America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore

America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore

Among the candidates for most iconic image of this past weekend’s attempted coup in Turkey has to be the many videos of Turkish F-16s, hijacked by the mutineers, flying low over Istanbul and Ankara. Eventually, those planes seem to have bombed the parliament. There were rumors that they considered shooting down the plane of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What’s clear is that mutineers managed to keep the F-16s in the air only because they were able to refuel them mid-flight using at least one tanker aircraft operated out of Incirlik Air Base. Eventually Turkish authorities closed the airspace over Incirlik and cut power to it. The next day, the security forces loyal to the government arrested the Turkish commander at the base. (The images of him being escorted away in handcuffs are in the contest to qualify as the weekend’s most iconic.)

In retrospect, it is understandable why the Turkish government closed the airspace over Incirlik, even if it did temporarily disrupt air operations against the Islamic State in Syria. But that is in retrospect. In the moment, it raised a disquieting thought. There are a few dozen U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs stored at Incirlik. Does it seem like a good idea to station American nuclear weapons at an air base commanded by someone who may have just helped bomb his own country’s parliament?

To be sure, coups have occurred in other countries where the United States stores nuclear weapons. Turkey, Greece, and South Korea have all seen military juntas seize control while U.S. nuclear weapons were present on their soil.

Counterintuitive as it might seem, nuclear weapons have tended not to be a primary target of coup plotters. This has been true for countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons stationed abroad, but also for coup attempts in France and the Soviet Union. My friend Bruno Tertrais found the French case so peculiar that he wrote a great little paper about it.

The weapons at Incirlik are stored in vaults in the floor of the protective aircraft shelters. The shelters are inside a security perimeter. The United States and its NATO allies recently invested $160 million on security upgrades for nuclear weapons, the most visible aspect of which is new security perimeter at Incirlik visible in satellite images. And, of course, if the coup plotters have accessed a weapon, it would require someone to enter a code to arm it. It would not be a simple thing to snatch and use a U.S. nuclear weapon. Coup plotters generally have other things to worry about.

At the same time, if a hostile junta were to seize control of a country with U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in it, things might be dicier. An airbase is a not a fortress; it is not intended to withstand a siege by the host government any more than an embassy might. Use control devices such as “Permissive Action Links” can prevent someone from easily using a stolen weapon, but may eventually be bypassed. There has long been talk about developing security features that would render a lost or stolen weapon a “paperweight” but that’s mostly been just that — talk.

So while the precautions to protect U.S. nuclear weapons at Incirlik are reasonable, they are based on a series of assumptions about the stability and friendliness of the country. The sight of the Incirlik base commander being frog-marched off the base is disquieting precisely because it undermines such assumptions.

The security situation in Turkey has been deteriorating for some time. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense evacuated military and civilian families from Incirlik, citing concerns about terrorist threats. Then, in April, two goons from a local right-wing group attempted to “sack” a U.S. airman on base. (Sacking is just that — throwing a sack over someone’s head, in this case retaliation for a perceived slight against Turkish soldiers.) This occurred about one kilometer from the weapons perimeter. And now an official in the Erdogan government insinuated that the United States may have played a role in the coup, largely on the basis that a cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who has a large number of followers in Turkey, resides in exile in the United States.

Given the general climate of instability, you might ask why U.S. nuclear weapons are even stored in Turkey in the first place. That’s especially relevant because one of the peculiar things about U.S. gravity bombs in Turkey is that there are no planes available to deliver them. In other NATO states with U.S. nuclear weapons, the host nation maintains so-called dual capable aircraft that, in theory, would be outfitted with U.S. nuclear weapons to use in a crisis. (Stop guffawing, it’s unseemly.) 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.

Some analysts argue this is not the time to reduce the number of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed to NATO member states, not with the recent downturn in relations with Russia. Fine; if they are so important, then they could go to another NATO member state. The United States has built plenty of nuclear weapons storage vaults in nearby European countries.

Who should get the honor? Scratch Belgium and the Netherlands off the list, even if you like the chocolate. The local security at those bases is crap, with activists repeatedly having breached security at them. Incirlik and Aviano Air Base in Italy, by contrast, are U.S.-operated air bases with U.S. forces providing security for the nuclear weapons stored there. They recently got new security perimeters, paid for by NATO states including the United States. Aviano could potentially take some of Incirlik’s nuclear weapons, but it has only a moderate number of available vaults.

That leaves U.S.-operated air bases in the United Kingdom (Lakenheath) and Germany (Ramstein). Though these locations are not without drawbacks. Neither appears to currently host nuclear weapons and would require security upgrades. The Germans are increasingly skeptical of American nuclear strategy. And my British friends keep wittily saying they aren’t sure that the United Kingdom counts as a politically stable country anymore. But, obviously, either country would seem to be a better choice for the nuclear weapons currently sitting in Turkey. During the coup, there were reports that Erdogan sought asylum in Germany but was rejected. Maybe Chancellor Angela Merkel would consider asylum for the bombs, instead.

There is, of course, another reason that Incirlik is a depot for U.S. nuclear weapons. Even if there are no planes to deliver the bombs, some U.S. officials felt that having nuclear weapons deployed outside of Europe and on Iran’s doorstep helps deter Tehran from using any nuclear weapon it might acquire, thus reassuring America’s allies and partners in the Middle East.

In theory, the Iran deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) manages the problem of an Iranian bomb. In practice, though, Washington clearly feels it needs to reassure allies and partners who are more frightened by the fact that it made a diplomatic agreement with Tehran than they were by Iran’s unconstrained nuclear program. While I find that reasoning bizarre, I accept that withdrawing nuclear weapons to Germany or the U.K. might unnerve some partners in the Middle East. But, after the events of the past weekend, leaving them in place seems positively terrifying.

Photo credit: IBRAHIM ERIKAN/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images