The United States has upgraded the security at its two largest overseas nuclear weapons bases, Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy. Incirlik is undergoing a particularly extensive upgrade, a move connected to its vulnerable location close to the Syrian border.
Recent satellite images from Incirlik and Aviano show double-fence security perimeters—a sealed-off area where intruders can be shot—being built around the nuclear weapons storage areas. At Incirlik the garage holding the trucks that service the warheads is also being improved, along with the trucks themselves. Incirlik’s newly upgraded area contains 21 vaults, each holding two to three warheads, and will be equipped with lighting, cameras, and intrusion-detection devices. In addition to soldiers already guarding the enclosure, manned vehicles will also patrol space between the two fences around the clock.
Combined, the Incirlik measures amount to a major security upgrade. “They didn’t use to have the special double-fence security perimeter with sensors and the patrol road around the nuclear weapons vaults,” explained Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, who first reported the Incirlik and Aviano activity on his blog. “When the vaults were constructed in the nineties, they were considered so secure that the special security perimeter that had previously been used for nuclear weapons storage areas was no longer considered necessary.” He added that it’s unclear whether the upgrade is a direct result of volatility in the region or related to changed Pentagon security requirements.
According to Kristensen’s estimates—considered by think tanks and independent experts to be the most reliable short of government figures, which are secret—Incirlik Air Base hosts 50 American tactical nuclear warheads, more than any other base in Europe. Aviano Air Base is thought to be hosting 25–35 warheads. Adding to Incirlik’s strategic importance is its vulnerable location less than 70 miles from Turkey’s border with Syria. In August, Turkey opened Incirlik to NATO aircraft flying missions against ISIS. Within days, the US launched airstrikes against ISIS from Incirlik with F-16s relocated from Aviano. The Pentagon now offers family members voluntary evacuation from Incirlik, and in October US forces conducted an emergency response exercise at the base.
Incirlik’s growing role in the fight against ISIS makes it a more prominent target for counterattacks. “Turkey has always seen nuclear weapons as a security guarantee, but now it’s facing the problem of ISIS operating inside Turkey as well,” said Beyza Unal, a Turkish nuclear weapons expert at Chatham House, a London think tank. “Terrorists or lone wolves could infiltrate Incirlik or attack it from the outside.”
In October, a man tried to crash his car against the gates of a Belgian military base. More alarmingly, unarmed Belgian peace activists have several times managed to enter Belgium’s Kleine Brogel base, which hosts an estimated 20 US nuclear warheads. “It’s very difficult to guard a nuclear weapons site because it’s an air base with a long landing strip,” observed Roel Stynen of the peace organization Vredesactie. “There’s a fence but it’s easy to climb it. Once you’re on the base, if you know where the sensitive infrastructure is, it’s easy to get there. You just have to climb a few fences.” In 2010, Stynen and fellow Vredesactie activists did just that at Kleine Brogel, documenting the base’s nuclear infrastructure and departing without being arrested.
Though terrorists may learn the location of nuclear storage sites, they would have great difficulty stealing the deadly weapons. “Even if 1,000 jihadists got into the bunker [holding the warheads], the worst they would be able to do is damage the warhead and release a bit of radioactivity,” said Guy Roberts, a retired US colonel who was until 2011 NATO’s deputy assistant secretary general for weapons of mass destruction policy. “If they managed to release some of it, the damage would only be a fraction of Chernobyl.” A warhead typically contains about 33 pounds of highly enriched uranium.
Yet there’s publicity value in simply entering a supposedly secure nuclear weapons base, and a radioactive stunt could set dangerous events in motion. In June, Chatham House and Middle Eastern humanitarian organizations conducted a nuclear radiation simulation in Istanbul based on a scenario where Incirlik is attacked. “There would be catastrophic humanitarian impacts,” reported Unal. “Enormous numbers of people would start leaving the area.” In November, Chatham House will conduct a simulation in London, again based on a hypothetical Incirlik attack.
Though Incirlik is located in a volatile area, other NATO bases hosting US nuclear weapons are not completely secure either. The Pentagon’s 2015 budget report shows that over the past 15 years, the United States has spent $80 million on improved security at “storage sites in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey,” a veiled reference to nuclear bases in Europe. Still, a 2000 US Air Force security review concluded that security at US nuclear weapons bases in Europe was inadequate. The Pentagon now plans to invest another $154 million.
Nuclear modernization is playing a role in the security upgrades as well. In a 2009 speech in Prague, President Obama committed himself to nuclear disarmament, and around the same time European governments suggested that US nuclear weapons be withdrawn from Europe. But like other nuclear weapons states, the United States is now in the midst of modernizing its arsenal.
Last month Germany’s public-service ZDF television, citing internal US budget documents, reported that the Pentagon is planning to replace its ageing B61 bombs at Büchel Air Base with newer, much more accurate B61-12 bombs. Responding to the news, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that if the modernization happens Russia will take countermeasures. A subsequent Bundestag debate revealed that US plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal in Germany have been known for five years.
“Weapons that are now being modernized for an extreme amount of money will stay in Germany for a long time to come, but apparently it’s not just a matter of a minor life extension,” noted Agnieszka Brugger, the German Green Party’s head of defense policy. “We’re talking about a weapon of a completely new quality.” A spokesperson for Germany’s Defense Ministry declined to comment. According to a new report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington think tank, the risk of nuclear weapons use in the Euro-Atlantic region is rising.
At Incirlik, even the most sophisticated upgrades may not warrant the risk of hosting nuclear weapons so close to volatile areas. But with strategic thinking born during the Cold War dictating that backing down from nuclear weapons signals weakness, Turkey’s government prefers to keep its American warheads.