Leaving Nuclear Weapons In Turkey Is Just Poor Strategy

Dating back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the US agreed to Russia’s demand to withdraw its Jupiter nuclear-tipped missiles from Turkish soil, American nuclear weapons in Turkey has been a hot-button issue. Today, around 50 tactical nuclear weapons are thought to remain at a highly guarded facility inside the perimeter of Incirlik Air Base located in southwest Turkey. Considering the recent headlines, continuing to forward deploy them at the base may not be the brightest idea.

An F-15C on temporary duty from RAK Lakenheath blasts out of Incirlik Air Base., AP

Incirlik Air Base has long been a remote operating location for the United States’ air arms, but the Turkish Government has been increasingly more aggressive in dictating how the US uses it. The base was barred from use during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and it took the US nearly a year to persuade Turkey to allow anti-ISIS strike missions. Yet all the while, the base held a pocket force of America’s most destructive weapons, even though no aircraft are permanently stationed there to deploy them. The truth is, the nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base are largely symbolic.

America currently has 180-200 tactical nukes deployed among four European host countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Yet this number represents just a tiny fraction of the warheads deployed to Europe during the height of the Cold War—around 7,300 in total.

American nukes’ continuous deployment to the continent is one that supposedly anchors America’s commitment to NATO and deters Russian aggression. Their presence, at least at one time, was also meant to keep host countries from developing their own nuclear arsenals. Yet following the violent coup attempt on the sitting Turkish government in July, and President Erdogan’s extreme response to it, ousting 82,000 government workers and arresting 23,000 supposed coup supporters, along with Turkey’s sudden cozying up to Moscow, this strategy now looks murky and convoluted at best. President Erdogan has even blamed his NATO allies, including the US, at least partially, for instigating the coup, adding to an increasing rift between the US, NATO and Turkey.

Dramatic footage of Turkish aircraft being used to attack their own countrymen during the coup on July 15th, 2016:

What’s most alarming is that Icirlik Air Base had power cut to it for nearly a week following the events of July 15th, the airspace around the base was also closed, halting anti-ISIS missions and curtailing any potential air-bridge access from the base to the outside world. Meanwhile, large anti-US protests were building along the base’s front gate and perimeter fencing. Not only that, but Turkish aircraft and personnel based at Incirlik took part in the coup, including flying sorties in support of it. Even the base’s commander was arrested for taking part in the operation, after he crossed the ramp to beg for asylum from the US.

Does this seem like a foreign base that should be safeguarding nuclear arms?

The fact that there is a civil war and an established terror state operating within a country located just 70 miles from Incirlik Air Base should also be factored into America’s nuclear weapons risk equation. 

B61 tactical nuclear gravity bombs., USAF

Still, it is unlikely that the 700-pound B61 nuclear bombs would be stolen from the facility. The storage area is made up of underground vaults, and its perimeter is ringed with two security fences and loads of surveillance, not to mention the compliment of soldiers there to protect the weapons. The facility has also received recent upgrades to make it more hardened against intrusion. However, if Turkey’s increasingly totalitarian political leadership were to take a vehemently anti-American stance, the security that protects the nukes would amount to a speed-bump for Turkey’s armed forces. Even a very well-orchestrated and large-scale terrorist attack on the compound could lead to a disastrous situation, even if only geopolitically.

On the other hand, you can’t simply steal a B61 nuclear bomb and use it as you wish. The fusing system is protected by a code mechanism called a Permissive Action Link (PAL). The codes needed to authorize their activation have to be provided by the National Command Authority. The weapons also must be continuously maintained to be combat effective.

An airman showing off the B61’s PAL system., USAF

These nuclear gravity bombs also feature a command disable mode which allows handlers to disable the weapon in fairly quick order. This is done by entering the right code to activate the bomb’s thermal battery, which also detaches the bomb’s control handle in the process. The battery overheats and fries the weapons electronics, thus making the weapon incapable of triggering its nuclear warhead.

The parts that make up a B61 tactical nuke., DOE

Supposedly, the B-61 must be sent back to depot for a complete overhaul in order for it to be capable of functioning normally once again after a command disable action, although there are differing theories as to just how hard it would be for a very dedicated entity, especially a state actor, to get the weapon in working order once again. Some say it is quite possible.

If under an imminent threat of seizure, the facility’s security teams and the vaults that the bombs are held in could give technicians time to attempt to disable the weapons via the command disable function. If executed, and all the weapons were rendered useless, at least temporarily, even threatening the technicians directly to bring them back online would be a useless exercise.

The value of the actual warhead’s nuclear material is also debatable, as designing a weapon around it would require great know-how and testing would likely be required. Regardless, the weapons could be fashioned into crude but potentially very deadly dirty bombs.   

Security forces train at Incirlik Air Base., USAF

The truth is, that if the base were seized, the US would likely attempt to flatten it before the weapons were able to be dispersed, but doing so would be unprecedented on a massive scale and it would take time to accomplish. A mission would likely have to originate out of the Middle East, the continental US, or using tactical aircraft out of Europe, although they would have to be able to carry sufficient “bunker busters” (BLU-109 equipped JDAMs, GBU-24/27) to strike all 21 storage vaults located at Incirlik. As we saw in Benghazi, tactical aircraft are not held at a high-readiness for strike operations in the region, and especially not equipped at the ready with bunker busters.  

The idea of a country stealing nuclear weapons from the US has long been a staple of pop culture fascination, but the reality is far less sensational. Still, an incident where American nuclear weapons security was directly threatened could be a massive geopolitical failure for the United States, and if they were to fall into someone else’s hands, even those of a close former ally, it would be devastating to American credibility abroad, regardless of if they can actually be used or not.

On the other hand, if their withdrawal were made public, some say it would set a bad precedent and offer disturbing symbolism for NATO. Then again, if the alliance is that weak, than we have much bigger problems, especially considering that there would still be around 150 American nuclear bombs deployed to four other NATO countries. Will 50 less make that big of a difference? No it won’t. That is unless the US plans to leave a standing contingent of fighters at Incirlik Air Base with crews trained and ready to fly these weapons into combat at a moment’s notice, which it doesn’t.

C-17 takes off from Incirlik Air Base., AP

There is actually fairly recent precedent for a similar withdrawal. In 2001, the US quietly removed its forward deployed nuclear weapons from Turkey’s neighbor across the Aegean Sea, Greece. Multiple factors played into the decision, but security was one of the prominent ones.

There is also nothing to say that the US cannot redeploy these weapons if the security situation improves in Turkey. But really, this may be the perfect time for the US to reevaluate its nuclear arsenal and the strategy that defines it as a whole.

This is already happening to some degree due to a much needed upgrade of many of the weapons and delivery systems that remain outdated technological relics of the Cold War. Even the B61 is getting a smart-bomb makeover. These measures, along with a new nuclear-capable stealth bomber, new nuclear ballistic missile submarines, possibly a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, and at least a major overhaul of land-based Minutemen ICBMs, are one hell of a lot of ways to destroy the planet many times over.  It also comes at one massive price tag— $348 billion over the next decade alone alone. 

Minuteman III launching. , USAF

Could at least a portion of this money be spent on conventional defense capabilities? Is the nuclear triad as relevant as it once was? Could America enhance certain aspects of its nuclear capabilities and save money by converting to a two-prong nuclear strategy? These are all larger questions that need to be addressed, but in the meantime, 50 tactical nuclear weapons sit at an air base that took part in a military coup, and whose leader is increasingly looking like a paranoid dictator with morphing geopolitical priorities.

A Turkish F-4 Phantom recovering at Incirlik Air Base., USAF

With all this in mind, and weighing the potentially great costs against the scant benefits, it is time to pull these weapons out of Turkey, even if it is done clandestinely. Right now the perception of a nuclear capability is more what America’s nuclear weapons deployment to Incirlik Air Base is all about, and they don’t actually have to be there in full operational form to provide that. This can even be a temporary decision, and the strategy can be reevaluated once things have stabilized and Erdogan’s agenda is better defined. Although, the whole idea of having nuclear bombs forward deployed without aircraft on alert and crews trained to deliver them seems absurd in the first place.

When it comes to America’s nuclear arsenal, the old rule “better safe than sorry” should apply.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com