Pentagon Acknowledges Upgrading Nukes Abroad

Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC) engineers recently joined researchers with Sandia National Laboratories to perform a wind tunnel test on a full-scale mock-up B61. Pictured with the model is Gary Cunningham, an outside machinist for ATA. (Photo by Rick Goodfriend)

The U.S. Defense Department acknowledged it’s upgrading nuclear weapons stored abroad, but — in keeping with standard practice — didn’t specify where.

“We are proceeding with full-scope nuclear weapon life extension programs to ensure reliability and enhance surety, safety, security, and use control, including for those weapons that are forward deployed,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Wednesday during a briefing with reporters.

Davis wouldn’t confirm whether the work is taking place Incirlik Air Base in Turkey near the Syrian border. “We neither confirm nor deny their presence at any specific location,” he said.

His comments came after Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told German’s ZDF television that the U.S. was modernizing B61 nuclear bombs stored “not just in Germany, but also in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey.”

Her comments follow a recent report from a U.S. watchdog group that concluded the Air Force was upgrading two of its European bases — Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy — to better secure nuclear weapons stored there.

The report, which cited commercial satellite imagery, came from the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which opposes the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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.

The Defense Department earlier this month 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 spread 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.

Russia, which in recent days has accelerated its military buildup in Syria to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, threatened to respond to the U.S. nuclear work in the region, possibly by placing Iskander ballistic missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

“This may upset the strategic balance in Europe,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said of the American actions. “Hence, Russia will naturally have to take counter-moves, counter-measures for restoring this strategic balance and parity.”

-Richard Sisk contributed to this report.

About the Author

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.
  • Lance

    Not too sure about the F-16 but most tactical nukes were meant to be carried by F-15E Strike Eagles (which was replaced the F-111) so was the shorter lived B-57 nuke.

  • Gopher bomber

    I hope this means the other four sites are already more secure.
    Ivan is looking for excuses to fill a perceived vacuum.
    Having the largest concentration at Incerlik now seems strategically inept. Couldn’t we just build our own island?

  • anomyous coward

    I believe that this is a poor interpretation, “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. Due to the current wave of instability creeping into Europe that is different then the past decades creates a different geopolitical situation that requires more safeguards.

    Turkey is not the evil empire border state that it used to be, it its not an early transit station for the millions of migrants leaving the middle east and Africa. Anybody who has played Star Craft knows that a good fence and early warning is the only way to defend against a zergling attack

  • blight_asdf

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

    Great, then we’ll take care of business. When did this become a sin?

  • kevin

    Well how many do we actually need?I suppose having a good percentage ready and reliable is a good thing if we have to have the things to begin with,are there any plans to be able to use some of these things to deflect something like a big meteor ready to strike the earth.I would hope they have some use other then destruction

    • Bronco46

      There will be no mission to save earth to any asteroid, even in the distant future. Do so research on valid astronomy sites. 99% of all the science and science fiction movies get the psychics wrong, And most of the science.

    • Bronco46

      Counting the number of weapons needed is no the kind of math that 99.9% of civilians are qualified to do. The men in the military know what they need to make up for losses, weapons that fail, and weapons they can’t get to. So it’s not a matter of just adding up megatonnage.
      As for meteors. You need to start paying more attention to science fact. And less to cable TV channels that specialize in science fiction. 99% of the movies on the subjects of science and especially science fiction get the physics wrong. And most defy most know science as well.
      So don’t count on Bruce Willis grabbing a B-61 and flying up and saving the earth. It’s unlikely we’ll have anything like that ability in the next 100 to 200 years.

      • kevin

        You watch that stuff?

  • bozojoe

    voluntary base evacs!?!….. wow I would definitely throw my family on those ASAP

  • Robert Powell

    the way that the admin. is ducking and running .best bring the nukes home before we find one on our door with the fuse lit….

  • Guest1

    They are not performing the upgrades in the field like the article implied. They are rotating in upgraded weapons from stateside.