Turkey Wrap: A Collection of Stories about US H-bombs in Turkey

August 4, 2016 | 10:25 am
A front view of four nuclear free-fall bombs on a bomb cart. Photo: Wikimedia
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

On July 15, a portion of the Turkish military launched an attempted coup against the country’s elected government.  While much of the initial coverage focused on the coup itself, soon there was a spate of stories on the fact—alarming to many— that Turkey hosts approximately 50 U.S. nuclear weapons, all B-61 gravity bombs that can be used by U.S. fighter aircraft or bombers.

Here are links to the most prominent pieces, along with some key excerpts.

The H-Bombs in Turkey, The New Yorker, by Eric Schlosser, July 17, provides a good summary of the basic facts around the weapons in question, and asks the key question:

How secure are the American hydrogen bombs stored at a Turkish airbase?

The Incirlik Airbase, in southeast Turkey, houses NATO’s largest nuclear-weapons storage facility. On Saturday morning, the American Embassy in Ankara issued an “Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens,” warning that power had been cut to Incirlik and that “local authorities are denying movements on to and off of” the base. Incirlik was forced to rely on backup generators; U.S. Air Force planes stationed there were prohibited from taking off or landing; and the security-threat level was raised to FPCON Delta, the highest state of alert, declared when a terrorist attack has occurred or may be imminent. On Sunday, the base commander, General Bekir Ercan Van, and nine other Turkish officers at Incirlik were detained for allegedly supporting the coup.

America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore, Foreign Policy, by Jeffrey Lewis, July 18, discusses options for moving the weapons out of Turkey, and why that makes sense:

But unlike Belgium, Germany, Italy, or the Netherlands, there are no aircraft in Turkey certified to carry nuclear weapons. And the U.S. only rotates combat aircraft through Incirlik, so there are no U.S. aircraft certified to carry nuclear weapons there either. In other words, Incirlik is a glorified storage depot.

I humbly submit that we could find a more stable location to serve as such a depot.

There’s nothing stopping the United States from immediately removing the weapons from Turkey, just as it pulled them out of Greece in 2001 once it was clear the weapons there were not safely protected. Those weapons could come back to the United States.

The U.S. stores nuclear weapons in Turkey. Is that such a good idea?, The Washington Post, by Dan Lamothe, July 19, summarizes some of the questions around the weapons and highlights the on-going problems:

In Turkey, however, life isn’t close to returning to normal. As of Monday, U.S. troops were operating their facilities at the base using electrical generators, and one of the officers detained following the coup attempt was the Turkish commander at Incirlik. Flight operations from the base against the Islamic State had resumed, but much of the country remained in turmoil.

Should the U.S. Pull Its Nuclear Weapons From Turkey?, Room for Debate, The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, July 20, features Jeffrey Lewis and Kori Schake debating the value and risks of having nuclear weapons in Turkey:

Lewis: These weapons serve no purpose. Neither Turkish aircraft nor U.S. aircraft in Turkey can deliver the bombs. The United States Air Force regards them as an expensive distraction from the mission of countering the Islamic State. The Turkish government regards them as a political liability that shouldn’t be mentioned.

Schake: It is not true that NATO nuclear weapons in Turkey serve no purpose. They serve political, military and economic purposes. Wars start when combatants think they can achieve political objectives by force — that is, when they think they can win. Nuclear weapons make wars between countries that have them unwinnable.

Are Nuclear Weapons Stored in Turkey Under Threat?, War on the Rocks, by Cheryl Rofer, July 20, discusses the security measures in place that should prevent U.S. nuclear weapons from being taken from the base and misused if they are:

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which anyone is going to walk out with a nuke any time soon, as some of the more panicked accounts have suggested.

It’s fair to question the wisdom and security of nuclear weapons at European NATO bases. . . The immediate question is how much danger the coup attempt in Turkey poses to the Incirlik weapons. The answer is not much.

Why the U.S. Should Move Nukes Out of Turkey, Bloomberg View, by Tobin Harshaw, July 21, makes the case for withdrawing the U.S. weapons:

[T]he payoff would be significant: The weapons would be more secure, at a lower cost, and would deliver a warning to the most likely nuclear threat the West faces — Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Nuclear Weapons in Turkey are Destabilizing, But Not For the Reason You Think, War on the Rocks, by Aaron Stein, July 22, provides some good early history of nuclear weapons in Turkey and their role in the NATO alliance, and then supports Jeffrey Lewis’ push to have them withdrawn:

This change to NATO’s nuclear posture would not degrade the alliance’s nuclear strike capabilities. The consolidation of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe would result in greater stability during times of crises, replacing the odd nuclear posture that could, during a time of extreme tension, lead to confusion and worst case assumptions from a nuclear armed adversary.

While this issue has largely faded from the press in recent days, it is noteworthy that five full days passed after the coup before the Turkish government restored power at Incirlik. Even if there was no direct threat to the U.S. nuclear weapons stored there in this case, it seems worth looking at the value of continuing to deploy these weapons now that some of the risks have come into clearer focus.