In particular, the state of security provided by those countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons is dreadful. One senior U.S. officer, no peacenik I might add, told a group of U.S. experts that his greatest fear was that a peace activist would get inside a nuclear weapons shelter with a camera phone. Which is exactly what happened. In 2010, some Belgian peace activists got inside one of the shelters. Let me repeat that: They got inside one of the shelters where the United States stores nuclear weapons. Here is a picture they took:
I'll admit, I expected an image like this to create a bigger political controversy than a few scattered news reports. I had assumed that the local reaction would be swift and immediate, leading to an unceremonious withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons. I am unsure why this event didn't create a public furor, but I suspect the reason is that it defied imagination that security could be this bad. I mentioned this to several former U.S. officials who, to a one, did not believe peace activists could get inside an aircraft shelter that contained a vault for nuclear bombs. I had to share this picture to convince them, pointing out the Weapons Storage and Security System console on the right side.
This was hardly the first incident demonstrating NATO's lousy nuclear security. The United States removed nuclear weapons from Greece in 1998 after a series of security incidents. One former U.S. officer described the nuclear weapons in Greece as guarded by "an unmotivated group of foreign military [con]scripts … complete with an alcoholic commander." And, in 2009, after the U.S. Air Force mistakenly flew six nuclear weapons from North Dakota to Louisiana, a task force reviewed security across the service. It found that "most" nuclear bases in Europe do not meet Pentagon standards -- something senior U.S. military officials had been saying in private for years.
So, should anyone be surprised that a bunch of Euro-hippies from Peace Action Belgium got inside an aircraft shelter at Kleine Brogel Air Base? (In fact, this was the second time in less than a year that activists had accessed aircraft shelters at the base. The previous time, the activists gained entry to the wrong part of the base; some genius in the Belgian Defense Ministry decided to helpfully point out the nuclear weapons were stored at the other set of shelters.) The lax state of Belgian security was appalling. One of the security holes was that the Belgians had not hired a qualified dog-master. I had been told, on a visit to NATO headquarters, that NATO countries would have to spend more than $100 million to meet U.S. standards for securing nuclear weapons. I had no idea dog-masters were so well paid.
An incident like this makes clear why it is crazy to spend billions of dollars trying to turn the B61 into a paperweight. America's European allies are unwilling to spend $100 million on guns, guards, gates, and a dog-master. So the U.S. response is? To spend 100 times that -- $10 billion -- for a new bomb that, in Never Never Land, doesn't need guarding.
Look, America's European allies don't value U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Yes, some of them, especially in a few defense ministries, say they do, but actions speak louder than words. The United States' NATO allies value nuclear weapons so much that they aren't willing to properly fund the mission. Some of my colleagues note that the weapons vaults are so secure that it doesn't matter if the allies don't live up to their obligations. I think that's nonsense. Nuclear weapons security is an organizational activity. If you can't be bothered to hire a dog-master, what are the odds that you'll do all the other little things that add up to a security culture? No matter what some European officials say, the actions of European hosts say they don't care.
The United States doesn't have to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe immediately, but it could immediately consolidate them at two U.S. air bases in Europe, where they would be guarded properly by the U.S. Air Force, not Tintin. In the meantime, the United States could leave training dummies in place so that there would be no disruption to the normal routine at the air bases. Belgian pilots could pretend to drop nuclear weapons in training exercises, just like Belgian security guards pretend to guard them.
Consolidation would, of course, demonstrate that the United States doesn't actually need forward-deployed nuclear weapons in any of these countries. The country could then quietly cancel the expensive replacement program and save the $10 billion. That means, of course, that over time, the B61s will come home. My guess is that no one will notice.
If America really wants to show its commitment to its Europeans allies, let's replace the B61s with solid-gold replicas, forward-deployed at the NATO air base of your choice. What ally wouldn't be delighted to have access to a few hundred-million dollars' worth of gold bullion? And, of course, what better way to achieve the intrinsic security of a paperweight than with the real thing?