U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe

By: Erin Connolly

The recent upheaval in Turkey has highlighted an uncomfortable fact: The United States holds approximately 160 tactical nuclear weapons outside of its own borders. In fact, all of these nonstrategic nuclear weapons are deployed in Europe at six bases in five countries, including Turkey. In theory, these weapons are in place to deter Russia and affirm the U.S. commitment to NATO allies in the region. However, U.S. nuclear weapons come with a high price and extensive responsibility. More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, it is time to improve nuclear security by consolidating U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe or consider removing them altogether.

In 2008, an Air Force Blue Ribbon Review reported that most of the bases in Europe did not meet DOD security standards. These discoveries concerned the international community and sparked a new motivation for base improvements. NATO responded by promising to invest tens of millions of dollars in order to improve nuclear weapon facilities security. Yet, eight years later, questions still persist regarding the security of U.S. nuclear weapons abroad.

Belgium’s Kleine Brogel Air Base, which hosts approximately 20 nuclear weapons, has been particularly scrutinized in light of a few incidents. The most notable: In 2010 peace activists successfully circumnavigated the presence of the U.S. Air Force and Belgian security forces at Kleine Brogel, wandering the premises for more than an hour before being stopped. Fortunately, Kleine Brogel’s intruders were not seeking a nuclear device, but there are nefarious groups who are interested in nuclear capabilities, including ISIS, which demonstrated its interest in nuclear technology by surveilling a Belgian nuclear scientist in 2015.

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Incirlik Air Base in Turkey is also vulnerable to these security threats. The base hosts approximately 50 US tactical nuclear weapons and rests a mere 100 miles from the troubled Syrian border. While improvements have been made, the facilities at Incirlik are not designed to withstand a siege and the recently failed coup raises questions regarding the political stability of its host country. The utility of the nuclear mission at Incirlik is also under scrutiny. There are no suitable aircraft stationed at Incirlik to deliver the nuclear bombs. The time it would require to access proper aircraft and certified personnel nullifies the benefit of having the weapons stationed abroad. Domestic weapons could be delivered more quickly to a target; a U.S-based nuclear missile would require only 30 minutes to hit a target on the other side of the world, while a submarine-launched missile could take only 10-15 minutes. At this point, the 50 or so U.S. nuclear weapons at Incirlik are essentially in storage on foreign soil without adequate base security.

Fortunately, regardless of the security environment, the bombs remain in secure vaults and feature security precautions to minimize the risk of accidental or unauthorized detonation. These include so-called “stronglinks” that ensure the proper unique signal for launch is received along with “weaklinks” that make the weapons inoperable under atypical environments. Another example is the Permissive Action Link (PAL) which requires codes to arm or launch the weapon. Most PAL’s involve a multiple-coded switch for added protection on the weapon itself. While these measures provide some security reassurance, there is no guarantee that they can fully block unauthorized access indefinitely.

If a nefarious group were to acquire access to the weapons vault, they could attempt to take the device off base in order to have more time to decipher the “weaklinks”, “stronglinks” and PAL’s. Should the group fail in this effort, the weapon would be rendered inoperable but not invaluable. With proper technology and expertise, the nuclear material can be removed and reused for a crude nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. Success for the group would be difficult, but possible, to achieve. This scenario also threatens global security and requires the U.S. to reevaluate the benefits of having nuclear weapons in numerous locations abroad.

There is a compromise between conventional and nuclear military capabilities in Europe. Limited financial resources force difficult decisions between which conventional and nuclear programs are pursued. Some argue that the NATO alliance should focus on the conventional aspect of deterrence since the weapons are less divisive among allies and can effectively deter Russian aggression.  Conventional weapons also have an immediate utility for conflicts the U.S. and its allies currently face, increasing their military value. U.S. nuclear weapons on the European continent are a more expensive and risky symbol of the U.S. commitment to NATO and countering Russian influence. Superior conventional forces can effectively serve the same reassuring purpose without threatening international security.

At the very least, some nuclear experts have recommended consolidating U.S. tactical nuclear weapons abroad for the sake of safety and security. Consolidation can help verify proper DOD standards are met at each active base and prevent future unauthorized access. The U.S. does not lose any security from consolidating nuclear weapons abroad. Instead, consolidation allows for better base security and a minimized risk of unsanctioned use that would undermine global security. Incirlik should be the first base to be revaluated and considered for nuclear weapons removal.

It has been argued by many, including then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright, that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe serve no unique military role. Moving forward, Pentagon planners should also reconsider the risks and benefits of keeping over 100 tactical nuclear weapons abroad.

However, current political realities seem to constrain decisions to move or remove nuclear weapons at this time. Tensions between Russia and the West have escalated as a result of numerous actions, particularly those in Ukraine. Yet Western European nations struggle to find domestic support for U.S. nuclear weapons within their borders, restricting options for consolidation. Despite NATO’s recent affirmation of its nuclear commitment, the U.S. and NATO should progress towards a conventional dependence that would foster international security while nuclear weapons in Europe are reduced and eventually removed.