Belgian Activists Breach Security Around US Nukes
Six members of the organization Peace Action climbed a perimeter fence at the Kleine Brogel Air Base, then walked unchallenged through an open gate to a cluster of hardened bunkers that house F-16 fighters and vaults containing nuclear weapons. They plastered banners with the Flemish word "Bomspotters" at the site and have posted a videotape of their visit on YouTube.
The activists lingered for more than an hour before they were questioned by a Belgian soldier armed with what appears to have been an unloaded rifle. As the Web site ArmsControlWonk.com commented, "The effect would only be more comedic if he had some powdered sugar on his face and maybe a little bit of waffle stuck to his uniform."
Hans M. Kristensen, who directs the nuclear information project for the Federation of American Scientists, said he authenticated the activists' videotape by comparing it to satellite images of the air base on Google Earth.
"What they did was to show that the security at the base was just not adequate; that's the bottom line," Kristensen said. As many as 20 nuclear bombs are stored at Kleine Brogel, Kristensen said in an interview. Altogether about 200 U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed at six air bases in allied European countries, he added. At all six, security is the responsibility of the host country's military.
Security questions have been raised at some of those bases before. In June 2008, Gen. Roger Brady, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, was quoted on a European USAF Web site as saying, "Even though we don't have a Soviet Union anymore, there's still some weird people out there." He was speaking in the course of a security inspection at Kleine Brogel and Volkel Air Base, a bomb storage site in the Netherlands.
In November of last year, the Bomspotters also managed to spend half an hour at Kleine Brogel. Yet that breach doesn't appear to have led to any improvement in security in the meantime.
According to an account on their Web site, the adventurers were surprised by how easily and how far they were able to penetrate last month. They had set out on a training exercise meant to prepare for protests across Europe scheduled for April 3 and didn't expect to be able to linger on the runway or approach so close to the weapons.
A Belgian newspaper quoted Belgian Col. Fred Vansina, the commander of the air base, as saying, "Our air base is 450 hectares. A third is woodland. ... Therefore we focus our surveillance on some sensitive areas where aircraft and equipment are."
An Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon said that security for U.S. nukes in Europe is addressed in bilateral agreements between the United States and host nations. He referred questions to the U.S. European Command, which did not reply to an e-mail query.
Once they were noticed, the activists were blindfolded and arrested, and their cell phones and cameras were confiscated. According to their Web site, they were subject to "a thorough body search," yet still managed to smuggle out the images of their walk on the nuclear side.
Kristensen said the bunkers are strengthened to resist an attack from above, but not from ground level. If intruders could get inside one of the weapons vaults, he said, they would have to detonate direct charges to scatter the plutonium inside the bombs.
It would take "a lot of luck" to actually obtain one of the bombs or the enriched radioactive material inside, he noted. But "there is no excuse for less than perfect when it comes to nuclear weapons," Kristensen said, "particularly when the U.S. just spent the last couple of years beefing up security at its own bases."