2023 its decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. This marked the first instance since the Soviet Union’s dissolution that Russia has stationed nuclear weapons beyond its borders. More recently, Moscow and Belarus conducted two drills in 2024 involving tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia’s motivations for escalating conflict with the U.S. and NATO are deeply rooted in Moscow’s vehement opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion. Since the late 1990s, NATO has admitted several former Warsaw Pact states and ex-Soviet republics, including Poland, Hungary, the Czechia (formerly Czech Republic), and the Baltic states.

Ukraine dropped its official unaligned status in 2015 following the Russian occupation of Crimea, paving the way for NATO membership. Moscow views these advancements as an encroachment on Russian sovereignty and a violation of a verbal agreement made by the U.S. at the end of the Cold War not to expand the NATO alliance’s eastern borders – the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Since then, NATO countries including Poland and Germany have sought to acquire the F-35A strictly for its nuclear capability.

Now, with the addition of the NATO-interoperable F-35A as a certified nuclear carrier, Russia will have to rethink its offensive and defensive positions. This translates primarily into a need for enhanced low-frequency radar detection and interception capabilities to overcome the fighter jet’s advanced stealth features. Additionally, countering the F-35A directly would be challenging for Russia, likely prompting Moscow to turn towards asymmetric warfare, including cyber attacks and developing hypersonic missiles as a counterbalance.

F-35A Strategic Advantage 

The F-35A is the latest of a handful of fighters to receive the B61-12 certification, joining the ranks of the F-16E, F-16C/D, B-2A Spirit and the PA-200 Tornado. The significance of this development lies in the F-35’s coveted stealth technology. The F-35A’s design minimizes its radar cross-section, making it much more difficult for enemy radar systems to detect compared to the other nuclear-capable fighter jets. Additionally, the use of advanced materials and radar-absorbent coatings, collectively reduce its signature on enemy radars.

Dutch F-35 fighter at Edwards Air Force Base. Image – Netherlands MoD

Meanwhile, China’s Chengdu J-20 and Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 strive to compete with the F-35. While the J-20 is considered a comparable rival to the F-35 in terms of speed and performance, it lags in avionics and sensor fusion capabilities, which are critical for modern aerial warfare. The Su-57, although designed with advanced features, falls short in several areas, including stealth and production reliability. Western sanctions and Russian production issues have further hindered the Su-57’s development, leaving the Russian fighter deep in the shadows of the F-35.


The B61-12 is the most current variant of the B61 family – some of the longest-serving nuclear weapons in U.S. history. The Life Extension Program (LEP) initiated during the Obama administration is designed to replace the older B61-3, -4 and -7 variants.

The B61-12 can deliver a range of yields, potentially up to hundreds of kilotons. By comparison, the U.S. atomic bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during WWII had yields of fifteen and twenty-one kilotons, respectively.

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The certification of the F-35A for the B61-12 bomb and its integration into NATO’s nuclear strike role represents a significant enhancement of the alliance’s military capabilities. This development, coupled with Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus, underscores the ongoing strategic competition and the importance of modernized nuclear forces in maintaining a balance of power in Europe.