US Upgrades Nuclear Weapon Sites in Europe: Report

(Photo courtesy Federation of American Scientists)

The U.S. Air Force is upgrading two of its European bases to better secure nuclear weapons stored there, according to a watchdog group.

Commercial satellite imagery shows the work underway at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy, according to a report Thursday from the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department last week announced it was offering voluntary evacuations to almost 1,000 mostly Air Force family members from Incirlik “out of an abundance of caution” as unrest spreads in the region. The U.S. recently began using the airbase — located less than 100 miles from the Syrian border — to launch airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria.

The construction work — which includes new security fencing, lighting and sensors — raises doubts about the security of the nuclear weapons stored in the region, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS.

“The upgrades indirectly acknowledge that security at U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe has been inadequate for more than two decades,” he wrote. “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.”

Incirlik Air Base is the largest nuclear weapons storage site in Europe with 25 underground vaults, each of which can hold up to four bombs for a maximum total base capacity of 100 bombs, according to FAS. There are an estimated 50 B61 thermonuclear bombs stored there — a quarter of the U.S. stockpile of the weapon, which can be carried by F-16s and other aircraft.

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • James Taylor

    Why do nukes need to be stored anywhere but on home soil?

    • blight_

      Easier to put them on a plane and fly them into Russia from bases in Europe.

      F-22 can’t carry B-61’s (since it was intended to carry smaller air superiority weapons, a sad sad decision), so it’s up to the F-35 to nuke Russia?

      • Robbie

        Nuclear Triad: bomber/fighters with nuke bombs and missiles, submarine ICBMs, silo ICBMs. The idea is to present an adversary with such a variety of different nuclear weapon delivery systems to target that he cannot be sure of taking out enough to prevent a catastrophic US return strike, so he is deterred from even trying.

      • tom

        You are stuck in the 80s friend. Russia is not the enemy any more.

        • AF MSgt

          Do you watch the news my friend? Russia invades Georgia, Russia annexes Crimea, Russian troops in Ukraine, and now Russian troops in Syria. Sounds a lot like an enemy to me.

          • VTGunner

            Does it really matter? If it goes nuclear it doesn’t matter where they’re stored. the SLBM’s and ICBM’s of both sides with destroy everything anyway. None of us will be alive to witness whether those storage sites in Turkey mattered

          • blight_

            A convincing case for the third part of the triad is…tenuous at best. With ICBM’s and SLBM’s we’re pretty covered. the use of the aircraft to carry nukes might be as a means of penetrating enemy airspace to deliver a “surprise” nuke (now that we no longer have nuclear cruise missiles). Stealthy ALCM’s with nuclear packages might be more interesting than attempting to use aircraft for nuclear weapons delivery, but being able to deliver them from a fighter jet is more promising than confining yourself to bomber bases.

        • blight_asdf

          Better tell those Russians to take their Iskanders home. We’ve been withdrawing things from Europe since the 2000’s…we are only now putting them back in response to events from Neo-Stalin.

        • blight_

          Real friends don’t put Iskanders in Kaliningrad (amusingly, the one city that maintained its communist-era name).

        • forgottenvet

          Do some home work. Its just the cusp of the proverbial iceberg. Uncle Sugar will be wearing hip-waders real soon.

    • sw614

      Part of US commitment to NATO. Host countries agree to not go nuclear and we agree to provide weapons under our nuclear umbrella as a deterrence.

  • Lightingguy

    Some treaties, such as the one we had with W. Germany, allowed German access to those weapons in a called for scenario. Presumably nobody wanted to risk the time delay or potential risks in transport by basing in the US only. If memory serves, Belgium, UK, and the Netherlands as well as Turkey and Italy all had nukes stored locally. But I agree that I cannot see a current need to base outside of the US.

    • Leon Suchorski

      I see, only after they would have been useful?

  • Robbie

    Incirlik and Aviano are the US bases with nuclear weapons closest to the ME terrorist threat, so refurbishing perimeter security is a prudent precaution and is not of itself an indicator that the previous security was inadequate. The nuclear weapons are stored in armored vaults underneath the concrete floor of hardened, locked aircraft shelters located within a perimeter of fences, sensors and patrols. The vaults cannot be opened or the weapons raised without nuclear level access codes and both the armored vault and the hardened aircraft shelter are monitored by a variety of sensors. The overall concept is to disperse the nuclear weapons so a single strike cannot take out a large number, to conceal any preparations for loading them within the aircraft shelter and to add another layer of physical barriers to delay any attempt at unauthorized access until the security reaction force arrives. I’m happy to see the AF is taking security seriously out there.

    • forgottenvet

      Yep, I Highly agree Robbie. the news is here in CONUS that the commo is outdated between an LCF and NORAD…or what ever it goes by these days. Thank the Good Lord its hardened that way, too. So antiquated the SCOM cant be Hacked. General Lemay knew what he was doing 60 years ago. Thank You, Sir!

  • mike

    gee, why don’t we tell everyone in the world just exactly how many we have in each location - gee, I forgot, anyone with a “bit” of a brain can figure that out by just looking at how many bunkers are at each base!!!!!!!!!!!!! talk about letting the cat out of the bag. and YES they probably needed the upgrades, but now, well, we will see who “tests” it all out now.
    talk about handing the “jewels” to the thief.

    • paul

      OPSEC had been forgotten about in the past 20 years since we leave the media control everything.

      • bart ninja

        the media only regurgitates what it is fed by the DOD. OPSEC is only compromised if the DOD were to feed them anything other than the usual propoganda.

    • Dave

      If I remember right as part of the START treaties we already had to tell the russians where they were and they were allowed to inspect and count. I remember russians coming on base in the late 90’s to do inspections for all kinds of stuff allowed by treaty.

  • Robbie

    It’s never been particularly difficult to deduce roughly how many potential nuclear weapons could be at a base, but there’s no way for an enemy to know for sure. The vaults could be full, partially full or empty. It’s a shell game to create uncertainty. More to the point, we want any potential enemy to believe we have weapons in forward locations-it’s part of deterrence.

  • sw614

    Upgrades now do not mean inadequate security for decades. FAS reading more into it than needed as usual. I saw security upgrades frequently during my 23 years. So what? Nothing wrong with making security better.

    • blight_asdf

      Alternatively, the upgrades reflect new capability that didn’t exist decades ago. Or that Incirlik/Aviano weren’t premier SAC bases for nuclear weapon delivery, with former top-tier bases for nuclear weapons delivery being those in England and Germany. Incirlik and Aviano do seem out of the way, but Aviano may make sense if the plan is to load Italian JSF’s with nuclear weapons using American facilities.

      • blight_

        Upon recheck, it appears that Incirlik has had a pretty long history of nuclear weapons storage. It has two weapons storage sites, one NW of the runway and one NE of the runway, with FAS assuming that the smaller NE one is the older pre-WSSS era storage facility, and the NW one is newer storage facilities.

  • Berzrkr50

    WGiven the number of Muslims pouring into Europe I find it unwise to keep that type of weapon ANYWHERE on European soil. It’s just a matter of time before they get the idea to try to overwhelm the security through sheer numbers. We all know how much they value their own lives, don’t we. Relocate them to the Azores or the Canary Islands and be done with it…

  • TeXan

    what a stupid idea.. Nuclear weapons near ISIS. Now what could go wrong with that???

    • bart ninja

      nothing… Obama is right on track to build his Islamic caliphate.

  • kss

    we must send teams to investigate U.S. Nuclear sites like they do to Iraq nuclear sites. If not it will be not fair for IRAQ folk. What do you say?