Dossier: Kleine Brogel
A Short Introduction
Kleine Brogel is a Belgian air force base, it covers an area of 1100 acres, and lies close to the city of Meeuwen in the North East of Belgium. It is the original and only remaining nuclear weapon base used by the United States in Belgium.
In March 1945 the air field became operational, and in April the first squadrons arrived. Many more squadrons followed.
Kleine Brogel: Parliamentary Scrutiny
Questions have been asked in the Belgian parliament concerning the presence of nuclear weapons at Kleine Brogel. The manoeuvres made by the Belgian government over the past few years, to avoid answering these questions, have been one of the most surreal examples of political culture which we have ever seen. Formerly, the standard answer, dictated by NATO, was to "neither confirm nor deny" the presence of nuclear weapons. The presence of nuclear weapons at Kleine Brogel is the worst kept public secret in Belgium. However, in an unguarded moment the Chief of Staff of the air force (Lieutenant-General G. Vanhecke) confirmed that a number of US nuclear weapons are based in Europe, and that Belgium has a role in NATOs nuclear tasks. It this context, the refusal to "neither confirm nor deny" began to sound even more ridiculous. Because Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian Prime Minister, wanted to present the image of a model state, and placed an importance on openness. Therefore it seemed that Guy would publicly admit to the presence of the weapons. Or maybe not. In fact he only admitted the presence to a couple of members of parliament. The public had to put up with the old answer. So much for democracy!
After a short visit to Lord Robertson (Secretary General of NATO), a scheduled press conference was suddenly cancelled, and it remained very quiet for a short while. Then, during a NATO conference in Brussels, Belgian defence minister Flahaut tried to raise the issue during a discussion of NATO communication policy, but this was also hushed up after pressure from NATO colleagues.
Finally, Verhofstadt came up with a proposal that NATO could stomach. The leaders of each of the democratic parties in the Belgian Kamer (lower house of parliament), or a person that they nominated, could be informed about these matters. These people first had to receive NATO security clearance, to make sure that these people were safe enough to talk to.
This is parliamentary scrutiny turned upside down: NATO checks the parliament, so that they can decide who they are regulated by. Parliamentary scrutiny, which forms the basis of our democracy, is such a threat to NATO that it must protect itself in this way. Revealing the truth to the public would be the end of one of the basic values by which NATO has defended itself.
Finally NATO made sure that the politicians could see and hear, but not talk. Heavy prison sentences were threatened for anyone who revealed what was discussed. This modernisation of our democratic establishment was a step too far, even for many of parties in Verhofstadt's coalition. The leader of the Socialist Party in the Kamer, Van Der Maelen, did not want to take part. In the end it was the leaders of the French and Dutch speaking liberal parties who met with Guy Verhofstadt, and since the meeting there has been silence.
Belgium and the NATO strategic concept
In the strategic concept of the NATO, the equivalent of a political policy declaration, it states:
Belgium is therefore involved in two ways in the nuclear policy of the NATO: on the one hand by means of the political consultation mechanism and participation in the command structures, and on the other hand by means of the stationing of nuclear weapons at Kleine Brogel.
The first role is performed by participation in the Nuclear Planning Group, and all kinds of subordinate committees within NATO. The details of the formal structures within which Belgium operates is already available in the public domain, on the NATO website1.
Here we discuss the continued presence of nuclear weapons in Belgium. Because of the presence of the words "widespread participation" in the above quote, there is no affirmative evidence that nuclear weapons are based in Belgium. For this we have to look at a range of other indications.
It is possible to look at which types of nuclear weapons are present in Europe. Beside the strategic nuclear weapons of the US in Europe, the strategic concept mentions "sub-strategic" or tactical nuclear weapons.
Other nuclear weapons, such as the Pershing and cruise missiles, and nuclear artillery, have been withdrawn.
In Belgium a number F-16's on the base of Kleine Brogel perform this role of "dual capable aircraft". From the recently released documents in the US (History of the Custody and Deployment or Nuclear Weapons July in 1945 through September of 1977, appendix B) it appears that the first development of nuclear weapons in Belgium, was in of November 1963.
Other released documents show which airbases in Europe are being maintained to hold nuclear weapons2. The only Belgian base with such facilities is Kleine Brogel. Here 11 WS3 bunkers (Weapons Storage & Security System) are installed. Such WS3 vaults are a placed under the floor or hardened aircraft shelters. Each WS3 bunker can house up to two nuclear weapons. These bunkers have only been operational since 1992, and before that the nuclear weapons were housed in bunkers in outside of the main area of the base.
The weapons stored at Kleine Brogel are of the type B61, models 3, 4 and/or 10. The B61 a very modern free-fall bomb with a choice of four different yields between 0.3 and the 170 kiloton. Therefore some B61 bombs have 14 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb (12.5 kiloton).
These nuclear weapons are under the supervision of about 110 American soldiers of the 52d MUNSS (Munitions support Squadron), but it is Belgian pilots who are trained to drop these weapons of mass destruction from their F-16s. Two Belgian F-16 squadrons, the 23rd "Devils" and 31st "Tigers", have this role.
Kleine Brogel has a storage capacity for 22 B61 nuclear bombs. However this does not necessary mean that there are always B61s at Kleine Brogel. It is possible these nuclear weapons can be removed from the base, and transferred to other bases in Europe or the United States, and that they can be brought back to the base very quickly in times of international tension. Although it is only possible to speak theoretically about the number of nuclear weapons at Kleine Brogel, the base retains the infrastructure and staff day and night, seven days a weak, ready to accommodate US nuclear bombs, and Belgian F-16s ready to take to the air to use them.
However, from oral communications with soldiers at the base, it appears that the bombs are actually there. From classified documents which taken from Volkel, a similar base in the Netherlands3, we can infer the same thing.
The question in which hangar these mass destruction weapons lie, can be answered easily with this information. Figure 3, a classified map of the base, distributed to 10,000 participants at an air show at Kleine Brogel, clearly shows the aircraft shelters. These are black rectangles, and are numbered from 1 to 26.
From our inspections of the base, and other army documents we can infer that the bunkers 23 to 26 form the former QRA area. During the cold war there were constantly one or two F-16s, armed with nuclear weapons, ready to take off immediately. The time between peace and the total destruction of our planet was then approximately 15 minutes. Now the soldiers walk around it in a little more relaxed manner and this QRA area is no longer assigned a nuclear task. The part with hangars 1-11 serves for maintenance and stationing visiting planes. The part to the right of QRA area, with hangars 12-22, is the nuclear part.
The 11 hardened aircraft shelters in this part of the base are equipped with the 11 WS3 bunkers. You can walk around this area quite freely, and in the main you will encounter Belgian, rather than American, soldiers. If you were to enter one of the hangars, you would be liable to be shot at first, and questioned later. The surroundings of a such WS3 bunker are also protected electronically with among other devices infra-red sensors.
The US nuclear weapons bases in Europe are regularly inspected- not to collect proof of war crimes, or compliance with the NPT, but to check the readiness of the base for the use of nuclear weapons. These inspections include the annual TACEVAL, or tactical evaluation exercise, in which the attack capacity of the Belgian pilots is tested, and safety standards are inspected. The inspection document examines the safety procedures undertake by both the American MUNSS squadron, and Belgian soldiers. The document clearly refers to the Hardened Aircraft shelters (HAS) and to WS3 bunkers. The knowledge of the Belgian pilots regarding the weapon system, and the dogs ("very aggressive military Working dogs (MWD) with exceptional discipline") both received compliments. The Belgian army was asked to be a little less negligent with its ammunition. It appears that this refers to an incident when ammunition was left standing in an open aircraft hangar. A little too risky according to the American army.
With this information, we can leave the surreal contortions of the Belgian government regarding the presence of nuclear weapons at Kleine Brogel behind us. It is undeniable that they are there. The debate should now be about something much more basic. Like what is the possible purpose of these obscene weapons? Is the Belgian defence policy not preparing war crimes? Can any politician prove to us that we are safer with these bombs than without them?
USAF Electronic Systems Center, Cryptologic Systems Group: WS3 Sustainment Program, Hanford Airforce Base, 3.3.2000, Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Joshua Handler, Princeton University
Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels (formerly For Mother Earth) is a member of Friends of the Earth International