Jeffrey LewisActivists Breach Security at Kleine Brogel

Holy crap.

If you watch this video on YouTube it is very clear that a group of Belgian peace activists not only got inside the wire at Kleine-Brogel Airbase — where some US nuclear weapons may be stored — but they also got into the area where the hardened shelters are located (within the shelters are aircraft and WS3 storage vaults with US B61 nuclear gravity bombs.)

Between the Youtube video, a pair of stories on the Der Standard and Neusblad websites, their Facebook page and website, and Google Earth, it is pretty easy to recreate their path. (Hans K came to the same conclusion.)

Here are some images, with annotations linked to the time stamps in the video.

It looks like the activists approached Kleine-Brogel from the farms to the south of the airbase. Indeed, another group hopped the fence in November 2009. Apparently, they planned to go out on the runway and get arrested just like the previous group in November 2009. But, according to the group’s website “to their surprise, they were able to walk for over an hour on the runway.” (One of the press reports suggests it was forty minutes.)

The base is surrounded by signs indicating that the area is patrolled by guard dogs, but Milou was nowhere to be found.

Eventually, they noticed an open gate to the area where US nuclear weapons are believed to be stored. Belgian peace groups had previously identified the area based on a map handed out an airshow. (As you can see from their website, they had very good maps.)

It looks like this was a side gate — apparently it had been left open to keep from freezing shut — so the activists were able to enter the secure area and approach one of the hardened aircraft shelters from the rear. If you could get inside, it would look something like this.

Well, I suspect the vault (with the bomb) would be in the floor.

The activists defaced the shelter with stickers and then emerged onto the concrete plaza in the center of the area.

They then walked the length of the plaza — having traversed both the width of the base, and now the width of the secure area for nuclear weapons — when security force finally showed up.

The “security force” appears to comprise one moderately annoyed-looking Belgian guy with a rifle. (Which RAJ47 observes is unloaded.) 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.

How The [REDACTED] Did This Happen?

The reality is that significant shortcomings exists in the security of European airbases where US nuclear weapons are stored. That was made absolutely clear to me on my visit to SHAPE — and it was reported in the 2008 Air Force Blue Ribbon Review. Host-nations are supposed to provide security but they often cut corners. This is basically confirmed by the Belgian commander of the base, who explained that he just doesn’t have enough security forces:

Onze luchtmachtbasis is in totaliteit 450 hectare groot. Een derde is bosgebied waarin ik me drie weken kan bevinden zonder te worden gezien. Vandaar dat we onze bewaking, gelet op onze getalsterkte, concentreren op enkele gevoelige zones.

That works out to, more or less, “Our airbase is 450 hectares in size. A third is wooded areas in which I could stay perfectly well for three weeks without being seen. That is why we concentrate our surveillance on a few sensitive zones where there are aircraft and equipment.” (The translation is by the Open Source Center.)

Mort Halperin tells a funny story about when, in the late 1990s, then-German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called on NATO to adopt a policy of no-first use, widely seen at the time as the beginning of a discussion about withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Germany. Mort, then serving in the Clinton Administration, told a colleague that the German government had opened the door to the removal of US forward-deployed nuclear weapons. His colleague retorted: “You are not talking to the real German government.”

What Mort’s colleague meant was that there is — and has been for many years — a gap between Europe’s public, represented by elected leaders, and the so-called “real” governments — the national security bureaucracies in NATO and the European allies. So while NATO and European defense ministries make the case privately that forward-based nuclear weapons are politically and militarily essential to NATO, European political leaders have declined to make that case to their constituents for the money to modernize either aircraft or to keep up security.

What Should We Do?

As excuses go “It’s a big, wooded base and I don’t have that many troops” doesn’t cut it. In fact, when we are talking about nuclear weapons, it frankly sucks. When it comes to securing nuclear weapons, the United States Air Force has standards for both denial and recapture. If the Belgians and other NATO members won’t provide the forces and equipment necessary to meet both standards, then it is time to put the weapons on a US airbase.

The most direct route to securing US nuclear weapons in Europe is to immediately — like yesterday — consolidate all remaining forward deployed nuclear weapons to just one or two US airbases in Europe. Take your pick from Aviano, Incirlik, Lakenheath and Ramstein. This would immediately improve the overall security of the weapons, while starting a dialogue about whether forward-deployed weapons are really essential to maintaining NATO’s nuclear character twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is a point that several of us made in a letter to the President

The actual removal of such weapons should await formal consultations within NATO and may, in part, depend on arms control negotiations with Russia. But a useful first step would be the immediate consolidation of remaining forward-deployed nuclear weapons to one or two U.S. airbases in Europe.

The classic argument for leaving US nuclear weapons on European bases has always been burden-sharing — there is a value to forcing European governments to make the public case for spending money on NATO’s nuclear mission. Of course, that assumes that the governments actually make the necessary investments, rather than skimping on security.

Given the appalling state of security at Kleine Brogel, that argument seems unpersuasive today.

Update | 6:40 pm K-Reif reminds me that I outlined precisely this scenario at the Carnegie Endowment:

[T]he dominant character … of those weapons in Europe is that we don’t talk about them. I think NATO countries have been incredibly reluctant to make the public case about why they need U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil. And as a result … you see a corresponding lack of funding for security at the sites at which the European allies provide security


I worry very much about a singularity, an event. It could be a security event. Our friends from Peace Action Belgium, could get in the wire with a cell phone and take a picture of a [hardened shelter].


I do worry that something could happen that will deny NATO its preferred option of not talking about this, and then force the participants into a very ugly public debate in which the result would be the rapid, disorganized, uncoordinated withdrawal of the weapons amidst recriminations. And to me that would be much worse than beginning the dialogue about what the optimal posture is and whether that includes weapons.

[Emphasis mine]

It’s a little weird that I called Peace Action Belgium — that is sheer coincidence.

Update | 8:34, 5 February 2010 I somehow missed that Stephen Schwartz and Noah Shachtman were first — so many social media and blog pages, so little time!


  1. RAJ47

    The Belgian security personnel’s rifle is without any magazine(2:27). Without ammunition a rifle is as good as a stick.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    Actually, if it matters, there is no reference to aircraft or equipment in the original Dutch quote. It’s more like: “That’s why we concentrate our guards, given the strength of our numbers, on a few sensitive zones.” The words “perfectly well” have also been thrown in gratuitously.

  3. Azr@el (History)

    “Well, I suspect the vault (with the bomb) would in the floor.” should read “Well, I suspect the vault (with the bomb) would be in the floor.”

    The belg have never been known for their competence in affairs of war or state, they do hold the distinct honour of being the most incompetent colonial administrator ever, congo/zaire is their handy work, and surrendering the most troops to the fewest attackers, Eben-Emael, but damn do they make a scrumptious crepe; probably the solitary reason we keep them in NATO.

  4. 3.1415 (History)

    It will happen again until a stolen nuke is detonated at you know where.

  5. Andy (History)

    Wow, just Wow. They can’t even install a decent perimeter fence much less an intrusion detection system?

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    No real surprises here. Two days before the screwup of security at Newark International Airport, I walked down the very same hall of the incident and noticed that most of the cameras were fake. I would expect that as security forces become larger and penetrate deeper into western society, they will become less effective, and better observed and analyzed by the real evil doers of the world. Security really is theater. Think back to the 1980’s when people REALLY wanted US nukes out of Western Europe. Did you ever see this kind of penetration? And think how much smaller the security aparat was in the West then vs how large it is now.

  7. kme

    “Well, I suspect the vault (with the bomb) would be in the floor.”

    Unless it had been left out, to keep from freezing shut…

  8. kerbihan

    Yes, it’s a disgrace, especially 18 months after the USAF Blue Ribbon panel report appeared.
    But was there any risk of nuclear weapons security or safety being compromised? Was there any risk of a weapon to be “stolen”? Was there any risk of sensitive information being made public?
    There are no reasons to believe that.
    So cool off everyone. You’re free to think that the weapons should be withdrawn, but the incident at KB is not a good argument.
    As per the “real government” argument: don’t make European governments more stupid than they are. All elected leaders have eventually subscribed, on their own free will, to the idea of maintaining the weapons there. Turns out that they were more persuaded by the arguments of their defense ministries than by those of (unelected) peace activists or maverick foreign ministers.

  9. P

    Might it not simply be that security is non-existent because despite claims in documents about nuclear weapons being stored at the base there actually is not much of interest to secure?

  10. Doc Strangelove (History)

    The best way to secure the b-61s in the vaults would be to remove them.

    As it looks they entered the base from the northwestern perimeter just north of the old F-84 Thunderstreak and proceeded passing the white concrete apron.

    And it’s not only for the crepes also their Chateaubriand is worth for keeping Belgium in the NATO.

  11. P
    9/3/2009 – SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany – Capt. Andrew Legault, 701st Munitions Support Squadron security forces commander, receives a Belgian Meritorious Medal from Maj. Gen Claude Van De Voorde, Belgian air force 10th Tactical Wing commander, during the 10th TW change of command ceremony
    Sept. 1. Captain Legault received the medal for outstanding efforts resulting in excellent ratings during the most recent weapons inspection at Kleine Brogel Air Base, Belgium.

  12. Ward Wilson (History)

    I guess the moral to the story is that Peace Action Belgium takes its cues from Arms Control Wonk.

  13. Oliver Meier (History)

    After this incredible story, the response I got in 2008 from NATO officials to Hans Kristensen’s revelations about security problems at U.S. nuclear weapons bases makes clear that NATO seems either unwilling or unable to deal with this issue. To quote from my September 2008 Arms Control Today article <;:

    “NATO officials also condemn the [U.S. Air Force blue ribbon review about security problems at European nuclear weapon bases] for being misleading. ‘If conscripts are used to provide security, so what? These are well-trained soldiers,’ [Guy Roberts, NATO deputy assistant secretary-general for weapons of mass destruction policy and director for nuclear policy] told Arms Control Today. ‘And the necessity to repair a support building is not necessarily a security issue. If there is a hole in a fence, that gets repaired,’ he said.
    European officials also argued that the report was unfair because the Air Force inspectors applied stricter U.S. security standards, applicable to the inner perimeter of the actual nuclear weapons storage area, to the outer perimeter that is guarded by allies. As a result, NATO does not see any need to take additional measures to improve the security at European nuclear weapons bases.”

    In retrospect, this sounds mostly like propaganda. Eighteen months later, there are still gaping holes in security fences and training of host nation guards is obviously insufficient.

    It is time that Parliamentarians in all host countries start asking some serious questions about security at nuclear weapon sites on their territory, including U.S. bases. After all: Where were the U.S. guards that are supposed to guard the inner perimeter at Kleine Brogel?

  14. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    A great set of comments.

    Thanks to Oliver Meier, who has done a better job than anyone to keep abreast of the debate — such as it is — within NATO over the B61s. Any time I write something, I reach for his articles in Arms Control Today.

    KME said what I was thinking — I didn’t want to be too alarmist in the post. His/her wry comment reminds me that Murphy is certified to handle nuclear weapons.

    Finally, yes, I believe the nuclear weapons are still there. In January 2008, the Belgian Defense Minister Pieter De Crem slipped up and admitted it during a visit to the base.

    Finally, I found this little nugget from 2008, after the Blue Ribbon report suggested security problems at theE European airbases:

    A Belgian Defense Ministry spokesman, Commander Olivier Séverin, denied that security was lax at the Kleine Brogel Air Base in northeastern Belgium, where the FAS estimates the U.S. keeps 20 bombs. “We have professionalized the guards in all our installations,” he said. “These are not conscripts but professional soldiers. Not only that, but everyone is trained specifically for security at air bases. The proof is that there have been no major incidents at our installations.”

  15. RAJ47

    Is this security personnel the same Capt. Andrew Legault ?

    Atleast the vehicle is exactly similar.

  16. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Gentlemen, i think you’re forgetting about french fries (which should be more correctly referred to as belgian fries) as the main reason for keeping Belgium in NATO, apart from crêpes and Chateaubriand.

    Fun aside, this breach of security at Kleine-Brogel is an absolutely inacceptable incident which, hopefully, will be a long overdue wakeup-call for the belgian military (Watch duty at a military airbase, not to speak of a nuclear storage facility, by “professionals” with unloaded rifles? Leaving gates open to keep them from freezing shut? Forty minutes or more until the intruders were intercepted? Gosh, these dudes really are on the peace-dividend-drug…on the other hand, this may offer an explanation why Belgium was so easily overrun twice by german forces in the not too distant past).
    Another question is: I always thought there was an additional U.S.A.F. security detachment at those storage facilities, especially in and around the ‘special’ shelters themselves – where were those guys at that time?

  17. David E. Hoffman (History)

    A footnote, Sen. Sam Nunn had a similar experience in 1974 on a visit to a nuclear-weapons depot.

    From The Dead Hand:

    In 1974, when he had been in the Senate for only a year, Nunn toured NATO headquarters in Brussels and American military bases in Germany and Italy. If war were to come in Europe, the first battlefield would be divided Germany.
    Soviet war plans called for a massive sweep of sixty divisions from East Germany and Czechoslovakia into West Germany, reaching the German-French border within thirteen to fifteen days. They would face NATO’s tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. American scientists and engineers had created tiny warheads that could fit into small missiles and artillery shells. The firepower of these miniature nukes was an alternative to using massive numbers of troops. The West had deployed seven thousand nuclear weapons in Europe during the period when Nunn visited.
    A substantial number of U.S. aircraft and missiles were on five minute alert in case of a crisis.
    At a U.S. tactical nuclear weapons base in Germany, where bunkers held warheads and shells, Nunn was shown the relatively small devices, including warheads that could be easily moved by one or two men. Nunn was reassured by the commanders that all the weapons were secure. As he left the building, a sergeant shook hands with him. In his hand, Nunn felt a piece of folded paper. He slipped it into his pocket.
    “Senator Nunn,” it said, “please meet me and some of my guard buddies at the barracks around 6 tonight after work. I have very important information for you.”
    That night, Nunn and his staff director, Frank Sullivan, went to the
    barracks. The sergeant and “three or four of his fellow sergeants related a horror story to me,” Nunn later recalled. “A story of a demoralized military after Vietnam. A story of drug abuse. A story of alcohol abuse. A story of U.S. soldiers actually guarding the tactical nuclear weapons
    while they were stoned on drugs. The stories went on and on for over an hour.” Nunn left “thoroughly shaken,” he said.

  18. NN

    Article I

    Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.

    Article II

    Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

  19. Larry Patty (History)

    There were no weapons in those aircraft shelters. They only use the shelters for training, now that the cold war is over. If you pull up Bing maps and get the aerial view of the base you will see a small compound about 0.5 miles north of the base. Close in the image and you will notice earth covered bunkers surrounded by double fences with a patrol road between the fences. That’s where the weapons will be. Another indicator, no U.S. Air Force personnel. U.S. nuclear doctrine has American military personnel in physical custody of nuclear weapons up to the moment they are released for actual use.