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Belgium’s Failed State Is Guarding America’s Nuclear Weapons

Belgium’s Failed State Is Guarding America’s Nuclear Weapons

When the news of the horrible terrorist attacks on Brussels first broke, I was in Paris, where sympathy for the Belgian capital was enormous. In Paris, among officials and the public, there was a palpable sense of shared fate with other countries facing the threat of jihadi terrorism that rarely makes it over intact to the United States. Insulated by geography and egotism, we tend to respond to terrorism in Europe by issuing travel warnings.

But if nihilistic jihadis blowing up metro stations and airports doesn’t create a sense of solidarity, maybe the possibility of nuclear terrorism will do the trick. We’re about to hear a lot about shared interests as Washington gears up for one of the few items on the security agenda that purportedly interests President Barack Obama — the final Nuclear Security Summit. The president initiated the effort to convene world leaders to focus on improving nuclear security following his 2009 speech in Prague on the subject of nonproliferation. While the process has been valuable, there seems to be little appetite, both in Washington and elsewhere in the world, for continuing Obama’s pet project once he leaves office. So, it’s one last meeting. 

The backdrop to the summit will be the revelations over the past few days that the terrorist network that carried out last week’s attacks may also have been targeting Belgian nuclear power plants. There are plenty of reasons to think the facilities themselves are relatively safe. After all, the fuel at these facilities is irradiated — which means that a terrorist group attempting to steal it would have a very unpleasant time handling the hot, radioactive fuel.

And yet this conversation seems to be occurring without mentioning what, to me, seems like a much larger concern. If you were a Belgian terrorist, why settle for a dirty bomb, when you have the option of stealing an honest-to-goodness nuclear bomb? The United States “forward deploys” about 180 B61 nuclear bombs at bases in Europe — including a small number at a Belgian air base known as Kleine Brogel, about an hour outside of Brussels.

These weapons are the sole remaining tactical nuclear weapon systems that the United States deploys abroad. They are the last link to the era when the United States deployed thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe (and elsewhere) to stop a thrust by the Red Army into the heart of Western Europe. The theory was that, in a conflict with the Soviet Union, the United States would hand over nuclear weapons, guarded by American soldiers, to foreign fighter pilots, who would then drop them on the Russians.

Skeptical that, even in this era of Vladimir Putin, the United States should still be planning on putting a U.S. nuclear weapon on the wing of a Belgian F-16 to start a nuclear war with the Russians? Fair enough. But the ongoing existence of this mission is, for the moment, less important than another fact: The security of these nuclear weapons is terrible.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The U.S. Defense Department will trot out a spokesbot to tell you everything is fine. Let me tell you a story or two.

In an earlier job, I ran a project that tried to outline options for what would become the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review. One of the better parts was the travel. I made a lovely visit to Brussels, where my team had a series of very high-level meetings at the European Union and NATO headquarters. There were some steak frites, a little lambic beer, and a lot of talk about nuclear weapons. And at the time, senior U.S. military officers made one thing very clear to us: The security at the bases stunk. One commander noted that the upgrades necessary to meet security requirements would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Another said his worst fear was that a group of activists would be able to get inside the shelters where the nuclear weapons are stored and use a cell phone to publish a picture of the vaults.

And then it happened. In January 2010, a group of protesters who call themselves “Bombspotters” entered Kleine Brogel.

Apparently the plan was to hang around on the tarmac of the runway and get arrested. But no one came to arrest them. So they wandered around — for either 40 minutes or an hour, the accounts differ — before walking through an open gate into an area with hardened aircraft shelters for the base’s F-16s. Eventually, as the hippies continued to wander around the shelters, security arrived.

The “security force” was one moderately annoyed-looking Belgian guy with a rifle — an unloaded rifle. The effect would only have been more comedic if he had some powdered sugar on his face and maybe a little bit of waffle stuck to his uniform.

The protestors were briefly detained but not for long. There was no panic. The mood in Belgium seemed to be something like “you crazy kids.” Not to worry, the Belgians assured their American partners, the activists weren’t anywhere near the shelters with nuclear weapons.

So, a few months later, the activists entered the base again. They helpfully sent me a little note. This time, they not only got inside the proper area, but they also got inside one of the shelters.

Security never showed up. Apparently, the base commander found out about the incursion when the rest of us did — when the activists posted a video on YouTube a day or so later. This was literally the scenario the U.S. military officer had warned us about — hippies inside a shelter with a cell phone, security nowhere to be found.

Yet still no panic.

One way to look at this is to say that the multiple and redundant security features worked. Sure, the Belgians should have caught the activists at the fence. And, sure, the hippies got inside the inner perimeter. And, sure, the shelter shouldn’t have been unlocked. But the nuclear weapons inside the shelter were still secure in a vault in the floor. A terrorist would have needed the code or a jackhammer to access the bomb itself. Even if it was only the last, or next to last, line of defense, it still worked. Another day without a nuclear holocaust. Who’s complaining?

The other way to look at it is to see that the security failures were not independent. The base had a lax security culture that makes anything possible. There were no dogs because the Belgians were too cheap to hire a dog-master. Who is to say what other security breaches might be possible? Who is to say the same people who didn’t bother to lock the gates or the shelters wouldn’t also leave a vault open? Or wouldn’t say something indiscreet, allowing a group of armed men to show up as a bomb is being moved for servicing? According to this view, you either take security seriously, or you don’t. If you don’t, you are vulnerable to systematic breakdowns that allow the seemingly impossible to happen. It’s no coincidence that the U.S. Air Force nuclear enterprise has been marred by a series of jaw-dropping security breaches, from nuclear weapons being mistakenly flown across the country to a drunken general desperate to play guitar in a Beatles cover band in Moscow to a little Colombian marching powder.

In recent years, as public criticism over its mishandling of nuclear weapons has grown louder, the Air Force has invested substantially in improving security at U.S. sites hosting nuclear weapons in Europe. But money doesn’t solve security culture. It’s true that the Bombspotters haven’t been back to Kleine Brogel in a few years. But that’s because they’ve been breaking into other locations. And, a couple of years ago, there was yet another incursion, by another group of activists, at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands. Security still stinks, as far as I can tell.

Which brings us back to the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Do we really want to keep these weapons in Belgium, in light of what we now know are very large and organized jihadi networks in that country and France? Or in light of these security failings?

The rationale for keeping nuclear weapons in Belgium and other NATO countries is the idea of burden-sharing — the notion that Belgium and other European governments should share political responsibility for defending this contribution to their national defense. Yet, what contribution are U.S. nuclear weapons making, precisely, to European security? At present, they seem to pose more of a threat, a temptation for local terrorist networks. It should come as no shock that European countries have been so lax in their defense of those weapons, both rhetorically and in terms of security measures. This is what I would call burden-shirking, and Belgium is Exhibit A for the phenomenon.

But more to the point, why does the United States still think nuclear weapons are a crucial symbol of our commitment to Europe? The Obama administration has done plenty of things to strain the transatlantic alliance. Obama did himself no favors in skipping the show of solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, and his recent interview in the Atlantic, in which he accused France, among other U.S. allies, of free-riding on the U.S. military, has Gallic blood boiling. (Read the whole thing; it is truly insulting.) And then there is the nagging fear in Europe that presidential candidate Donald Trump’s absurd remarks about “renegotiating“ NATO hint at a growing isolationism within the United States.

Spend time in Paris or Brussels, and you quickly get a sense of perspective. If Washington wants to show it’s serious about the transatlantic alliance, it should help with the continent’s refugee crisis, terrorist attacks, and economic challenges. What matters is whether we get these big questions right or whether we royally screw them up. And compared to these challenges, a handful of nuclear weapons matters very little — except for the risks they pose in the context of radical Islamic terrorism.

Photo credit: YORICK JANSENS/AFP/Getty Images