NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attended the alliance's "annual nuclear exercise" on 16 October at Volkel air base (southern Netherlands), NATO announced in a news release, raising a corner of the veil on an open secret.
"This exercise is an important test for the Alliance's nuclear deterrent," he said, in the statement. "It is a routine, defensive exercise. And it is not directed against any country. The purpose of NATO's nuclear deterrent is not to provoke a conflict but to preserve peace, deter aggression and prevent coercion. In an increasingly uncertain world, our nuclear forces continue to play an important role in our collective defence", added Stoltenberg.
He was accompanied by the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), US General Tod Wolters, and the Dutch Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld.
The annual nuclear exercise, known as "Steadfast Noon" (although NATO does not specify its name), brings together more than 50 aircraft from several allied air forces and is hosted by a different NATO country each year. It practices NATO’s nuclear strike mission with dual-capable aircraft (DCA) and the B61 tactical nuclear bombs the US deploys in Europe. There are currently an estimated 150 B61 bombs deployed at six bases in five European countries ((Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey).
The Volkel base is equipped with F-16 fighter-bombers. The presence of nuclear weapons, never confirmed or denied by the authorities in The Hague, was revealed in 2013 by former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers.
This year, training flights are taking place over parts of Western Europe and the North Sea. "Aircraft involved do not carry live bombs", NATO stressed.
Non-nuclear aircraft also participate in the exercise under NATO’s so-called SNOWCAT (Support of Nuclear Operations with Conventional Air Tactics) programme, which is used to enable military assets from non-nuclear countries to support the nuclear strike mission without being formally part of it.
In September an open letter in support of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was signed by 56 former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and defence ministers from 20 NATO member states, as well as Japan and South Korea. All of these states currently claim protection from US nuclear weapons and have not yet joined the treaty. The letter was sent to the current leaders of these states. The co-signers included the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and two former NATO secretaries-general, Javier Solana and Willy Claes.