NATO’s Nuclear War Games Are a Risk It Needs to Take


This week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a round of exercises of its nuclear capabilities in western Europe, with a focus on Belgium and the UK. This comes at a particularly tense moment in NATO-Russia relations, to say the least, given President Vladimir Putin’s frequent nuclear saber rattling over the past six months. Russia “does not” bluff about tactical nuclear weapons, he insists.

While the NATO exercises have been planned for a long time – they are an annual part of a regular planning cycle – they come at an awkward time. What are the multinational exercises intended to achieve and why has NATO decided to proceed with them now?

These are big, muscular events and at least 14 of NATO’s 30 member nations (soon to be 32 with welcome additions Sweden and Finland) will be taking part. Typically, the exercises would include dozens of fighter jets from various member nations, large airborne early warning aircraft under NATO’s direct command, and sufficient refueling aircraft to support the air armada. Long-range US strategic bombers (the venerable but capable B-52s based in North Dakota) also participate.

The war games are taking place more than 500 miles from the borders of the Russian Federation. They generally last 10 to 14 days and are unlikely to be allowed to watch by news media. Nicknamed Steadfast Noon, they almost certainly won’t involve actual tactical nuclear weapons. Instead, the jets will carry “dummy loads” designed to simulate the use of actual nuclear bombs.

There will be many activities on site simulating movement and maintenance of the weapons and conducting drills to protect them from both conventional military attack and terrorist activity.

As NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander a decade ago, I watched such exercises many times and was always impressed by the incredibly high level of detail, the simultaneous use of complex checklists and the deep motivation of all member nation military personnel even during a simulated war.

Russia also holds annual nuclear weapons exercises — known as Grom, Russian for “thunder” — which will come under a very high level of surveillance and scrutiny by NATO intelligence. This will likely take place later this fall, although the Russian military has not yet notified NATO of its intentions.

The US and NATO often “sit back” from conducting sophisticated military operations at sensitive moments. For example, if a US president is abroad for a summit involving a Russian leader, we might limit some otherwise routine tactical military exercises so that no unintended incident could disrupt the meetings.

On the other hand, the US and its allies will not halt annual training events simply because of heightened tensions. This month, the US and South Korea continue high-end naval exercises off the Korean Peninsula, despite the record number of ballistic missile launches conducted by North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un in recent months.

The NATO Secretary General in Brussels and the Allied Commander-in-Chief at military headquarters in Mons, Belgium will carefully consider Putin’s possible response to the NATO exercises. One of their concerns will be whether the Russian leader would use them as an excuse to conduct more aggressive than usual nuclear exercises. Could he deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between NATO members Poland and Lithuania, or even between Russian forces in the “special military operation” in Ukraine?

There are no certainties about Vladimir Putin, but the calculus on the NATO side is that it is better to continue with business as usual in the face of Russian aggression.

The other purpose of the drills, of course, is to show the Russians’ NATO strengths. Deterrence is often a combination of ability and credibility, that is, the ability to do something and the demonstrated will to do it. “Steadfast Noon” allows the NATO alliance to demonstrate both.

While the danger of an overreaction in Moscow is real, the greater danger would be allowing Russian threats, rampages and war crimes to intimidate the democratic alliance.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• It is time to sanction Russia as the terrorist state it has become: Igor Cherkaskyi

• Can the US take on China, Iran and Russia all at once?: Hal Brands

• Putin’s air terror campaign against Ukraine is already failing: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. A retired US Navy admiral, former Commander-in-Chief of NATO and Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is Vice Chair of Global Affairs at The Carlyle Group. Most recently, he is the author of To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.

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