Su-Yin Lew | International Security Fellow
The United States has deployed its nuclear weapons in Turkey since 1959, reaching sixty years of nuclear sharing. Whilst a milestone is often celebrated, in this case, sixty is cause for concern. Fifty B-61 nuclear bombs continue to be hidden in underground storage vaults guarded by US troops but located in the Turkish-controlled Incirlik Air Base.
Though these weapons periodically make headlines, out of sight should not mean out of mind. As Ankara continues to push the limits of its relationship with Washington with recent months characterised by overt hostility and adrift from the West’s orbit, the B-61s are more liability than leverage. It’s well past the point when these bombs should have been removed.
US nuclear weapons were originally shared throughout Europe during the Cold War as a means of coping with technological limitations in reach whilst deterring potential attackers and reassuring allies in the NATO partnership. Today, however, US forward deployment of nuclear weapons in Turkey is both redundant and risky. Modern ICBM capabilities provide the capacity for Washington’s timely response in the event of a catastrophe and render the physical location of nuclear weapons less salient.
The US has previously removed nuclear weapons from countries such as Greece and maintains a number of nuclear umbrella alliances without physical nuclear sharing. Turkish aircraft are no longer equipped to carry the B-61s, instead requiring American or NATO fighters for retrieval. Additionally, the B-61 bombs themselves, having not been recalled for modernisation in several decades, are outdated.
As their utility diminishes, risks rise.
Less than 250 kilometres from the Turkish-Syrian border, these nuclear weapons remain in a precarious position close to rampant instability. Whilst the risk of terrorist theft remains low, the potential devastation is immense with bombs up to twenty times the payload of that which devastated Hiroshima. Protective and precautionary devices such as access-codes are designed solely as delays rather than complete halt-stops to the bombs. Even if they are unable to be detonated as designed, guerrilla use still risks high levels of deadly radiation.
More concerning is the hostile trend in Turkey’s relations with the United States and NATO more broadly. Ankara’s turn to Russian-made air defence systems against repeated and explicit warnings from Washington was a noteworthy turn that saw Washington pull the plug on Turkey’s participation in the US F-35 fighter jet program. The toll of years of fighting opposite sides in Syria exploded in October with Turkey’s brazen military incursion against US-allied Kurds in northern Syria, re-sparking discussion of the safety of the nuclear bombs.
December’s London Summit saw Turkey’s insolence on display yet again as it threatened to block NATO defence plans for the Baltics and Poland. Even as Presidents Trump and Erdogan partake in bilateral meetings, the overall trend is worrying. It is undeniable that Ankara is becoming alarmingly emboldened in confronting its allies and drifting from the West’s orbit, at times clearly in the direction of Russia.
Arguing that removing the bombs would unravel the US-Turkey alliance fails to recognise the dysfunction that already exists. The basis of the alliance is crumbling and the concept of shared interests and values between the two countries has frayed.
Conflicting foreign policy interests are being amplified to full-scale, public disputes. What good is nuclear sharing doing to reassure an alliance that exists in name only? The answer is simple: very little.
Whilst the bombs may present an important tool in preventing Turkey’s own proliferation, they are by no means the only stick at hand. Despite Erdogan’s recent suggestive language that Turkey acquire its own nuclear arsenal, such rhetoric is bluster in the face of the mammoth economic and political fallout withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty entails. Ensuring these consequences continue requires the US to demonstrate its commitment to arms control frameworks and reinforce nuclear non-proliferation norms.
When it comes to the B-61s, the old adage holds true – it is better to be safe than sorry. This precarity was demonstrated by Incirlik’s role in the 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan. Reports indicated that at least one tanker aircraft that was used to refuel the F-16 jets used in the attempted coup was operated out of Incirlik. The Turkish government cut power to the base and closed its airspace with little explanation at the time. This was a wake-up call for Washington, only for the issue of the bombs’ removal to be put back to bed and forgotten again.
The risks of accidental or intentional detonation of a nuclear bomb with catastrophic consequences remain troubling. The state of US-Turkey relations points to the potential perils of nuclear sharing gone wrong and the risks that come with extended nuclear deterrence. The United States cannot sit back and wait out an improvement in relations, only for things to deteriorate again. The nuclear weapons must be removed, sooner rather than later.
Su-Yin Lew was the July-December 2019 International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs and is currently interning with UN Women in New York.