Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk

By Hans M. Kristensen

This article first appeared in the FAS Strategic Security Blog, posted on 10 September 2015 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Security upgrades underway at U.S. 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 U.S. Air Force Bases.

The upgrades indirectly acknowledge that security at U.S. 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 U.S. 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. (UPDATE: Pentagon orders “voluntary departure” of 900 family members of U.S. personnel stationed at Incirlik.)

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. (For an image of the upgrades, click here).

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 U.S. Air Force to fly strikes from Incirlik against targets in Syria, the Turks have declined U.S. 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 U.S. 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 31stFighter 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. (for an image of the upgrades, click here). 

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 U.S. officials have provided some data over the past few years.

In November 2011, three years after the U.S. Air Force Ribbon Review in 2008 concluded that “most” nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe did not meet U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Review report in 2008 under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and made it available on the FAS Strategic Security Blog, it’s most central finding – that “most” U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe did not meet U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Just wondering.

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.