After the recent military coup attempt in Turkey, multiple organizations have raised appropriate concerns about the 50 U.S. nuclear bombs stored at a Turkish Air Base less than 70 miles away from the Syrian border. And while this new interest is warranted, the security vulnerabilities of the 131 American B61 nuclear bombs currently deployed at military bases in Belgium, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands have been a growing concern for almost a decade.
These nuclear bombs are relics of Cold War perceptions of reassurance, and are now more of a liability than a legitimate international security strategy. Given how uncertain the security situation is in Europe, particularly in Belgium and Turkey, it’s time to consider just how useful, or not, these weapons actually are.
In 2012, and again in 2013, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) wrote letters to the Secretary of Defense questioning the military efficacy of keeping these bombs in Europe when faced with mounting costs and troubling security concerns. Although these weapons are protected by U.S. military personnel, the overall security of the sites where they’re stored is the responsibility of the host nation. This can be dangerous if, in the case of Turkey, there is an abrupt change in national leadership. Dan Lamothe of The Washington Post reported that one of the Turkish officers detained after the coup was the commander of the base where the nukes are kept.
A 2008 U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon review found that security at the European sites varied widely, and most did not meet U.S. nuclear weapons protection standards. Some security requirements—including armored vehicles and perimeter fencing—were underfunded, leading the review to conclude: “the [United States Air Force] must continue to emphasize to its host nation counterparts their requirement to honor security commitments.”
Just two years later, a group of peace activists jumped the fence around the Kleine Brogel Airbase in Belgium. They wandered around the base for an hour, near buildings containing nuclear weapons vaults, before they were finally stopped by a soldier carrying an unloaded rifle and without readily available ammo. They posted a video of their break-in on YouTube.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Belgium earlier this year, Belgian authorities discovered video surveillance footage of a nuclear power facility, indicating the Islamic State’s possible interest in nuclear materials. The New York Times reported, “This is especially worrying in a country with a history of security lapses at its nuclear facilities, a weak intelligence apparatus and a deeply rooted terrorist network.”
All of these incidents should have set off major alarm bells given how catastrophic the results would be if access to nuclear material ended up in the wrong hands. POGO has found that the U.S. considers three main potential terrorism scenarios when assessing security:
- The creation of an improvised nuclear device on site by suicidal terrorists.
- The use of conventional explosives on site to create a radiological dispersal device, also known as a dirty bomb.
- The theft of nuclear materials in order to create a crude nuclear weapon off-site.
The vulnerabilities at the European bases outlined in the 2008 report could prevent security forces from protecting nuclear material in at least one, if not all, of these scenarios. As Eric Schlosser in The New Yorker points out, while the nuclear weapons stored in Europe contain coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of the bombs, these codes can by bypassed with time and the right training. And if someone with know-how and malicious intent were able to break into one of these sites, it would take very little time to use conventional explosives to create a dirty bomb.
Since the 2008 Air Force report, NATO allies have been working on improvements to the security of these European bases, and NATO funding has contributed over $300 million in upgrades to B61 storage facility infrastructure. Last year, satellite images analyzed in a Federation of American Scientists piece by Hans Kristensen showed that upgrades to the security perimeters at the bases in Turkey and Italy were underway.
But in 2012, POGO found that some of the problems identified in the 2008 report still had not been addressed. Security experts told POGO that the storage of weapons within certain facilities designed to improve protection may actually provide an attacking force with a fortified “castle.” An attacker could then use the reinforced shelter to buy time—an extremely dangerous prospect in a terrorist situation.
Even if these foreign bases were to increase security to meet U.S. standards, it may not be enough to ensure these nuclear weapons are actually safe and secure. Just four years ago, three nuclear protestors destroyed the “mystique” of U.S. nuclear security when they broke into the Y-12 Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The group made it all the way to a building storing over 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium before they were discovered.
In addition to the security vulnerabilities posed by the bombs stored in Turkey, they aren’t even a credible deterrent. The Incirlik Air Base is the only European base with B61 bombs that does not have nuclear-capable aircrafts to deliver the bombs. Meaning, if NATO did make the devastating decision to use the weapons, they couldn't without first deploying a nuclear-capable fighter-bomber to Incirlik to pick them up. However, this step may not even be an option as the Turkish government won’t allow the U.S. Air Force to deploy a permanent fighter wing at the base.
The presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe is often seen as an essential part of the NATO alliance, used to “assure allies, and deter adversaries.” But that can only be true if these weapons are kept safe, secure, and credible. Furthermore, a quick glance at the most recent Pentagon budget shows that the U.S. is more committed to the NATO alliance than ever, setting aside $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative, a four-fold increase over last year. This new program would “bolster the security and capacity of U.S. partners for the purpose of deterring adversarial threats.” Yet, the Defense Department doesn’t once mention the nukes deployed in Europe in the documents justifying the program’s cost.
With a new Administration coming this January, there is an opportunity to re-evaluate how the U.S. deploys its assets. Is the presence of U.S nukes in Europe really a meaningful way to reassure our allies that we are committed to their security, or is it instead creating an expensive and unnecessary risk to the region?
This first appeared on the POGO website here.