Kleine Brogel Air Base, Belgium Unseen beyond the grazing Holsteins and rolling pastures of eastern Belgium, the 12-foot-long tapered metal cylinders sit in their underground vaults, waiting for the doomsday call that never came. Each packs the power of many Hiroshimas.
America’s oldest nuclear weapons, unwanted, outdated, a legacy of the 20th century, are now the focus of a political struggle that could shake the NATO alliance in the 21st.
The questions hanging over the B-61 bombs, an estimated 200 of them on six air bases across Europe, relate not just to why they’re still here, but to how safe and secure they are.
For one thing, al-Qaida terrorists have already targeted this Belgian air base 52 miles northeast of Brussels. For another, U.S. Air Force inspectors found inadequate security at most of the six sites. And three months ago a “bombspotter” team, anti-nuclear activists, penetrated nearly a half-mile inside Kleine Brogel, reaching its innermost bunkers.
“It was a shock,” Theo Kelchtermans, mayor of the neighboring town of Peer, said of the protesters’ infiltration, which went unchallenged for an hour. His bottom line: “I hope these bombs will disappear.”
It’s a hope shared by the governments of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, three of the five NATO countries, with Italy and Turkey, that host the Cold War leftovers.
Two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, even a former NATO secretary-general says the bombs’ time is past.
“The presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, from a military point of view, no longer makes any sense,” Belgium’s Willy Claes told The Associated Press.
For others, however, the old bombs have an almost talismanic quality. Lt. Col. Roger Lams calls the short-range U.S. battlefield weapons, to be dropped by the jets of allies if the Cold War had ever turned hot, a “glue” holding trans-Atlantic comrades together.
“It shares the burden,” Lams, 73, said of the joint nuclear mission he once trained for in his F-104 Starfighter. “They should not be withdrawn, and I don’t think they will be.”
The first official exchanges in this debate occurred last month at a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, and the debate will go on at least until a NATO summit in Lisbon in November, when the 61-year-old alliance issues its first “Strategic Concept” document since 1999.
In Tallinn, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton extolled NATO as a “nuclear alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities widely,” and said any reductions in the U.S. bombs in Europe must be linked to reciprocal cuts by the Russians in their tactical nuclear arms.
All told, at home and in Europe, the U.S. has an estimated 1,100 tactical nuclear weapons, and the Russians have at least 2,000, possibly many more.
Although the U.S. and Russia signed a treaty April 8 to reduce their intercontinental nuclear arms, Moscow sounds unready to deal on these shorter-range weapons.
In Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s blunt-spoken ambassador to NATO, laid out its position: While the U.S. still has nuclear weapons abroad, “we have already withdrawn all the tactical nuclear weapons of Russia back home,” from the territories of former East European allies and ex-Soviet republics.
“We are now expecting some steps on the U.S. side,” Rogozin told the AP — namely the voluntary pullback of the B-61s to U.S. soil.