Review Questions Security Over U.S. Nukes in Europe

Most U.S. nuclear-weapon storage sites in Europe do not meet Defense Department security standards, according to a U.S. Air Force study circulated yesterday by the Federation of American Scientists (see GSN, June 24, 2005).

Completed in February, the Blue Ribbon Review has apparently resulted in the Air Force planning to remove nuclear weapons from one of the European bases, according to FAS weapons expert Hans Kristensen.

"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," he said.

The Air Force review was triggered by last year's embarrassing security lapse at Minot Air Force, N.D., where crews mistakenly loaded six nuclear-armed cruise missiles aboard a strategic bomber that flew to another air base.  Only after more than a day did personnel discover that the weapons had been moved out of their secure storage at Minot (see GSN, Sept. 7, 2007).

The lapse resulted in a massive review of nuclear security measures in the United States (see GSN, Jan. 25), a shakeup in Air Force leadership (see GSN, June 9) and the examination of security at European storage sites.

"A consistently noted theme throughout the visits," the review says, "was that most sites require significant additional resources to meet DOD security requirements."

"Host nation security at overseas nuclear-capable units varies from country to country in terms of personnel, facilities, and equipment," the report says, adding 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" (Federation of American Scientists release, June 19).

The report as a whole has a generally more positive tone, finding that the Air Force "has a sound nuclear surety program," but it acknowledges in an understated fashion the need for improvement.

"An opportunity to refocus the USAF's commitment to the nuclear enterprise exists in improving advocacy and realigning priorities," says the review's summary.

The review team found that nuclear weapons have become a less-important mission for the Air Force since the end of Cold War, leading to diminishing attention by personnel and "waning expertise."

"When the USAF … started doing the nuclear mission as a part-time task, the focus began to erode.   This decrease in activity presents challenges to the USAF in the areas of knowledge, skills and abilities as opportunities to gain and maintain experience are diminished," the report says.

"Loss of the historical perspective of the Cold War's nuclear focus, combined with the now long-term emphasis on conventional operations, has culminated in reduced USAF nuclear mission expertise," it adds (Greg Webb, Global Security Newswire, June 19).

U.S. Nuclear Weapons in EuropeThe United States stores up to 350 B-61 gravity bombs at seven air bases in Europe, only three of which are U.S. air bases, according to an FAS fact sheet.  The weapons stored at national bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are under U.S. control, but would be released in wartime for delivery by the national air forces.

Kristensen said the United States would probably remove the nuclear weapons stored at the Ghedi Torre air base in Italy (FAS release).

One European defense official yesterday defended his nation's protection of the nuclear weapons, Time magazine reported.

"We have professionalized the guards in all our installations," said Belgian Defense Ministry spokesman Cmdr. Olivier Severin.  "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."

A NATO official said the alliance has no overarching nuclear security standards.

"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," said the official (Eben Harrell, Time, June 19).

June 19, 2008

Most U.S. nuclear-weapon storage sites in Europe do not meet Defense Department security standards, according to a U.S. Air Force study circulated yesterday by the Federation of American Scientists (see GSN, June 24, 2005).