By Andrew Crabtree
Removing US nuclear weapons from Turkey is long overdue; the weapons aren’t useful and create unnecessary risk. The US Congress should act before there is irreparable harm.
The United States originally stationed tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Turkey in 1959, with the intent of deterring aggression from the former USSR. The TNWs in Turkey are B61s, which are gravity bombs deployed via aircraft, and were intended to provide nuclear deterrence for US allies. Now over 60 years later, US nuclear weapons remain in bunkers under Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The weapons are outdated, unusable, and at risk from multiple potential threats.
The TNWs can’t be used because Turkey hasn’t allowed the US to station any planes capable of delivering the TNWs at Incirlik Air Base (Kristensen, 2019). Neither does Turkey have any ready planes or trained pilots certified to deliver B61s (Pomper, 2019). As a result, the weapons fail to provide deterrence and would be useless if a conflict ever arose. It is clear that these TNWs serve no military purpose.
Knowing that the TNWs in Turkey aren’t militarily useful is a reason to remove them in of itself. But more importantly, the US should remove the B61s from Turkey because they are vulnerable in Incirlik Air Base. When it comes to nuclear weapons, risk should be minimized, but keeping nuclear weapons in Turkey accomplishes the opposite. According to Jeffery Lewis, a PhD in policy studies, the security protecting US nukes is “based on a series of assumptions about the stability and friendliness of the country” (Lewis, 2016). Unfortunately, Turkey is neither, and the assumptions the US bases its security on are false.
Turkey has had military coup d'etats nearly every ten years since 1960, due in part to a provision in Turkey’s constitution that gives military leaders a large amount of freedom from government oversight (Rothman, 2016). This, as well as the increasing unpopularity and instability of their de facto dictator Erdogan, gives rise to concerns about the stability of the country. As a result, US TNWs in Turkey are at risk from several actors, including Turkey itself.
The Turkish military could seize the nuclear weapons in Incirlik if they so desired. In fact, the US relies on Turkish soldiers and their cooperation to help guard US nuclear weapons at Incirlik. The Turkish military could probably overpower the outnumbered US guards at Incirlik, and the security codes on the nukes themselves can’t do any more than delay unauthorized use (Pomper, 2019).
There are two conceivable scenarios where the Turkish military might turn against their American allies and take the weapons. The first is that the Turkish government orders the attack, a worry exacerbated due to Turkey’s recent hostility. The second is that a successful military coup under the leadership of a rogue general decides to seize the B16s during the conflict. Considering how often coups have happened in Turkey, taking the gamble that the next unpredictable general who takes over will spare US TNWs isn’t a wise risk to take.
As if that wasn’t enough, Incirlik Air Base is only 70 miles away from Syria, an active terrorist hotspot. Keeping nuclear weapons so close to danger doesn’t seem prudent, especially considering Turkey’s track record when it comes to working with or ignoring terrorists. The nukes are in even greater danger because critical information regarding procedures and security measures protecting US nuclear weapons at Incirlik was leaked in May by Air Force personnel on public study apps like Quizlet (Postma, 2021).
So, if the nuclear weapons in Turkey aren’t militarily useful, why has the US not removed them? A common argument is that the nukes in Turkey are useful for affirming the US alliance with Turkey, with some, like former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Elaine Bunn, symbolically comparing the weapons to wedding rings (Tanchum, 2019). You wouldn’t take off a wedding ring, and you shouldn’t take nuclear weapons out of Turkey, or so the reasoning goes. This idea has two main flaws: first, the US relationship with Turkey is comparable to a marriage and second that it would be the US making the first antagonizing move. The opposite is true for both. The US alliance with Turkey is strained, held together mainly by the fact that both countries are NATO members, and Turkey has certainly provoked the US on more than one occasion. For example, Turkey has supported terrorist groups such as ISIS and Hamas, bought Russian missiles against the wishes of NATO and the US, and even “accidentally” fired upon US troops in Syria (Melman, 2016, Wald, 2019, Starr and Browne, 2019). There isn’t any end to this behavior in sight, as Turkey is in talks for an additional purchase of Russian weapons this year (Axelrod, 2021). If anyone has broken trust in the alliance, it's definitely Turkey.
With all of these factors putting US nuclear weapons at risk and no tangible benefit to keeping them in Turkey, the US should be removing them as soon as possible. Thankfully, there’s a good option for the removal of the weapons if the US acts quickly. The Department of Defense currently plans to modernize all B61s stationed in Europe by 2025, including those in Turkey (National Nuclear Security Administration, 2020). When the TNWs in Turkey come home for the upgrade, they could simply be kept in the US and never returned to Incirlik. Turkey wouldn’t even need to know that removal was on the agenda until after the weapons are back on US soil, guaranteeing a safe removal. However, this opportunity will only be around for a few more years, so the US can’t afford to push the decision off indefinitely.
An additional benefit to this plan is that the US won’t have to modernize the nuclear weapons if they are being added to US stockpiles instead of going back into deployment, saving the US hundreds of millions of dollars (Reif 2017). It doesn’t make sense to spend money upgrading TNWs in Turkey that we can’t even use.
So, what’s keeping the US from making the right decision? The US has the authority and resources to remove nuclear weapons. It’s time for the US government to make the right decision and end nuclear sharing with Turkey.
Andrew Crabtree is a high school senior from California with interests ranging from artificial intelligence to foreign policy to computer science.
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