Turkey fired on U.S. special forces in Syria. It's absurd that it still has U.S. nukes.

It’s folly for the U.S. to expose itself to potential nuclear blackmail by keeping these weapons in a country with which it's increasingly in conflict.
Image: An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey
An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey on Aug. 12, 2015. The base holds about 50 U.S. nuclear bombs, but the F-16s aren't able to deploy them.Krystal Ardrey / U.S. Air Force via AP
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Sébastien Roblin

Despite years of spiraling relations with Turkey, the United States has myopically continued to store an estimated 50 nuclear bombs in the country. Even now, after Turkey launched a devastating offensive on Oct. 9 against America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, disrupting the Pentagon’s war against ISIS and reportedly firing on U.S. troops that hadn’t yet withdrawn, they’re still there.

Remarkably, according to The New York Times, the State and Energy Departments are merely reviewing contingency plans at this point to remove the nukes from Turkey. While the recent developments in Syria represent a new nadir in U.S.-Turkey relations, the risks of storing them there have long been obvious — notably when their security was put at risk in 2016 during an attempted coup.

They could be seized by a hostile Turkey or attacked by other actors in an increasingly unstable region.

The weapons in question are B61 tactical nukes, old-school gravity bombs designed to be dropped from short-range fighter jets onto military bases and battlefield troop concentrations. They are stored in underground vaults on Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base in the southern Turkish city of Adana. As such, they could be seized by a hostile Turkey or attacked by other actors in an increasingly unstable region. They should be removed ASAP.

The presence of the B61s in Turkey stems from a Cold War policy under which the United States transferred nuclear weapons to NATO allies Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. The move showed collective responsibility and solidarity in NATO nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union. It also conveyed the political message that these countries didn't need to developed their own nukes. The United States could always give these countries’ air forces access to the weapons if necessary.

Today, the U.S. still maintains between 150 and 200 B61s in Europe, which can be deployed by specially modified Tornado and F-16 Falcon jet fighters. In the future, F-35 stealth fighters will carry an upgraded, guided version of the B61 instead.

But Turkey no longer has any F-16s and pilots certified to deliver nuclear weapons. Nor are any of the U.S. jets based at Incirlik modified for that job. So it’s extremely unlikely that the bombs in Incirlik would make any material difference to guaranteeing Turkish or American security. After all, as long as Turkey remains in NATO, nuclear weapons based elsewhere in Europe would still be at hand to deter against attacks on Turkey by other countries.

Turkey would have gotten F-35s, except it was kicked out of the program earlier this year because of its purchase of Russian air-defense weapons that violated U.S. sanctions on Moscow and posed a security vulnerability to those same stealth jets. That in itself tells much of the story: An ally once so close it was due to receive and build parts for F-35s full of sensitive technology loses its access to the advanced jets because it is no longer deemed reliable and trustworthy.

Get the think newsletter.

Lacking even aircraft at hand capable of dropping them, the nukes at Incirlik are therefore purely symbolic — a supposed testament to the strength of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. And for years, Washington has been more preoccupied with the symbolic implications of withdrawing the nukes rather than the security risks posed by keeping them in Turkey.

The Times story refers to a senior official worryingly suggesting that other U.S. officials are cowed by fears of displeasing Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying the B61 bombs were now essentially Erdogan’s hostages because to remove them would be to essentially terminate the Turkish-American alliance.

Recent comments by Erdogan have caused some to fear he may be motivated to seize the nukes in Incirlik. In September, Erdogan stated in a speech that Turkey should have its own nukes, making the demonstrably false claim that “there’s no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them.”

While the 700-pound B61s are considered small “tactical” nuclear weapons, that needs to be put in context; the bombs in Turkey are designed so their explosive “yield” can be adjusted to between one-fifitieth and 11 times the effect of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.

To be fair, one shouldn’t exaggerate the risks of a James Bond-style nuclear heist. Though the base’s extensive security measures might only delay the Turkish military if it was intent on seizing the nukes, the bombs use Permissive Action Links, meaning their fuse can only be activated using a code transmitted by the U.S. president or his designated second-in-command. Furthermore, the B61s are designed so that U.S. technicians at the base can rapidly sabotage them by overheating their thermal batteries.

This means that even if the B61s were somehow seized or stolen, they would require extensive modification to convert into usable weapons, though the materials inside them could be used in a dirty bomb — designed to contaminate a large area with radiation.

On the other hand, the danger doesn’t end there. The nukes could be attacked by anti-American militants —the base is only 70 miles away from Turkish-Syrian border — resulting in loss of life even if the bombs aren’t captured. Worse, the nukes could effectively be used as bargaining chips to advance Turkish interests at the expense of America’s.

That’s not impossible to imagine, because Erdogan has not hesitated to use political prisoners as bargaining chips in efforts to obtain concessions in arms deals. For example, in 2017, Ankara held onto a Turkish-German national journalist, offering to release him to Germany in exchange for Berlin authorizing upgrades to Turkish Leopard 2 tanks.

And the Incirlik base itself has been at the center of troubling activity. In 2016, Turkish Air Force officers at Incirlik plotted and deployed aircraft in support of the coup. The Turkish government then cut electricity to the base, impacting the security of the U.S. nuclear facilities there.

Afterward, the Turkish government investigated conspiracy theories that U.S. personnel at the base were involved in the coup. In 2018, this culminated in Turkish lawyers with ties Erdogan submitting a 60-page brief seeking criminal charges against senior U.S. officers for supporting the coup, including former base commander Col. John Walker.

The evidence against Walker? Ostensibly, email metadata from coup-plotters using the first name “John.” (Johns of the world, beware.) As it happens, after the coup failed, the Turkish base commander sought and was denied asylum by the U.S. commander. While Erdogan himself did not throw his support behind the claim, its existence shows how his government could manufacture trumped up charges on U.S. officers to gain leverage in the future.

This is far from the only example of thuggish behavior by Erdogan. His bodyguards beat up protesters during a visit to the United States. He effectively killed a peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish minority seemingly to stymie electoral successes of political opponents. And he is implicated in a scheme to kidnap cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former political ally turned enemy whom Erdogan has unsuccessfully attempted to extradite from U.S. for allegedly orchestrating the 2016 coup against him.

On the strategic level, Ankara and Washington have increasingly defined their interests in opposition to each other. The U.S. used Kurdish fighters in Syria to crush ISIS — but Turkey sees the Kurds as arch enemies and have been fighting them for decades. Its recent offensive has resulted in the escape of thousands of ISIS prisoners and the realignment of the Kurds with Damascus and its allies, Russia and Iran.

In short, Washington owes Ankara no favors after years of destabilizing conduct. America’s Stockholm Syndrome mentality around the issue reflects an over-weaning desire to smooth over a relationship that is manifestly unwell.

Certainly, there would be expenses as well as logistical and security challenges to airlifting the nukes out. But the U.S. undoubtedly has the capacity to do it, and indeed has done so before. Back in 2001, for instance, the U.S. pulled nukes out of Turkey’s rival Greece with little drama.

Turkey might retaliate by cutting off access to Incirlik, which is conveniently located for U.S. air operations over Syria and the wider Middle East. But Ankara has already denied use of Incirlik for past operations, and Washington’s precipitous (and arguably self-sabotaging) withdrawal from Syria undermines the rationale that we need access to the base at any cost given alternative bases elsewhere in the Middle East.

There would be expenses as well as logistical and security challenges to airlifting the nukes out. But the U.S. undoubtedly has the capacity to do it.

Yes, it might be politically difficult to find another partner to host the weapons. So what? The nuclear sharing program is a vestige of the Cold War, and the many other nuclear weapons at the disposal of NATO and especially the United States are more than adequate to insure the deterrence of Iran or Russia. The weapons’ irrelevance is manifest by the fact that neither Turkey nor the U.S. has aircraft ready to deploy the nukes anyway.

Turkey will eventually have to decide whether Russia can offer it better economic ties and security guarantees than Europe and the United States, rather than continuously playing its warming ties with Moscow to extract concessions from Washington. Meanwhile, it’s folly for the U.S. to expose itself to potential nuclear blackmail by keeping these weapons on the soil of a country it finds itself in increasing conflict with.