Are US Nukes in Europe Secure?

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Weapons-grade material from B-61 thermonuclear bombs could be removed and turned into a crude nuclear device.

European air force bases that store U.S. nuclear bombs are failing to meet basic security requirements to safeguard the weapons, according to a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The U.S. keeps an estimated 350 thermonuclear bombs in six NATO countries. In four of those — Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands — the weapons are stored at the host nation's air bases, where they are guarded by specially trained U.S. military personnel.

But according to an internal U.S. Air Force report, the sites are falling short of Department of Defense requirements, with fencing and security systems in need of repair, thin rotations that often lead to staffing shortages, and responsibilities falling to inadequately trained foreign security personnel.

The report, titled "The Blue Ribbon Review of Nuclear Weapons Policies and Procedures," caused a stir in February after a summary of its findings identified an overall slip in nuclear weapons safety that allowed a B-52 bomber to carry six live nuclear warheads across the U.S. last year. The report led U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to force the resignations of the Air Force's top civilian and military leaders earlier this month.

But the full text of the document, obtained by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and posted on his blog, shows the extent to which U.S. Air Force inspectors worry about the safety of weapons in Europe.

While it deemed the teams guarding U.S. weapons as well trained, the report found "inconsistencies in personnel, facilities and equipment provided to the security mission by the host nation." In particular, it said that areas in need of repair at several of the sites include "support buildings, fencing, lighting and security systems."

"In some cases," the report said, "conscripts, whose total active duty commitment is nine months, provide security manpower, while other locations have the challenge of working with unionized security personnel."

The report concluded: "A consistently noted theme throughout the visits was that most sites require significant additional resources to meet DoD security requirements."

A Belgian Defense Ministry spokesman, Commander Olivier Séverin, denied that security was lax at the Kleine Brogel Air Base in northeastern Belgium, where the FAS estimates the U.S. keeps 20 bombs. "We have professionalized the guards in all our installations," he said. "These are not conscripts but professional soldiers. Not only that, but everyone is trained specifically for security at air bases. The proof is that there have been no major incidents at our installations."

Locks on the B-61 thermonuclear gravity bomb — which is up to 10 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb — prevent it from being detonated if stolen, experts say. But its weapons-grade material could be removed and turned into a dirty bomb, or even a crude nuclear device.

To avoid such a nightmare scenario, the report recommended that American nuclear assets in Europe be "consolidated," which analysts interpret as a recommendation to move the bombs to NATO bases under "U.S. wings," meaning American bases in Europe. But such a move would undermine a "burden-sharing" agreement that has been at the heart of NATO military policy since its inception.

Although technically owned by the U.S., nuclear bombs stored at NATO bases are designed to be delivered by planes from the host country. That arrangement can be politically uncomfortable: when Belgian Defense Minister Pieter De Crem admitted for the first time in January that the country even housed U.S. weapons, the revelation caused a national controversy, with opposition MPs demanding — in vain — for them to be removed immediately. In 2001, when the Greek air force ordered a new fighter jet, it chose a model that could not carry the B-61, forcing the U.S. to withdraw its weapons.

In Brussels, a NATO official said there is no alliance-wide policy on weapons security: "Security arrangements for U.S. nuclear weapons are made bilaterally between the U.S. and the host country. Any improvements that would be deemed necessary should be discussed between those two governments and not in a NATO context."

Whether European countries undertake such discussions or not, the 38th Munitions Maintenance Group, which overseas the billeted U.S. weapons, is already under scrutiny from its own command in the wake of the report. According to the website of Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, General Roger A. Brady, Commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, recently visited Belgium's Kleine Brogel Air Base and Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands. "I have no questions about our security," he was quoted as saying in Belgium. "I have concerns because of our mission, and I have concerns because it's human beings doing it. We're still the best air force in the world, but there's always room for improvement."

With reporting by Leo Cendrowicz/Brussels