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US troops exposed nuclear weapons secrets on flashcard apps, report says

A U.S. B61 Thermonuclear Bomb kept in the U.S. Air Force nuclear arsenal. (U.S. Air Force photo/Released)
May 28, 2021

Flashcards used by U.S. troops to help memorize nuclear security protocols have exposed highly specific information about the locations and protective measures for nuclear weapons vaults at all six military bases in Europe that are reported to store nuclear devices, according to Bellingcat on Friday.

The presence of U.S. nuclear weapons within Europe has long been alluded to by leaked documents and statements by retired officials, though the U.S. and participating European governments have not officially confirmed or denied their existence. Flashcards, however, used to help soldiers guarding these nuclear weapons memorize their locations and security protocols, have appeared to identify exact shelters with “hot” vaults likely to contain nuclear weapons.

Bellingcat reported it was able to uncover sets of flashcards simply by searching popular flashcard app sites with terms publicly known to be associated with nuclear weapons. The publication reported some of the flashcards provided such specific details as the placements of security cameras, the frequency of patrols around the vaults, secret duress words to signal when a guard is being threatened and the unique identifying features that certain restricted area badges have.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk.com and Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Bellingcat the findings on these flashcards represented “flagrant breaches” in security practices.

Lewis also said the secrecy of these nuclear sites is meant to protect U.S. officials from having to answer questions about U.S. nuclear strategy in the region.

“Secrecy about US nuclear weapons deployments in Europe does not exist to protect the weapons from terrorists, but only to protect politicians and military leaders from having to answer tough questions about whether NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements still make sense today,” Lewis said. “This is yet one more warning that these weapons are not secure.”

Addressing the flashcards, Hans Kristenssen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists said, “There are so many fingerprints that give away where the nuclear weapons are that it serves no military or safety purpose to try to keep it secret.”

Kristenssen also said, “Safety is accomplished by effective security, not secrecy. Granted, there may be specific operational and security details that need to be kept secret, but the presence of nuclear weapons does not. The real purpose of secrecy is to avoid a contentious public debate in countries where nuclear weapons are not popular.”

Bellingcat collected screenshots from several different online flashcard apps, all of which have since been removed after the publication reached out to U.S. and NATO officials for comment. The online flashcards were publicly visible going as far back as 2013, according to Bellingcat.

Bellingcat was able to uncover the flashcards by finding terms associated with nuclear weapons in simple searches in Wikipedia entries. In one example, the publication learned that bases with nuclear weapons use protective aircraft shelters (PAS) equipped with Weapons Storage and Security Systems (WS3) made up of electronic controls, sensors, and a “vault” that is built into the floor. The outlet subsequently searched flashcard apps like Chegg, Quizlet, and Cram for the terms “PAS,” “WS3” and “vault.”

One set of 70 flashcards associated with Volkel Air Base, operated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force and used to host some U.S. forces, revealed the exact number of WS3 vaults at the base. The cards further listed specific vault numbers designated as “hot” and “cold” suggesting which vaults may contain nuclear weapons and which ones don’t.

Even in cases where flashcard sets that didn’t specifically identify the location they corresponded with, that information could be easily deduced. One flashcard set used the term 701 MUNSS. Bellingcat determined MUNSS is a common abbreviation for Munitions Support Squadron. The 701st Munition Support Squadron is based at the Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium. Flashcards referencing 701 MUNSS included security protocols specific to that unit.

A set of flashcards revealed specific identifiers on security badges at Volkel Air Base, such as that authentic restricted area badges would contain deliberate misspellings of words to identify authentic badge holders.