"Today, tactical nuclear weapons in the Euro-Atlantic region are more of a security risk than asset to NATO." – Sam Nunn
For years, concerns have been raised regarding the security of NATO bases and nuclear-related sites—perhaps in countries (still not identified by NATO) that host nuclear weapons storage facilities. Most recently, in March 2016, the Pentagon reportedly ordered military families out of southern Turkey, primarily from Incirlik Air Base, due to ISIS-related security concerns. This report came shortly after the Brussels terrorist attacks and what appears to have been a credible threat to Belgian nuclear power plants.
Last weekend, we saw the Turkish commanding officer at Incirlik arrested for his alleged role in the Turkish coup plot. If reports are accurate -- that Incirlik is a major NATO installation hosting U.S. forces that control one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Europe -- this shows just how quickly “expert” assumptions about the safety and security of U.S. nuclear weapons stored abroad can change literally within minutes, adding another layer of security concern.
The issue of the security of U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Europe is not new; indeed, deficiencies were cited a few years ago in a study by the U.S. Air Force. Moreover, former senior NATO officials, including a former U.S. Air Force General Remkes who commanded the 39th wing at Incirlik Air Base and later J5 EUCOM, wrote in 2011 of the ongoing security risks associated with storing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and the severity of the political and security consequences of any infiltration of a site for the alliance, whether or not the attackers gained access to the weapons themselves.
At each of these sites, a combined force of U.S. and European NATO personnel are assigned to retain the custody and provide security of U.S. nuclear weapons. The weapons are stored in underground hardened storage bunkers at undisclosed locations around each storage site. Custody, repair and improvements to the weapons and the storage bunkers are the responsibility of the U.S. Air Force. Perimeter security (fences, monitors, and motion detectors) and access to the storage sites is the responsibility of the host nation.
Locating nuclear weapons at locations throughout Europe to reassure some allies comes with the increasing risk of vulnerability to an evolving and more deadly terrorist threat. It should be even clearer now that tactical nuclear weapons stored in Europe are potential targets for terrorist attacks. Added to this, recent events in Turkey demonstrate how rapidly unforeseen political events can turn rock-solid security assumptions into sand.
The question is: can Washington take steps to reduce these threats by removing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe before an incident occurs and leaders are asked why they didn’t do more sooner?
In the wake of a successful terrorist attack -- or domestic unrest involving a NATO nuclear storage site -- it will be difficult to explain that vulnerable and potentially lethal targets were left in place due to a perceived need to provide added political reassurance to NATO allies. NATO’s nuclear deterrence posture can be maintained -- and NATO will be safer and more secure -- without basing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Given their far larger stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons, Russia too should reexamine the current practice of storing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
We can all hear the warning bells. How much louder must they be before we act?
For more information on NATO’s nuclear policies and posture, see:
• NATO's Nuclear Future: Deter, Reassure, Engage? Simon Lunn, Isabelle Williams, Steve Andreasen
• Steve Andreasen and Isabelle Williams, “How to Shore Up NATO for the Long Haul,” Politico.
• Reducing Nuclear Risks in Europe: A Framework for Action, edited by Steve Andreasen and Isabelle Williams.