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US Nuclear Weapons in Turkey: Obsolete and dangerous?

September 22nd, 2016

By Kalyani Subbiah – Research Assistant

The failed coup attempt in Turkey in July has once again triggered debate on the forward deployment of tactical nuclear weapons by the US in the country. Nuclear weapons in Turkey’s Incirlik Air base are in a potentially precarious position due to the recent political instability in Turkey and the wider region. Meanwhile, the credibility of the threat they pose to actors that are hostile to NATO is questionable given the poor deliverability of the weapons, and the history of non-cooperation and borderline animosity between Washington and Ankara. This leads to the vital question of whether it is worthwhile for the US to maintain these devices in the country at a not insubstantial cost.

The coup attempt

The world held its breath on the night of 15-16th July 2016, when factions of the Turkish military attempted a coup against the elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As the details of the coup became known, the arrest of General Bekir Ercan Van, the commander of the Incirlik Air Base – which houses an estimated 50-90 US B61 nuclear bombs, alarmed observers. During the coup, there were rogue fighter planes flying over the country, some – as the Turkish government claims – fueled by tankers from the base. As a result of Incirlik’s links to the coup, the facility – which was being used for US and NATO air operations in Syria – was closed down for a brief period by the Turkish government, effectively halting the base’s contribution to the campaign against ISIS. Power to the base was only restored almost a week after the coup.

This incident served to illustrate in one stroke the vital nature of Turkey’s geopolitical position to NATO and US interests in an unstable region and, at the same time, its own relative political instability. Therefore, the issue of storing tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey as part of NATO burden-sharing and nuclear deterrence policy must be treated as a special case.

Nuclear weapons in Incirlik airbase – storage and deployment

The US does not release official estimates of its tactical nuclear weapons in NATO countries – therefore the exact number of these weapons is uncertain, but estimated to be from 200 to 480. These are based in five countries – Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Incirlik air base is situated 70 miles from the border of Syria in southern Turkey, close to the city of Adana. The maximum capacity of the Incirlik airbase is 90 weapons and it is thought to host between 50-90 devices. The weapons are stored in vaults within hangars known as ‘Protective Aircraft Shelters (PAS)’. Storage conditions are less than optimal, with conventional and nuclear weapons often stored together in close proximity, increasing security and safety risks.

All US tactical nuclear weapons in NATO countries are of the B-61 type, (Mod 3, 4, 7 and 10), which are gravity bombs deployed by aircraft. The utility of such weapons is increasingly questionable because a number of countries now possess advanced air defense systems. Therefore, the practical capabilities of these bombs are low when compared to the strategic nuclear missiles of the US, UK and France that can achieve the same deterrence with a higher accuracy and reliability of delivery. Further, Turkey’s involvement in NATO’s ‘nuclear sharing’ program is limited: planes do not participate as a nuclear strike force in NATO’s nuclear strike exercises, but serve as non-nuclear air defense escorts. Hence, Turkish planes have not had the practical ability to deploy B-61s for a number of years. Therefore, in the event of actually putting these bombs to use, the US or other NATO countries have to deploy their own aircraft.

The Political scenario

Since the deterrence value of these tactical nuclear weapons is low, the real reasons for their continued existence lie in an uneasy political status quo. Turkey values the presence of US weapons on Turkish territory, partly since it affirms a long-standing but shaky alliance between the two countries, and a commitment to the NATO collective defense principle. Historically, nuclear weapons protected Turkey from the threat of Soviet invasion, and presently, the perceived threat of a nuclear-armed Iran – providing Ankara with political power in a region where Israel is the only other country with nuclear weapons. As a result, Turkey often brings up the NATO principles of burden-sharing, solidarity, and a strong transatlantic link as arguments for the presence of US nuclear weapons on its territory when nuclear issues are discussed in NATO summits. However, Turkey remains an advocate of a WMD-free Middle East, which countries like Iran see as a hypocritical position.

This is a queer situation for Turkey given the historically fragile relationship between Washington and Ankara, especially during the war in Iraq in 2003, when the Turkish Parliament refused to allow US troops into Turkish territory and to use the Incirlik base for aircraft refueling, disenabling US plans to launch an attack on the Ba’athists from the northern front. Turkish national interests have been at odds with American interests at many such occasions in history and it is troubling for the US to store nuclear weapons in the territory of such a historically unreliable partner. The Turkish public is largely Anti-American in sentiments across the political and class spectrum – for example, the Turkish media has circulated widely believed conspiracy theories on the US involvement in the recent coup, given that the alleged coup organizer Fethullah Gulen is based in the US.

Yet, despite its salience in the security world, the Incirlik airbase is not a major point of political debate among the Turkish public, and has hence largely escaped allegations of imperialism and protests. However, this does not guarantee that such issues will not arise in the future in a democracy like Turkey and that Turkey will cooperate with any US actions with respect to deployment of the nuclear weapons.

An obsolete strategy?

NATO countries such as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have come to recognize that an overemphasis on tactical nuclear deterrence is an anachronism from the Cold War era, since the type of threat Russia poses to the NATO today cannot be managed using such weapons. Furthermore, the newest, most virulent threats to NATO are more complex – one of which is terrorism linked to stability in the Middle East. Hence, while the deterrence value of tactical nuclear weapons is declining in importance, the security risks from nuclear terror attacks and nuclear accidents are rising. Further, an internal breach of the vaults is also a risk in Incirlik, given the reportedly decreasing quality of screening of nuclear personnel across bases, especially in Turkey and Italy.

The security risk of these weapons are greater to NATO than their possible deterrence capabilities. Were it ever to become necessary to use nuclear weapons, far more reliable systems are at the disposal not just of the US, but also fellow NATO members Britain and France. Further, the positioning of these weapons in non-nuclear, NPT countries results in charges of hypocrisy being leveled against the US and NATO that undermine their worldwide non-proliferation efforts. The real reasons for Ankara’s insistence on these weapons lie in its anxiety over what it perceives as NATO’s increasing lack of commitment to the core NATO principle of collective defense, especially with regard to Turkey.

While the disadvantages of the status quo have been analysed, there are negative consequences of the withdrawal of these weapons too, which could be the breaking point of already fragile ties between Turkey and the US – if done without Turkish approval. In the past, the withdrawal of Jupiter Missiles from Turkey following the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) caused the first major diplomatic irritant between the two countries. A similar move today could result in greater Turkish disillusionment with NATO’s principles, as well as rising fears from Central and Eastern European NATO members, who believe they require nuclear deterrence against Russia. Yet, this is a political argument for the status quo, which may not be technically feasible in the long run, given the risks of proliferation and instability. Therefore, the transatlantic link and NATO collective defense would be better improved by stepping up conventional military cooperation and technological transfers, which could also receive more funding if the nuclear programme is de-escalated. This is undoubtedly a better strategy than maintaining dangerous, unusable nuclear weapons in an unstable territory.


About Kalyani Subbiah

Kalyani Subbiah is currently a Masters student of Development Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She has previously interned with her institute's China Studies Centre, authoring a special report on China's 'One Belt One Road' initiative. Her research interests include international development and aid flows, China in global politics, Russia and NATO, and the Middle East.