Jeffrey LewisAnother Kleine Brogel Bombspotting

So, I got a little note the other day from the Bombspotters:

After we noticed our January filmed visit of Kleine Brogel airbase caused some interesting discussions, we have put some effort in a more extensive investigation. To our surprise we even were able to make a picture inside an aircraft shelter with WS3-installation. You find a new movie on and a technical analysis on

Oh my.

Some effort?  I am running out of things to say each time activists in Belgium get inside the wire at Kleine Brogel airbase in Belgium. (See: Activists Breach Security at Kleine Brogel, 4 February 2010 and Yes, It’s the Other Area, 6 February 2010).

When the Bombspotters pulled off this stunt in January, it seemed a small group of activists had succeeded in penetrating one of two sets of 11 Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS).  It seemed as though they were in the middle of a cluster that happened not to have B61 nuclear gravity bombs in Ws3 shelters, though that hardly excused the woeful performance turned in by Belgian security or the lame excuses offered by the Belgian government.

It was a perfect demonstration of a scenario that I knew worried US Air Force leaders and described in a talk at the Carnegie Endowment. The security violation made a strong case for removing those weapons immediately.  I mean, you can’t say keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists is your top priority, then let stuff like this happen.  Whether the activists could have chipped the bomb out of the vault or not is beside the point.  Either you have some pride and take seriously the task of securing the weapons or you don’t.  If you don’t, get out of the business.

Now, as I worried (and thanks to the genius who pointed out the weapons were in the other set of shelters) the activists claim to have penetrated both areas, which they label Alpha and Sierra.  (They entered Sierra in January; I thought Alpha had the bombs based on some photographs of the 701 MUNSS.) If there are still nuclear weapons at Kleine Brogel, the activists were near them in any reasonable sense of the word.  So near, in fact, I am beginning to wonder if the bombs are still there at all.

The first few minutes of the video confirm the original path of the protesters through the Sierra area in January, which both Hans K and I deduced at the time.

At 3:15, the video shows images of three hardened aircraft shelters (They number them 2, 8 and 10) in the more heavily-fenced Alpha area, before returning to Sierra set of shelters (17, 18, 21) the activists reached in January.

At 4:45, the activists show video and a still image from inside a shelter, which sure looks like it has a WS3 to me.  They claim the images are from Shelter “2” which is in Alpha and less than 100 meters from the spot where General Hobbins posed with Lt.  Wyseur and Capt. Long.  By any reasonable definition, the activists were “near” the vaults. Looking at the external video footage starting around 6:30, it looks like they really were inside Alpha Area.

The Bombspotters assess that the WS3 vaults are spread among both clusters of 11 Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), Alpha and Sierra.  That just doesn’t ring true to me.  I am not saying I doubt them, just that I am not sure I fully understand why the USAFE would scatter the vaults.  I mean, the first rule here ought to be “Don’t make it any harder for the Belgians to guard.”

The images from inside the shelter, show that it is empty — at least that it has no aircraft.  Perhaps it is empty in both senses.  On the other hand, perhaps the gravity bombs and aircraft are stored in separate shelters.  But why was the shelter open?  Hans has a nice picture of some weapons activity with a partially elevated WS3 vault.  There is a support truck in the background, which looks different from the truck in the shelter.  Anybody want to help with an id? The purpose of the truck might explain why the shelter had been left open.

In any event, security at Kleine Brogel is terribly, terribly lax.  So lax, in fact, I am beginning to wonder if the US Air Force pulled the weapons, either as a temporary security measure or as a more permanent solution to the problem illustrated in January.

If not, this would be a good time to do so.

Update | 08 October 2010: De Standaard has a typically lame response from Ingrid Baeck, the Belgian defense spokesperson:

Defensie wil niet veel kwijt over het incident. ‘Ik heb met de commandant van de basis contact opgenomen’, zegt legerwoordvoerster Ingrid Baeck. ‘Volgens zijn eerste analyse bevat de documentaire een montage van oude beelden, niet van vorig weekend.’ Baeck verwijst daarmee naar een incident, waarbij twee spotters na enkele minuten bij de kraag werden gevat. ‘Onze laatste verkenning’, zegt Lammerant al lachend. ‘Maar de maanden daarvoor heeft niemand ons betrapt.’

‘Kleine Brogel is een zeer grote basis’, zegt Baeck. ‘Het klopt dat die op bepaalde plaatsen niet hermetisch is afgesloten. De bedoeling van de beveiliging is dat actievoerders niet tot het operationele hart van de basis kunnen doordringen. Daar zijn we altijd vrij aardig in geslaagd.’

Of de actievoerders bij de bunker zijn gekomen waar nucleaire wapens liggen, zegt Baeck niet. ‘U kent ons beleid over de opslag van kernwapens: wij bevestigen noch ontkennen.’

That more or less boils down to asserting that the footage is old, the base is big but security is fine and they didn’t penetrate the “operational heart” of the base.  It is pretty clear that the footage is not from January — there was snow on the ground in January.  As for whether or not this is the operational heart of the base or not, I’d like to point out, again, that Shelter 2 is less than 100 meters from where General Hobbins posed with two US soldiers on his inspection.

I fear Ms. Baeck is not a very reliable source of information.  It does appear, however, from her comments that the Base Commander found out about the incursion the same way the rest of us did.


  1. b (History)

    So why are there still U.S. nukes in Europe. I know of no European country that wants them there.

    Get out.

  2. bob (History)

    You might not know of any European country that wants them “there” – but here, you know, actually in Europe, we are quite comfortable with the status quo, thank you very much.

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I’m wondering what you folks close to policy circles have to say about this. Are these nuclear weapons a sort of arsenal in being for the host nations? Is this stockpile a means for the US to proliferate, without out proliferating, and a way for Western European nations to own nuclear arsenals without ‘owning’ up to the fact? Such that host nations have the bomb they can’t use, and the Americans are keeping bombs they can’t take home because they don’t really own them.

  4. Russ Wellen (History)

    There’s a passive-aggressive element to the behavior of the Belgians that suggests, deep down, they don’t want anything to do with American bombs.

  5. weaponeer (History)

    >> At 4:45, the activists show video and a still image from inside a shelter, which sure looks like it has a WS3 to me.

    Then you’re seeing something I’m not seeing.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Well, the identification is made on the basis of the whole system, including the electronic control element, rather than just the vault.

      The standard image of a WS3 system shows the weapons storage vault elevated and, in the background, a large electronic control element.

      The Hardened Aircraft Shelter has a similar control element.

      What I really want to know, however, is what operation the truck is performing.

      The presence of the truck, and its function, might explain why the shelter was not secured. It does not, for example, look a weapons maintenance truck. We can, I think, safely rule out the possibility that soldiers from the 701 MUNSS arrived to do some weapons maintenance, parked, then went out for a NESCAFE forgetting to lock the door behind them.

  6. bradley laing (History)

    During WW II, the British Navy made dummy ships, and left the fakes in their own ports, to convince the German intelligence pilots that British ships were in one place, instead of the real place(s).

    What if the B-61s have not been there for decades, and admitting this would wreck a U.S. foreign policy goal?

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Bradley, great point. It’s not like we’re investigating the angular momentum of an accretion disk about a black hole where we can look at one natural object and infer the presence of another natural object. We are dealing with humans, and a class of humans who specialize in seeding your observations what what you expect to see. This of course assumes someone is awake at the switch. We have seen a lot in the past decade to indicate that a lot of people are sleeping at a lot of switches. So yet again, a photograph gives only a 1000 inferences instead of a 1000 words.

  7. bob (History)


    You reference “The standard image of a WS3 system” with the background “large electronic control element”.

    However, by inspection, most of the cable ducts exiting this electrical panel seem to go to places other than the vault. . .

    I assume that there is a standard overall electrical panel layout for all shelters, with additional switchboxes for additional equipment. To be sure of what you say, we would need to identify the specific switchbox in the panel that powers the vault.

    Presumably you have access to schematics etc that enable you to be sure.

    Slightly off topic – why did the activists take a photo from so close to floor level? Unless you are peeping under an up-and-over door (and we think we know from layout diagrams that the shelter doors open like normal doors) then the photo angle has to be deliberate.

    If I wanted to take a picture of a vault in a floor, you would get a picture of a vault in a floor. So I guess I am with weaponeer on this one.


    • Jeffrey (History)

      Let me be clear: the only image I have ever seen of the WS3 electronic component is the lousy black and white one. I am not sure. When I said it looks like it “to me” that ought to convey that I am interested in what other people think.

      Given the way the picture in the black-and-white slide is cropped (the vault is off-center, deliberately showing the electrical component) and title of the slide “Weapons Storage and Security System (WS3) ” my immediate reading of the image was that the electrical unit shown was part of the system. (To be sure, as the next slide and multiple DOD reports make clear, there is an electronic component of the system beyond just the vault.)

      When I saw the same elecrtical unit in the shelter, I thought “bingo.” Or “that’s a bingo.”

      If someone wants to tell me, based on first-hand experience, that the installation of the WS3 in European airbases generall, or at Kleine Brogel specifically, looks different than the slide, that’s fine. But I wouldn’t expect all the ductwork and wiring to go into the vault alone.

      As for the image of the floor, the activists say they saw the camera/sensor visible in the center of the shelter roof and thought that coming closer would get them caught. They ended up visiting two other shelters after this one (as far as I can tell), so it looks like they stumbled on the open shelter early on in the incursion.

  8. bob (History)

    If this were a photo taken in the UK – we could infer the absence of live weapons from the presence of the gas cylinder. Health and safety zealots would guarantee that.

    Then again, cylinder colour coding may differ on the continent, red may indicate inert gas (for TIG), but I doubt it.


  9. A Complete Stranger (History)

    Great Post! Terrible situation!

    The two red cylinders are fire extinguishers, the small one appears to be for normal fires while I would guess the large one is for electrical firers. (Note the large “nozzle” thing on the large cylinder.) Also, red is something of universal color for fire extinguishers.

    The “truck” (or, more accurately, trailer) appears to have a grating at its front. Perhaps it is for cooling the contents of the trailer? That might indicate it could be a portable generator, which might be used in the maintenance of jet aircraft.

    I would also suggest that the photos were taken so close to floor level because the camera was mounted on a small tripod. Undoubtedly, the light level in the bunker was very low and they needed long exposures to take the photographs. It makes perfect sense to me that such a tripod would be very, very small to facilitate taking it in. (perhaps they even balanced it on a backpack?)

    I hope there aren’t any nukes in the shelter; the activists are absolutely right that having those weapons there makes us less secure.

    • A Complete Stranger (History)

      Or perhaps the trailer could be an air conditioning unit. There is a large “hose” leading from the wall to the trailer.

    • P (History)

      The truck is a trailer and looks like a piece of ground equipment (probably a air conditionor/generator) to support aircraft, such as Belgian F-16s. Standard equipment on an air force base I would say.

      Compare with the image on

      It’s not the same, but pretty similar. I am sure some one with F-16 maintenance experience will identify the exact model immediately.

    • A Complete Stranger (History)

      P’s find is so similar to the trailer in the picture that I’m convinced it is both a generator and an air conditioner (hard to believe I was right in both my hypotheses!) So does that mean the HAS is “active”? I’m not sure but I think it means that the shelter has definitely not been deactivated.

  10. Marc (History)

    P and the Stranger are probably right about the trailer, but I found, after being very skeptical about its relevance, I found another image with an electrical installation, similar to the one Jeffrey pointed out:
    It is supposed to be a picture of an RAF WS-3, and if you look carefully, you can make out at least a part of the installation behind the storage assembly.

    Another hint might be sensor (camera?) on the ceiling, since it is trained at the area, where the vault might be. But even if there is a WS-3 in the video, we still don´t know if it was being used at the time, or even if it is still serviceable. And since the Bombspotters, at least according to this video, are claiming to be able to determine which shelters contain nuclear weapons, from the outside (which they most certainly can´t, they may at maximum be able to determine which ones have a WS-3 installed), and that all this shelter contain B61s, they might just withhold other relevant information. I´m not sure if they would show us pictures showing an obviously unused or even dismantled WS-3.

    And there is alt least one other “glitch” in the video: The shelter pointed out in the animation at 4:38 as “BUNKER 2”, cannot be the same one seen around 5:12. If you look at the animation (or at Google Earth, its A5 in the overlay Jeffrey provided in February) , you see a plane stand in front of the bunker, which would be on the right side from the perspective seen in 5:12. Obviously it´s not there in 5:12, instead there is more concrete to the left (not consistent with A5). You can also see an trench an a grassy man-made structure to the left. After looking ab bit around in Google Earth, I´ve come to the conclusion that this part of the video COULD show Shelter A7, which is just a few meters south on the other (eastern) side of the main taxiway, but still inside ALPHA. While this might be a simple oversight or freedom of art by the editor, it still should not occur in a piece that has “proof” in its title. Of course, this error does not even have impact on the chain of evidence, since we never see them enter or leave the shelter.

    To be certain which shelter we are actually seeing from the inside around 4:45, we would need something unique inside the bunker. The “205N” on the back wall could just be that. If anyone knows for sure what this means, please share the information! 205 COULD (!) mean 205 degrees, possibly the orientation of the shelter, which might just be helpful when aligning the navigation equipment of an aircraft. In this case (which does not explain the “N”)the formally mentioned A7 could be ruled out, probably even A5 (have not taken exact measurements yet). So one could conclude that we do not know much more than we knew before this “inspection”.

    I would not even conclude that all B61s are stored in area ALPHA, since the official statements are not necessarily truthful. At that point I might disagree with Jeffrey, as in my opinion, it would actually make sense to spread the storage vaults evenly to increase survivability against air and missile strikes. The current estimated number of weapons (max. 20) could still bes stored in one cluster, as every WS-3 can take up to 4 of them. On the other hand the designs philosophy of the WS-3 might just be, that it does not require extra guard, as it is already installed in a (supposedly) guarded place and a well-armed QRF is (hopefully) nearby, to react to any alarms triggered by unauthorized personnel approaching the vault (the “camera” in the video). In that case it would not really matter if the weapons were dispersed over both shelter areas, as they would not, beside the QRF, need extra security beyond that what is needed to protect the fighters and the conventional weapons. If what could be seen at Kleine-Brogel is even enough to protect something as valuable as F-16 fighter-bombers is of course doubtful, as a mediocre-trained saboteur squad might have had quiet a day.

    Now, to the political aspect of the whole operation: While there might be no current threat to Europe which would require the presence of tactical nukes, even if the Russians seem to think otherwise, it may as well arise in the not so distant future. And once the weapons, and possibly the infrastructure and the platforms to carry them are gone, it will be politically next to impossible to get something similar back. Even know, while the nuclear burden sharing is still part of the official NATO strategy, the number of actual weapons seems to be declining, while Greece pulled even out of the agreement, albeit through the back door, as their brand new F-16C/D Block 50/52+ are somehow unable (unequipped) for the task. Assuming that German or Italian government could just sign another treaty in 15 years, should the need arise is highly unrealistic. So if there is to be a nuclear free world (I´m rather pessimistic), NATO should of course not obstruct this, but until then invest the money to have them stored safely and employed as a credible deterrent, as to have them pulled out prematurely just because it is politically convenient.

    • Jeffrey (History)


      Good catch. I think you are correct, the bombspotters were mistaken in their location. To me it looks like they were at A7 (in my February overlay), not A5. (Which as you note, doesn’t really alter the chain of evidence.)

      The plane stand is one piece of evidence. Others are: the image appears to have been filmed in the early morning and the sun is rising (in the east) over the bunker. (A5 is oriented backwards for this to happen). And the pavement alignment is a much better fit for A7.

      I am not sure what to make of the 205N marking. This is where we might use some help. None of the bunkers are aligned with 205N (which is almost 90 degrees to the alignment of the shelter).

      In terms of the security of the weapons, I am led to understand that the United States Air Force has two standards: One for denial (do not let someone get a nuclear weapon) and recapture (if someone does get one, show up in force and get it back.)

      I interpret the statement by the Blue Ribbon Review that “most sites require significant additional resources to meet DoD security requirements” to mean that SACEUR thinks he can meet the recapture standard, but has some questions or concerns about meeting the denial standard.

      I agree that NATO host nations should “invest the money to have them stored safely and employed as a credible deterrent, [rather than] have them pulled out prematurely just because it is politically convenient.”

      But it seems to me that Belgium (and probably the Netherlands and Germany) are choosing the politically convenient back-door route of Greece (and to some extent Turkey) by simply not funding the mission but also not asking the United States to remove the weapons. I understand the argument in favor of burden-sharing, but the point is that the Belgian government is supposed to invest in the nuclear mission as a way of making the case to the Belgian public about the importance of maintaining NATO as a nuclear alliance. It is very clear to me that the Belgian government is simply not willing to do that.

      In this case — in which one or more allies simply refuse to shoulder their share of the burden — I would propose immediately consolidating all US nuclear weapons at two US (as opposed to national) airbases in NATO countries (say Aviano and Incirlik). This would provide an immediate security upgrade with out unnerving our allies in Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere. There is no reason, after all, that Belgian aircraft couldn’t forward-deploy to Aviano in a crisis.

  11. peter grimes (History)

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think that’s the sun rising above the A2 (or whatever) bunker at 5:12. I think that’s a floodlight.

    You can see another light just like it at 2:34. Also, there is a reflection on the pavement between the camera and the bunker – if the light source were the sun, that area would be in shadow.

  12. Abjectief (History)

    A former fighter-pilot, Steve Netto, once stationed at the Dutch airbase Volkel mentions the storage of approximately 20 nuclear (B61?) devices in a book that has been published recently, confirming something the public has always know and the government has always denied. They are supposed to be the replacement of a cache of 50 B28 bombs designated to 2 squadrons of fighter-bombers, with targets marked in East Germany, comprising of airfields and the Stasi-headquarters in Cottbus.
    The Dutch 311 and 312 F-16 squadrons supposedly still train in the use of these B61 bombs.

    “It is believed that since 1965, USAF nuclear weapons are stored at Volkel Air Base, to be used by the host nations aircraft.[4] Formerly, storage took place in a weapon storage area on the north side of the base, and in a heavily defended quick reaction alert (QRA) area – but since 1991, eleven WS3 Weapon Storage and Security System vaults are operational in the floors of the aircraft shelters. The USAF 703rd Munitions Support Squadron (703rd MUNSS) is in charge of maintaining and securing the weapons.[5] As of 2008, 22 B61 nuclear bombs are believed to be in storage at Volkel, to be used by the Dutch 311 and 312 F-16 squadrons at the base.[6] Despite clear evidence, the Dutch Ministry of Defence never officially acknowledges or denies the presence of nuclear weapons at Volkel”

    I guess there are even more “glow in the dark” easter-eggs hidden in NATO’s backyard then we know of. It would seem rather messy if such information would spill into the public arena whilst EU and US are attempting to restrain Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Kinda makes me wonder if the US kept its promise not to station any nuclear weapons in Turkey (Kennedy’s compromise to Chroesjtsjov during the Cuba Crisis).