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Dutch fighter Jets F-35 prepares for NATO nuclear role.

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter will assume NATO’s nuclear role for the first time on June 1, 2024, as the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF), one of the few NATO allies contributing to this mission, has dual-capable aircraft. Previously, the F-16 handled this task.
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Dutch F-35 taking off.  (Picture source: Dutch luchtmacht- Royal Netherland Air Force )

Transitioning to the stealthy F-35 mitigates issues related to the credibility of NATO's nuclear deterrence. Until now, nuclear deterrence relied on U.S.-made B-61 gravity bombs dropped by F-16 fighters, which needed mass to penetrate significant air defenses and depended on coordinated aerial refueling operations to reach targets at considerable distances.

In any second-strike scenario where an initial nuclear attack complicated the adoption of an orderly plan of action, the certainty of launching a retaliatory strike via a dual-capable aircraft was not guaranteed by the F-16’s performance.

The F-35, on the other hand, has several systems that enhance the credibility of NATO's nuclear deterrence. Its stealth capabilities and advanced sensor suite allow it to penetrate air defenses, using electronic warfare tools to suppress and jam enemy radars, and then locate targets precisely for the pilot.

This stealth capability is particularly advantageous in the context of a Europe grappling with conflict on NATO’s eastern flank. The war in Ukraine has seen Russia bolster its layered air defenses, leading to a state of mutual air denial. For much of the war, air supremacy, long a doctrinal goal of air forces internationally, was nullified.

For both parties in the conflict, the use of air assets depended on ground support to secure airspace against effective surface-to-air munitions. This is why high-value platforms were assigned to close air support missions, while long-range strike capability was primarily provided by standoff weapons, including drones and cruise missiles.

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