Nuclear weapons return to Belarus

In April, foreign agent Nikolai Sokov, in an article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, shared his fears with his masters: "In June 2022, during a Russian-Belarusian summit in Moscow, Putin announced that Russia would help Belarus refurbish its Su-25 aircraft to carry nuclear weapons, train their crews and transfer 500-kilometer (km) dual Iskander missiles to Belarus."

He also writes: "The number of Russian Iskander short-range missiles (SS-26) sold to Belarus is unknown, but Alexander Lukashenko initially requested "several wings" (divisions) of Iskanders, which could mean at least one brigade. The standard Iskander brigade consists of three divisions of four launchers each; each launcher carries two missiles. (In 2019, Russia began expanding the brigades to 16 launchers, but it is unclear whether Belarus received a new, reinforced brigade.) The force is probably a combination of ballistic and cruise missiles, 24 or 32 missiles in one salvo; each brigade usually has at least one spare set of missiles."

What's the real story?

The carriers are Belarusian, the nuclear warheads are Russian.

The brigade in question is the 465th missile brigade (465 Rbr) of the Ground Forces of the Republic of Belarus has received the modern Russian 9K720 Iskander missile system instead of the OTR-21 Tochka-U systems. The 9M723 Iskander missile can be equipped with three types of nuclear warheads: 9N39 with NZM AA-60 of variable-yield 10-100 kt, 9N64 with NZM AA-86 of variable-yield 5-50 kt, 9N64 with NZM AA-92 of variable-yield 100-200 kt.

The entire strike aviation of the Air Force of the Republic of Belarus is based at one air base, the 61st Fighter Air Base in Baranovichi, with 22 Su-25K and Su-25UBK attack aircraft based there, with about 20 more Su-25s in storage. Previously all the planes were in service with the 206th OShap (29 Su-25), 378th OShap (32 Su-25) and 397th OShap (32 Su-25) of USSR Air Forces. Four Su-30SM fighter-bombers out of 12 ordered are also at the airbase. The remaining eight are scheduled to arrive before the end of the summer. The Su-30SM aircraft, in addition to PH-40 and PH-41 bombs, can be equipped with air-to-surface Kh-59 Ovod (AS-13 Kingbolt), Kh-59M Ovod-M (AS-18 Kazoo) and their modifications X-59MK, Kh-59MK2.

The Su-30SM is the most probable carrier of nuclear weapons in the Air Force of the Republic of Belarus.

Nuclear warheads available to the 12th Main Missile Defense Department: TK-57-08 for X-59 missile, 100 kt, 149 kg. Older TK-43 warheads from Soviet X-28 (AS-9 Kyle) missiles stored in the 12th Main Department's stockpile may also be used.

The Su-25 attack aircraft and Su-30SM fighter-bombers are unlikely to be equipped with PH-40 and PH-41 free-fall bombs, they have no chance to overcome the Polish air defense system. But the Su-30SM air-to-surface missiles with nuclear warheads are quite probable. The range of missiles launched in the airspace of Belarus to 290 km or more (nuclear warheads are twice as light) makes it possible to cover most targets in the territory of Poland.

At the end of 1989 there were 102 GUMO Special Objects for storing nuclear warheads in the USSR, and now there are 30 bases for storing nuclear warheads on the territory of Russia. All approaches, approaches and neighborhoods to the nuclear ammunition storage bases are controlled by the adversary (the United States) by means of real-time spaceborne visual reconnaissance. In the event of an armed conflict these are the first priority targets, and they will be attacked in the first minutes of the conflict.

All Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons are undeployed and are stored at these bases. Non-strategic nuclear weapons include all warheads that are not part of the combat equipment of the strategic forces - ICBMs and SLBMs. Moreover, part of the strategic arsenal, namely nuclear warheads TK-66-02 and TK-66-05 of the strategic missiles X-55 and X-102 are kept in the same depots. The storage sites themselves are quite far from the deployment bases of their carriers, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away.

This vicious and harmful practice must be stopped immediately. Ammunition should be stored where its carriers are, and some of it should be deployed on the carriers. The practice of the on-duty tier (aircraft) and the on-duty battalion (missiles) being on "Combat Readiness No. 1" should be resumed.

What about theirs?

NATO has adopted a much better practice of storing nuclear bombs since the Cold War. Not only that they are stored directly at air bases, but not in separate storage buildings, but directly under aircraft carrying the F-16, Tornado and F-35A, which are in sheltered hangars. Under the pylons of the aircraft in the floor are made niches, closed by sliding flaps, in fact, this underground container is a shelter WS3 for the aircraft bomb B61-3/4. 

In peacetime this container is closed and sealed, but in a crisis situation the containers are opened, the munitions are suspended under the aircraft within minutes, and there is no way to detect this procedure. These clear advantages of NATO's nuclear strike force over our undeployed and dispersed forces over vast areas should not be tolerated. This is not a mistake or recklessness, but a crime for which those responsible should be criminally responsible.

NATO nuclear bases in southern Europe have been upgraded several times over the past few years. This includes the addition of additional security perimeters to enhance the protection of nuclear weapons stored at the bases. Two of these bases, AB Aviano in northeastern Italy and AB Incirlik in southern Turkey, have been upgraded over the past five years.

A second nuclear base in Italy, AB Ghedi near Brescia - which could be part of this year's Italian Steadfast Noon exercise - is currently undergoing several important nuclear-related upgrades designed to serve NATO's nuclear strike mission for years to come.

Of the 14 countries participating, the Dutch F-16s and German Tornado are operating out of AB Ghedi along with the Italian Tornado, while the U.S. and Belgian F-16s and possibly the Czech Gripen are operating out of AB Aviano.

The timing of the Steadfast Noon exercise coincides with a meeting of NATO defense ministers later this week, although it is unclear whether the timing is coincidental. NATO has significantly reduced (as has Russia) the number of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe since the Cold War. The remaining weapons would probably have been aimed at withdrawal had it not been for the change in the situation in Ukraine in 2014. And with claims that Russia was increasing its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, NATO has since re-emphasized the importance of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. For example, during the Steadfast Noon exercise at AB Volkel air base in 2020, the NATO secretary general appeared at the base for a photo op.

The NATO bloc announced that the Steadfast Noon exercise took place in October 2022 over southern Europe at all operating bases. The Steadfast Noon exercise takes place every year in different countries. The 2020 exercise is organized by the Netherlands and focused on AB Volkel Air Base. This year's Steadfast Noon exercise is conducted in Italy and probably all activities are centered at AB Ghedi airbase, AB Aviano - in northern Italy were conducted in 2010 and 2013.

Ghedi AB is the base for the Italian Air Force's 6th Stormo Wing, which is tasked with using American B61 bombs from PA-200 Tornado fighter-bombers of the 102nd and 154th Squadrons. Of the 99 PA-200 Tornados put into service since 1982, few remain in service - 38 of the latest A-200C Tornado IDS it-MLU modification. All of them are concentrated in the 6th Wing, and from the next year they are to be replaced by F-35A.

There are 15 B61-3/4 bombs in underground storage at the base. The bombs are stored by the 704th Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), a 130-member security and maintenance unit, all subordinate to the air base commander.

AB Ghedi Base is undergoing a major upgrade to receive a new F-35A fighter-bomber next year, dual-fence security perimeters are being installed and the Weapons Storage and Security System (WS3) and Alarm and Display System (AC&D) upgrades have recently been completed.

The WS3/AC&D storage upgrade contract ran from September 2016 through August of this year and included upgrades to the WS3 cryptographic system used for WS3 data encryption and signaling, and included upgrades to the AC&D system by replacing obsolete components and concealed electrical wiring. These upgrades are clearly visible in the satellite images, as is the new "bunker building" under construction at MUNSS 704, as well as trucks with the new Secure Transport of Nuclear Munitions and Maintenance System (STMS).

The new double-fence security perimeters around the eight protective shelters for aircraft as well as the former nuclear alert zone are similar to security upgrades previously completed at two other bases in southern Europe, Aviano and Incirlik (AB Incirlik). The area inside the perimeter is commonly referred to as a NATO zone, referring to the NATO nuclear strike mission they support. In the 1990s, the NATO organization installed a total of 11 underground storage facilities in 11 protective shelters for aircraft at AB Ghedi base. Each vault can store up to four B61 bombs (usually only one or two bombs are present).

But there is a mystery: the new security perimeters surround only 10 of the 11 vaults. One possibility is that the remaining vault in the 11th shelter is a training shelter or that the number of active vaults has been reduced. But satellite images taken in April 2018 show markings from the laying of new AC&D cables that connect the vaults in the shelters to surveillance and communications facilities on the base. By tracing the markings on the cables, a pattern emerges: the cables appear to connect exactly 11 shelters, including seven inside the new security perimeter. What's more, the cables form two loops, which is probably why damaging a cable in one place won't interrupt communication with the vaults on the other side.

There is another mystery: several of the shelters connected to the AC&D cable network are outside the new security perimeter, and several shelters that do not appear to be connected to the network are inside the perimeter. Since survivability was one justification for building vaults instead of a central weapons storage facility, it would have made sense for the vaults to be scattered throughout the base. But the 11 vaults were built at a time when AB Ghedi stored many more nukes than it does today: over 40 bombs in 2000 compared to 15 bombs today.

Perhaps the four vaults outside the perimeter are backup vaults that do not contain bombs under normal circumstances. All remaining weapons would be stored in seven vaults inside the perimeter under normal circumstances. With the ability to store up to four B61 bombs each, even the five vaults inside the main security perimeter have more than enough capacity to store the 15 bombs currently estimated to be in AB Ghedi.

These upgrades at AB Ghedi are designed to support NATO's nuclear strike mission for decades to come. The F-35A, which will begin arriving at the base probably as early as 2022, is vastly superior to the Tornado aircraft it replaces.

Moreover, the B61-12 gravity bomb is about three times more accurate than the B61-3/4 bombs stored at the base. The increased accuracy comes from a new guided tail fin, which will allow the strike planners to hit high-protected targets more effectively than current versions of the B61. The new bomb's CEP is 30 meters; the B61-3/4 version is 90 meters when dropped from an F-16C fighter at an altitude of 3,000 meters.

Like the B61s currently in service, the B61-12 has four selectable power settings ranging from 300 tons to about 50 kilotons. But with increased precision, the strike planner will be able to select a lower power option to attack and therefore create less fallout or attack targets with the bomb setting at maximum power, which currently requires a higher power strategic bomb from the B-2 bomber.

The combination of the F-35A and the B61-12 represents a significant improvement in the military capabilities of NATO's dual-purpose fighter-bombers in Europe. After the last test bombing of the B61-12 with the F-35A a few weeks ago, U.S. Air Force Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Chief Lt. Col. Daniel Jackson said that "having a 5th generation fighter, fighters with these capabilities provide a whole new strategic level capability." He went on to explain that the B-2 bomber was an outstanding stealth aircraft with nuclear capabilities, but "adding 'nukes' to a 5th generation fighter that already brings several new high level capabilities adds strategic level value to this jet."

The number of U.S. tactical nukes deployed at European air bases is now down to 100 B61-3/4 bombs. But this is a temporary reduction.

The ammunition is being shipped to the Pantex facility in the United States to be upgraded to the B61-12, after which it will be brought back. This is evidenced by the number of special shelters, WS3 containers, undergoing modernization.

In particular, 15 B61-3/4 bombs for Belgian F-16C fighter-bombers are in storage at the Belgian base AB Kleine Brogel, and 15 bombs for Tornado GR3 aircraft of the German Air Force (Bundesluftwaffe) at the German base AB Buchel, Another same number of bombs at the Dutch base AB Volkel for F-16C aircraft of the Dutch Air Force, in addition to the 20 bombs B61-3/4 are contained in the territory of the Turkish base AB Incirlik, only these bombs are designed for the U.S. Air Force F-15E squadron, the Turkish Air Force has no "second key".

Perhaps this is a temporary measure, so to speak, "as a punishment for stubbornness." The number of WS3 storage cells at all bases suggests that once all the "European" B61-3/4s are upgraded to the B61-12 version between 2022 and 2025, as planned, they will be back in place. There will be 180 of them again.

Author: Sergey Ketonov

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