The United States is planning to station nuclear weapons in the UK for the first time in 15 years as the threat from Russia increases, Pentagon documents seen by The Telegraph reveal.
Procurement contracts for a new facility at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk confirm that the US intends to place nuclear warheads three times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb at the air base.
The US removed nuclear missiles from the UK in 2008, judging that the Cold War threat from Moscow had diminished.
The disclosure comes in the wake of warnings that Nato countries need to ready their citizens for war with Russia.
Last week, Adml Rob Bauer, a senior Nato military official, said that private citizens should prepare for all-out war with Russia in the next 20 years that would require wholesale change in their lives.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of the British Army, went on to warn that the public would need to be called up to fight if there was war with Russia because the Army was too small. His comments forced Downing Street to rule out conscription.
Boris Johnson on Friday night backed Sir Patrick’s call for a citizen army, as he pledged to sign up if the UK went to war with Russia.
The US navy secretary, Carlos Del Toro, then urged Britain to “reassess” the size of its armed forces. On Friday, No 10 defended the Government’s military spending, pointing out that “the UK is the second biggest defence spender in Nato and the largest in Europe”.
The return of American weapons to the UK is part of a Nato-wide programme to develop and upgrade nuclear sites in response to heightened tensions with the Kremlin in the wake of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has stated that the placement of US weapons in Britain would be viewed by Moscow as an “escalation” and would be met with “compensating counter-measures”.
As well as the conflict in Ukraine, the West is facing rising challenges from Iran and North Korea, which have both grown closer to Moscow in recent years.
On Friday, Britain, France and Germany condemned Iran for launching a new satellite to guide long-range missiles. Tehran is enriching uranium for possible use in developing nuclear weapons.
The US and UK have also been carrying out air strikes in the Red Sea against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the Iran-backed militia which have been attacking container ships in purported retaliation for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.
Echoes of the Cold War
Unredacted documents on the US department of defence’s procurement database reveal plans for a “nuclear mission” that will take place “imminently” at RAF Lakenheath, where nuclear weapons were stationed during the Cold War.
The Pentagon had refused to comment on speculation that a new “surety dormitory”, first revealed in budget documents last year, was intended for the base, which is run by the US Air Force under British regulations and laws, to allow the US to house tactical nuclear weapons that can be deployed by F-35 fighter jets.
The term “surety” is used by the Pentagon to refer to the need to keep nuclear weapons safe when they are not being used.
The documents show the Pentagon has ordered new equipment for the base, including ballistic shields designed to protect military personnel from attacks on “high value assets”. Construction on a new housing facility for American forces working on the site will begin in June.
RAF Lakenheath is expected to house B61-12 gravity bombs, which have a variable yield of up to 50 kilotons – more than three times the power of the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, a Pentagon review of the US’s nuclear posture said it served as a “stark reminder of nuclear risk in contemporary conflict” and warned of “nuclear threats to the homeland and US allies and partners”.
President Joe Biden said that the US would “enhance our force posture in Europe to respond to the change in the security environment”.
The US has already announced plans to station two squadrons of fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets, which have the ability to carry the bombs, with the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath.
In October, US officials requested permission from Congress to begin development of a new B61 bomb with a higher payload, arguing that more powerful weapons would “provide the president with additional options against certain harder and large-area military targets”.
The documents revealing the decision to station nuclear warheads in the UK were posted on a US government procurement website.
One notice, posted in August, requested a private-sector contractor to provide sentry cabins and shields to protect troops in the base’s 48th Security Forces Squadron from “forced entry and ballistic attack” from assault rifles on the nuclear weapons site.
“The 48th Security Forces Squadron upcoming nuclear mission is required to operate under ballistic protection,” it said.
A second contract, published on Tuesday, advertised for hydraulic ramps for unloading vehicles, noting that the new F35s and “the imminent surety support” had “highlighted the need to replace these much-required facilities”.
In response to a US budget document outlining plans for the $50 million (£39 million) dormitory for surety personnel at RAF Lakenheath last year, Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman, said that Moscow would respond to the return of US nuclear weapons on British soil with “counter-measures”.
“If this step is ever made, we will view it as escalation, as a step toward escalation that would take things to a direction that is quite opposite to addressing the pressing issue of pulling all nuclear weapons out of European countries,” she said.
“In the context of the transition of the United States and Nato to an openly confrontational course of inflicting a ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia, this practice and its development force us to take compensating countermeasures designed to reliably protect the security interests of our country and its allies.”
The construction of the site could also be subject to legal challenge by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which argues that the Ministry of Defence did not conduct required environmental impact assessments before approving the development.
The US currently has warheads stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, under a Nato nuclear-sharing arrangement.
A Pentagon spokesman said: “The United States routinely upgrades its military facilities in allied nations. Unclassified administrative budget documents often accompany such activities.
“These documents are not predictive of, nor are they intended to disclose any specific posture or basing details.
“It is US policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any general or specific location.”