Pulling nuclear bombs out of Incirlik now could further shatter Turkey’s confidence and trust in the United States

Following the coup attempt in Turkey last July justified concerns and questions arose about the future of the fifty or so US B-61 nuclear bombs stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase. It gave impetus to other more longstanding questions about the wisdom of storing such weapons there in the post-Cold War world, especially questions pertaining to the usefulness of having those non-conventional weapons weighed against the risks.

Image of a B-61 thermonuclear weapon. In the back it is assembled, in the middle it is divided into its major subcomponents, in the front it is almost completely disassembled. The warhead is contained in the bullet-shaped silver canister.

Image of a B-61 thermonuclear weapon. In the back it is assembled, in the middle it is divided into its major subcomponents, in the front it is almost completely disassembled. The warhead is contained in the bullet-shaped silver canister.

Incirlik is not the only base in which the US stores nuclear bombs. Within NATOs nuclear sharing the US has stored all in all 180 B-61 bombs in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey — with the exception of Turkey — including aircraft capable of carrying them to their targets. Turkey has 50 of these bombs on its territory but does not permit warplanes belonging to other NATO countries that can carry them to be based on its territory, nor does it itself possess bomber aircraft capable of delivering these bombs to their targets. Meaning that if NATO had to fight a nuclear war its aircraft would have to fly to Turkey to pick up the B-61’s stored at Incirlik before then flying on to their target. A mind-bogglingly impractical set-up.

On the military side the risk of keeping these weapons in Turkey far outweighs the benefits, that’s quite salient. Given the constant security threat in Turkey’s southeast region – between the threat from the Islamic State (ISIS) and the ongoing war between Turkey and Kurdish militants – the US has already pulled out all the families of US military personnel there. A move which demonstrably showed how concerned they are over security in that increasingly volatile and dangerous region.

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, "B61-12: The New Guided Standoff Nuclear Bomb", Federation of American Scientists, 02.05.2014.)

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, “B61-12: The New Guided Standoff Nuclear Bomb“, Federation of American Scientists, 02.05.2014.)

Obviously even running the slight risk of those nuclear bombs falling into the hands of Islamist terrorists, or renegade elements in the Turkish military (after all the coup plotters managed to commandeer F-16 jet fighters from that very same base) rather than simply take those weapons out of Turkey would amount to wanton and almost criminal negligence.

However there is another side to being cautious and withdrawing those weapons from an increasingly unstable Turkey which should not be overlooked, and that’s the political side. On that side the US risks further reducing the already diminished confidence Ankara has in it at a critical time.

The Turkish government was disgusted at the tepid response the Europeans and the US had in the aftermath of the coup attempt when it came to giving solidarity with the Turkish government. From Ankara’s perspective neither of them fully appreciated the fact the Turkish people successfully foiled a military coup and secured civilian control over the government. Instead all Ankara heard were warnings from both about its post-coup crackdown, which the Turkish government sees as wholly necessary given the threat it has faced down.

The striking fact that the US continues to host the man Turkey blames for the coup attempt, the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, also angers Ankara. Giving rise to claims that the US was behind the attempt.

This coupled with the rapprochement it began with Russia earlier this summer is seeing Turkey feel more reassured by Tehran and Moscow – both of whom unequivocally condemned the coup attempt and reiterated their support to the incumbent Turkish government, despite their many differences with it – than by the US and Europe. It’s also worth noting that after the coup the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has chosen to only visit those two countries, priorities of this kind can be very informative.

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, "Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk", Federation of American Scientists, 10.09.2015).

(Source: Hans M. Kristensen, “Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk“, Federation of American Scientists, 10.09.2015).

This is the political backdrop to which the US is pulling out these nuclear weapons from Turkey. And while Turkey is a NATO member country – and also the only Middle East country with which the US actually has any form of an official military alliance – pulling these weapons out now would symbolize a waning commitment to protect Turkey’s security. Regardless of the fact that removing these weapons would not make an iota of difference to Turkey’s security, especially regarding the kind of threats Turkey will face in the foreseeable future.

Since the Syrian crisis began Turkey’s American and European allies sought to assuage Turkey’s concerns about the security situation south of its border by deploying Patriot air defense missile batteries to show its commitment to that NATO ally’s defense and security. In late 2015 when those NATO allies determined the missile threat from Syria to be a minimum they decided to pull those missiles out of Turkey, however they did their utmost to stress to Turkey that removing them did not mean they reneging on their commitment to safeguard Turkey’s security and territorial integrity.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States deployed thousands of shorter-range nuclear weapons with U.S. forces in Europe, Japan, and South Korea, and on ships around the world. These weapons were intended to extend deterrence and defend allies in Europe and Asia. While most were withdrawn in the 1990s, the United States retains around 200 B61 bombs in Europe. These serve not only to deter potential aggressors, but also as an important element in NATO’s cohesion. — Amy F. Woolf, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Turkey“, CRS Insight, 02.08.2016.

In this case however Ankara may see them doing just that, at a time when reassurances in both the political and security arenas are absolutely essential. Even though all the bombs belong to the US, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) will have a say in any withdrawal of these weapons, since these US nuclear bombs are designated for the alliances’ use. But if the US pushes for a withdrawal of these weapons — possibly without the consent of the NPG — at a time when the Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump questions the usefulness of US commitments to NATO that may not only send the wrong signal to Turkey, but to the rest of the NATO alliance. A withdrawal of these weapons in the near future would also come at a time when the eastern NATO member states are increasingly worried about Russia’s aggressive posturing, meaning any US drawdown in the foreseeable future could potentially send shock-waves throughout the alliance.

In the light of rising doubts about the US’ will to defend the European NATO member countries in case of a massive Soviet military aggression, the UK and France developed their own nuclear weapon program, Germany was integrated into NATO in 1955 and the US came up with the concept of nuclear sharing within NATO as a way of nuclear deterrence in Europe. Since then, US nuclear weapons stationed in Europe are a symbolic reassurance of the willingness to defend NATO member states, which doesn’t possess nuclear weapons on their own.

The US and its NATO allies need to carefully weigh the military necessity of pulling these nukes out of Incirlik against the political risk involved. Otherwise they risk further alienating what amounts to its most strategically-important member state east of Germany.

More information
In August 18, 2016, EurActiv reported that the US moves its nuclear bombs from Turkey to Romania, citing two independent sources. First of all, it is very unlikely that Romania would become a destination of US nuclear weapons given the fact there is no appropriate storage vault for such weapons on Romanian soil. Secondly, the stationing of nuclear weapon there would be a blatant breach of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and a harsh provocation of Russia. After the NATO Summit 2016 in Warsaw early July, where NATO member states remained loyal to the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a unilateral move like this on the part of Washington is highly unlikely. Accordingly, the Romanian foreign ministry strongly denied reports that its country has become home of US nukes. Romania’s Minister of Defense, Mihnea Motoc has stated that “[t]here is no thinking, no plans in this direction. We can only call this information a speculation”.

This entry was posted in English, International, Security Policy.

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