An April document published by a NATO affiliate contained an egregious slip-up that caught the concerned eyes of a number of international officials before it was quickly deleted.
"A new era for nuclear deterrence? Modernisation, arms control and allied nuclear forces,” published by Canadian Sen. Joseph Day on behalf of the defense and security committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, mistakenly included secretive information concerning the location of approximately 150 U.S. nuclear weapons scattered across Europe, “specifically B61 gravity bombs.”
“These bombs are stored at six US and European bases — Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in The Netherlands, and Incirlik in Turkey," the report states in a section titled, “NATO’s Nuclear Posture,” an excerpt first pointed out by Belgian media outlet, De Morgen.
An updated version excluding the locations was published last week, but the information from the first document had already garnered enough attention from the international defense community.
Day downplayed the gaffe in email correspondence to the Washington Post, calling the exposed report "open source material” that was simply a draft for a final report scheduled to be issued to the Parliamentary Assembly in November.
An unnamed NATO official echoed Day’s dismissal in conversation with the Post, calling the unsourced report “not an official NATO document.”
The official did not, however, address the apparent breach of policy discouraging discussion on the location of nuclear weapons.
Kingston Reif, who heads disarmament and threat-reduction for the Arms Control Association, told the Post in an email that the discovery of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe comes as “no surprise.”
“This has long been fairly open knowledge,” he said.
The U.S. placed nuclear weapons throughout Europe following a 1960s agreement that was designed to discourage the Soviet Union from nuclear war, a stance the recently released report appears to reiterate.
“The decision to maintain the non-strategic gravity nuclear bombs in Europe is principally due to Russia’s maintenance of a large number of tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal,” the paper states.
But Reif told the Post the presence of such weapons in Europe, the number of which reportedly declined by more than 7,000 since the end of the Cold War, according to data from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, no longer serves the same purpose as it did decades ago.
“The military mission for which these weapons were originally intended — stopping a Soviet invasion of Western Europe because of inferior U.S. and NATO conventional forces — no longer exists,” Reif said.
Various European media outlets, meanwhile, have taken a more critical tone in the wake of what amounts to a nuclear weapon discovery in their own back yard.
“Do we really want Donald Trump to use nuclear weapons from our territory at the push of a button?” Dutch parliament member Wouter De Vriendt posed to De Morgen.
President Trump has been a proponent of increasing the nuclear arsenal of the United States, writing in a December 2018 tweet that the U.S. "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The president received instantaneous backlash for his comments, with critics accusing Trump of inciting a potential arms race with China and Russia instead of deterring one.
The number of available nuclear warheads aside, some defense experts believe the geographical leak may have been intentional, a subtle message to near-peer enemies.
“It cannot therefore be completely excluded that this” leaked information “deliberately crept into the report,” Alexander Mattalaer, academic director of the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, told De Morgen.
The timing of the report also coincides with the progression of outfitting the latest variant of the bomb — the B61-12 — with its newest delivery system, the F-35 joint strike fighter.
The fifth generation fighter is expected to be armed with the newest B61 gravity bomb as early as 2020 as part of a modernization effort to curb emerging nuclear threats in China, Russia, and North Korea.
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.