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Nato's megadeath gets a slimmer look

Christopher Bellamy examines how the alliance is adapting to new realities of the post-Cold War era
As Nato pledged not to move nuclear weapons on to the territory of new alliance members in East Europe, the US has been withdrawing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, and The Independent has learnt that only about 200 of its bombs remain as a small "sub-strategic" force.

Instead of detailed plans for the use of these and strategic nuclear weapons in specific scenarios, Nato commanders are now allowed to make plans at short notice based on existing databases about possible targets. Nato countries operating aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons (the US, Britain and France) will in future only be required to maintain one unit trained and ready for nuclear attack.

The only US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe are the slim B-61 nuclear bombs which are carried on F-111s, F-15 and F-16 aircraft.

Following the abandonment of the nuclear-weapons storage area at Lakenheath, Suffolk, The Independent reported on 28 October that US nuclear weapons had probably all been withdrawn from the UK. But this is now understood to have been premature. Most of the weapons have been withdrawn, but up to 30 may still remain in new weapon-storage vaults situated beneath the hardened shelters where the aircraft which could still carry them are parked.

The idea of weapons-storage vaults was discussed in the early to mid- 1980s and work began in 1987 on the vaults, each of which holds one B- 61 US or British WE-177 nuclear bomb,

Originally Nato planned to build 437 such vaults at 26 sites but with the end of the Cold War the Senior Level Protection Group, known by the acronym, Slowpig, cut the programme to 208.

The vaults mean that it is much cheaper to store the weapons, as it is unnecessary to guard a separate site. They also permit the bombs to be loaded into the aircraft in secret, though this might not always be an advantage, as any news that aircraft were being armed might be an important deterrent in itself.

However, Nato was concerned that the "igloos" which were formerly used to store nuclear weapons were located several miles from the aircraft, and therefore required "convoys with large security forces travelling through unrestricted areas. The very presence of the convoys attracts attention and they may be vulnerable to sabotage".

The new system consists of vaults in the floor of the arched, hardened aircraft shelters. They are equipped with sensors and television

monitors for security, and control consoles to lift the bombs into the aircraft by remote control.

Details of the weapons-storage vaults have been compiled from open sources by the British American Security Information Council - Basic - an independent analysis group.The only US base in Britain with these vaults is RAF Lakenheath, where there are 30. There are also 24 at RAF Marham. The RAF will dispose of its last free-fall bombs in 1998, and thereafter Britain's "sub-strategic" deterrent will be provided by Trident missiles with single warheads.

Germany still has the largest nuclear-weapons storage capacity - 101 vaults. The vaults in Germany, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands and at the US-operated Aviano base in Italy have all been completed and activity is now concentrated on Nato's southern flank. Coincidentally, this is the area where Nato planners feel that a threat from weapons of mass destruction might arise in future.

Instead of facing an assault from the east towards Western Europe, the sites for the new vaults in Greece and Turkey are closer to countries such as Iraq and Libya, which are seen as potential launch-sites for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

The number of vaults planned at Greek and Turkish bases is likely to be smaller than planned in 1987, when 11 were planned at Araxos, in Greece and 30 at Incirlik, near Adana, Turkey, and six each at Murted and Balikesir.