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

[snip]

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].

[snip]

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!