European Nuclear Bases at Risk
May 11, 2016
Hans M. Kristensen / The Federation of American Scientists
Security upgrades underway at US Air Force bases in Europe indicate that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe have been stored under unsafe conditions for more than two decades. The decision to upgrade nuclear security perimeters at the two US bases strongly implies that security at the other four European host bases must now be characterized as inadequate.
Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk
Hans M. Kristensen / The Federation of American Scientists
(September 10, 2015) -- Security upgrades underway at US Air Force bases in Europe indicate that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe have been stored under unsafe conditions for more than two decades.
Commercial satellite images show work underway at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy. The upgrades are intended to increase the physical protection of nuclear weapons stored at the two US Air Force Bases.
The upgrades indirectly acknowledge that security at US nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe has been inadequate for more than two decades.
And the decision to upgrade nuclear security perimeters at the two US bases strongly implies that security at the other four European host bases must now be characterized as inadequate.
Security challenges at Incirlik AB are unique in NATO's nuclear posture because the base is located only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from war-torn Syria and because of an ongoing armed conflict within Turkey between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish militants. The wisdom of deploying NATO's largest nuclear weapons stockpile in such a volatile region seems questionable.
Upgrades at Incirlik Air Base
Incirlik Air Base is the largest nuclear weapons storage site in Europe with 25 underground vaults installed inside as many protective aircraft shelters (PAS) in 1998. Each vault can hold up to four bombs for a maximum total base capacity of 100 bombs.
There were 90 B61 nuclear bombs in 2000, or 3-4 bombs per vault. This included 40 bombs earmarked for deliver by Turkish F-16 jets at Balikesir Air Base and Akinci Air Base. There are currently an estimated 50 bombs at the base, or an average of 2-3 bombs in each of the 21 vaults inside the new security perimeter.
The new security perimeter under construction surrounds the so-called "NATO area" with 21 aircraft shelters (the remaining four vaults might be in shelters inside the Cold War alert area that is no longer used for nuclear operations).
The security perimeter is a 4,200-meter (2,600-mile) double-fenced with lighting, cameras, intrusion detection, and a vehicle patrol-road running between the two fences.
There are five or six access points including three for aircraft. Construction is done by Kuanta Construction for the Aselsan Cooperation under a contract with the Turkish Ministry of Defense.
In addition to the security perimeter, an upgrade is also planned of the vault support facility garage that is used by the special weapons maintenance trucks (WMT) that drive out to service the B61 bombs inside the aircraft shelters.
The vault support facility is located outside the west-end of the security perimeter. The weapons maintenance trucks themselves are also being upgraded and replaced with new Secure Transportable Maintenance System (STMS) trailers.
The nuclear role of Incirlik is unique in NATO's nuclear posture in that it is the only base in Europe with nuclear weapons that doesn't have nuclear-capable fighter-bombers permanently present.
Even though the Turkish government recently has allowed the US Air Force to fly strikes from Incirlik against targets in Syria, the Turks have declined US requests to permanently base a fighter wing at the base.
As such, there is no designated nuclear wing with squadrons of aircraft intended to employ the nuclear bombs stored at Incirlik; in a war, aircraft would have to fly in from wings at other bases to pick up and deliver the weapons.
Upgrades at Aviano Air Base
A nuclear security upgrade is also underway at the US Air Force base near Aviano in northern Italy. Unlike Incirlik, that does not have nuclear-capable aircraft permanently based, Aviano Air Base is home to the 31st Fighter Wing with its two squadrons of nuclear-capable F-16C/Ds: the 510th "Buzzards" Fighter Squadron and the 555th "Triple Nickel" Fighter Squadron.
These squadrons have been very busy as part of NATO's recent response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and some of Aviano's F-16s are currently operating from Incirlik as part of strike operations in Syria.
A total of 18 underground nuclear weapons storage vaults were installed in as many protective aircraft shelters at Aviano in 1996 for a maximum total base storage capacity of 72 nuclear bombs.
Only 12 of those shelters are inside the new security perimeter under construction at the base. Assuming nuclear weapons will only be stored in vaults inside the new security perimeter in the future, this indicates that the nuclear mission at Aviano may have been reduced.
In 2000, shortly after the original 18 vaults were completed, Aviano stored 50 nuclear bombs, or an average of 2-3 in each vault.
The 12 shelters inside the new perimeter (one of which is of a smaller design) would only be able to hold a maximum of 48 weapons if loaded to capacity. If each vault has only 2-3 weapons, it would imply only 25-35 weapons remain at the base.
NATO Nuclear Security Costs
Publicly available information about how much money NATO spends on security upgrades to protect the deployment in Europe is sketchy and incomplete. But US officials have provided some data over the past few years.
In November 2011, three years after the US Air Force Ribbon Review Review in 2008 concluded that "most" nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe did not meet US Department of Defense security standards, James Miller, then Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, informed Congress that NATO would spend $63.4 million in 2011-2012 on security upgrades for munitions storage sites and another $67 million in 2013-2014.
In March 2014, as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, the US Department of Defense stated that NATO since 2000 had invested over $80 million in infrastructure improvements required to store nuclear weapons within secure facilities in storage sites in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Another $154 million was planned for these sites on security improvements to meet with stringent new US standards.
The following month, in April 2014, Andrew Weber, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, told Congress that "NATO common funding has paid for over $300 million, approximately 75 percent of the B61 storage security infrastructure and upgrades" in Europe.
Elaine Bunn, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, added that because host base facilities are funded through individual national budgets, "it is not possible to provide an accurate assessment of exactly how much NATO basing nations have contributed in Fiscal Year 2014 toward NATO nuclear burden sharing, although it is substantial."
Bunn provided additional information that showed funding of security enhancements and upgrades as well as funding of infrastructure upgrades (investment) at the specific European weapon storage sites.
This funding, she explained, is provided through the NATO Security Investment Program (NSIP) and there have been four NATO weapons storage-related upgrades (Capability Package upgrades) since the original NATO Capability Package was approved in 2000.
In addition to the security upgrades underway at Incirlik and Aviano, upgrades of nuclear-related facilities are also underway or planned at national host bases that store US nuclear weapons. This includes a new WS3 vault support facility and a MUNSS (Munitions Support Squadron) Operations Center-Command Post at Kleine Brogel AB in Belgium, and a WS3 vault support facility at Ghedi AB in Italy.
Implications and Recommendations
When I obtained a copy of the US Air Force Blue Ribbon Review report in 2008 under the US Freedom of Information Act and made it available on the FAS Strategic Security Blog, it's most central finding -- that "most" US nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe did not meet US security requirements -- was dismissed by government officials in Europe and the United States.
During a debate in the Dutch Parliament, then Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop dismissed the findings saying "safety and security at Volkel are in good order."
A member of the US Congressional delegation that was sent to Europe to investigate told me security problems were minor and could be fixed by routine management, a view echoed in conversations with other officials since then.
Yet seven years and more than $170 million later, construction of improved security perimeters at Incirlik AB and Aviano AB suggest that security of nuclear weapons storage vaults in Europe has been inadequate for the past two and a half decades and that official European and US confidence was misguided (as they were reminded by European peace activists in 2010).
And the security upgrades do raise a pertinent question: since NATO now has decided that it is necessary after all to enhance security perimeters around underground vaults with nuclear weapons at the two US bases at Incirlik and Aviano, doesn't that mean that security at the four European national bases that currently store nuclear weapons (Büchel, Ghedi, Kleine Brogel, and Volkel) is inadequate? Ghedi reportedly was recently eyed by suspected terrorists arrested by the Italian police.
Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons. This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
USAF: "Most" Nuclear Weapon Sites In Europe
Do Not Meet US Security Requirements
Hans M. Kristensen / The Federation of American Scientists
(June19, 2008) -- An internal US Air Force investigation has determined that "most sites" currently used for deploying nuclear weapons in Europe do not meet Department of Defense security requirements.
A summary of the investigation report was released by the Pentagon in February 2008 but omitted the details. Now a partially declassified version of the full report, recently obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, reveals a much bigger nuclear security problem in Europe than previously known.
As a result of these security problems, according to other sources, the US plans to withdraw its nuclear custodial unit from at least one base and consolidate the remaining nuclear mission in Europe at fewer bases.
European Nuclear Safety Deficiencies Detailed
The national nuclear bases in Europe, those where nuclear weapons are stored for use by the host nation's own aircraft, are at the center of the findings of the Blue Ribbon Review (BRR), the investigation that was triggered by the notorious incident in August 2007 when the US Air Force lost track of six nuclear warheads for 36 hours as they were flow across the United States without the knowledge of the military personnel in charge of safeguarding and operating the nuclear weapons.
The final report of the investigation -- Air Force Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures -- found that "host nation security at overseas nuclear-capable units varies from country to country in terms of personnel, facilities, and equipment."
The report describes that "inconsistencies in personnel, facilities, and equipment provided to the security mission by the host nation were evident as the team traveled from site to site . . . . Examples of areas noted in need of repair at several of the sites include support buildings, fencing, lighting, and security systems."
The situation is significant: "A consistently noted theme throughout the visits," the BRR concluded, "was that most sites require significant additional resources to meet DOD security requirements."
Despite overall safety standards and close cooperation and teamwork between US Air Force personnel and their host nation counterparts, the inspectors found that "each site presents unique security challenges."
Specific examples of security issues discovered include conscripts with as little as nine months active duty experience being used protect nuclear weapons against theft.
Inspections can hypothetically detect deficiencies and inconsistencies, but the BRR team found that US Air Force inspectors are hampered in performing "no notice inspections" because the host nations and NATO require advance notice before they can visit the bases. If crews know when the inspection will occur, their performance might not reflect the normal situation at the base.
Many of the safety issues discovered are precipitated by the fact that the primary mission of the squadrons and wings is not nuclear deterrence but real-world conventional operations in support of the war on terrorism and other campaigns. This dual-mission has created a situation where many nuclear positions are "one deep," and where rotations, deployments, and illnesses can cause shortfalls.
The review recommended consolidating the bases to "minimize variances and reduce vulnerabilities at overseas locations."
USAFE Commander Visits Nuclear Bases
In light of the findings about Air Force nuclear security, General Roger Brady, the USAFE Commander, on June 11 visited Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium and Volkel Air Base in Holland. Both bases store US nuclear weapons for delivery by their national F-16 fighters.
A news story on a USAF web site notes that the weapons security issues found by the BRR investigation were "at other bases," suggesting that Büchel Air Base in Germany or Ghedi Torre Air Base in Italy were the problem. Even so, the BRR found problems at "most sites," visits to Kleine Brogel and Volkel were described in the context of these findings.
Two commanders of the 52 Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, which controls the 701st and 703rd Munitions Support Squadrons at the national bases, were also present "to witness both units for the first time."
Withdrawal and Consolidation
The deficiencies at host nation bases apparently have triggered a US decision to withdraw the Munition Support Squadron (MUNSS) from one of the national bases.
Four MUNSS are currently deployed a four national bases in Europe: the 701st MUNSS at Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium, the 702nd MUNSS at Büchel Air Base in Germany, the 703rd MUNSS at Volkel Air Base in Holland, and the 704th MUNSS at Ghedi Torre in Italy (see top image).
It is not yet known which base it is, but sources indicate that it might involve the 704th MUNSS at Ghedi Torre in Northern Italy.
Status of Nuclear Weapons Deployment
[June 26, 2008: Warhead estimate updated here]
The number and location of nuclear weapons in Europe are secret. However, based in previous reports, official statements, declassified documents and leaks, a best estimate can be made that the current deployment consists of approximately 150-240 B61 nuclear bombs (see update here).
The most recent public official statement was made by NATO Vice Secretary General Guy Roberts in an interview with the Italian RAINEWS in April 2007: "We do say that we're down to a few hundred nuclear weapons."
The US weapons are stored in underground vaults, known as WS3 (Weapon Storage and Security System), at bases in Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, and Turkey. Most of the weapons are at US Air Force bases, but Belgium, Germany, Holland and Italy each have nuclear weapons at one of their national air bases.
The weapons at each of the national bases are under control of a US Air Force MUNSS in peacetime but would, upon receipt of proper authority from the US National Command Authority, be handed over to the national Air Force at the base in a war for delivery by the host nation's own aircraft. This highly controversial arrangement contradicts both the Non-Proliferation Treaty and NATO's international nonproliferation policy.
Implications and Observations
The main implication of the BRR report is that the nuclear weapons deployment in Europe is, and has been for the past decade, a security risk. But why it took an investigation triggered by the embarrassing Minot incident to discover the security problems in Europe is a puzzle.
Since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, billions of dollars have been poured into the Homeland Security chest to increase security at US nuclear weapons sites, and a sudden urge to improve safety and use control of nuclear weapons has become a principle justification in the administration's proposal to build a whole new generation of Reliable Replacement Warheads.
But, apparently, the nuclear deployment in Europe has been allowed to follow a less stringent requirement.
This contradicts NATO's frequent public assurances about the safe conditions of the widespread deployment in Europe. Coinciding with the dramatic reduction of nuclear weapons in Europe after the Cold War 15 years ago, "a new, more survivable and secure weapon storage system has been installed," a NATO fact sheet from January 2008 states.
"Today, the remaining gravity bombs associated with DCA [Dual-Capable Aircraft] are stored safely in very few storage sites under highly secure conditions."
Apparently they are not. Yet despite the BRR findings, the NATO Nuclear Planning Group meeting in Brussels last week did not issue a statement. But at the previous meeting in June 2007 the group reaffirmed the "great value" of continuing the deployment in Europe, "which provide an essential political and military link between the European and North American members of the Alliance."
That NATO -- nearly two decades after the Cold War ended -- believes it needs US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to keep the alliance together is a troubling sign. NATO air forces are stretched thin to meet real-world operations in the war against terrorism and other campaigns, and tactical nuclear weapons are not a priority, no matter what nuclear bureaucrats might claim.
Even Republican presidential candidate John McCain apparently does not believe tactical nuclear weapons in Europe are essential for NATO. On May 27 he stated that, if elected, he would, "in close consultation with our allies…like to explore ways we and Russia can reduce -- and hopefully eliminate -- deployments of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe."
Many European governments would support such a plan -- even though some of the new eastern European NATO members see Russian resurgence as a reason to continue the deployment.
But their security concerns can be met by other means, and Germany and Norway have already been pushing a proposal inside NATO for a review of the alliance's nuclear policy, the Belgium parliament has called for a withdrawal, and there is overwhelming cross-political public support in Germany to end the deployment in Europe.
Perhaps the BRR findings will help empower these countries and convince NATO and the next US administration that the time has come to finally complete the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
Additional Information: Blue Ribbon Review (2008 report) | United States Removes Nuclear Weapons From German Base, Documents Indicate (2007 report) | US Nuclear Weapons in Europe (2005 report)
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