Turkey has hosted American nuclear weapons on its territory since 1961. The weapons are slated for use by both the American and Turkish air force. If the order were given by the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe (SACEUR), American and Turkish F-16s would carry the B61 gravity bombs to their targets. Currently, Turkey is believed to host between 60 and 70 nuclear weapons at Incirlik air force base. Unlike during the Cold War, American dual capable F-16s (DCAs) – aircraft certified to carry nuclear weapons – are not permanently stationed on Turkish territory. Turkey’s DCAs – which now only include the F-16 C/D – are also believed not to train for the nuclear strike mission. Nevertheless, Turkish F-16s do take part in NATO nuclear training exercises, and the current contingent of Turkish DCAs are receiving a stop gap modification to carry the next generation B61. Moreover, the NATO alliance does not envision the quick use of nuclear weapons, suggesting that the decision to move an American fleet of DCAs from another NATO air base to Incirlik would be a very important signal to a potential adversary. (Deterrence everybody!) The threat to use nuclear weapons would be made more credible by the re-certification of Turkish pilots and the basing of them at Incirlik air base.
The different B61 models have a dial-a-yield ranging from .3 – 360 kilotons. All of the B61s deployed in Europe are either the B61-3 or B61-4 (yield ranges from .3 – 170 kt). Currently, the United States is amid a program to modernize the B61 family of weapons. This program will shrink the different models into one bomb. The bomb will have to perform the mission requirements of the current tactical (short range) and strategic (long range) models. The difference stems from the aircraft used to carry them and a difference in yield.
The new weapon will be a modernized version of the B61-4, meaning that it will use the explosive package in this bomb and other parts from the other mods in the B61 family for the redesign. The new bomb will also be outfitted with a guided tail kit, which is expected to be about as accurate as the current JDAM tail kit (~10 meter CEP). The bomb is being designed for delivery by the B-2 (strategic air craft), the F-15, the F-16, and the F-35 (tactical air craft). The current version of the bomb is deployed in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey and is capable of being delivered by the F-16 and the German Tornado. The next generation B61 is slated for deployment in or around 2019. Thus, the new nuke will be the first “smart” nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal and is slated for delivery by the stealthy F-35. (A bit destabilizing no?)
Critically, the next generation B61 is not being designed for delivery by the Tornado or the Eurofighter. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany’s current fleet of DCAs are all going to be retired in or around 2025. Moreover, the three have not committed to buying the F-35. Turkey’s current fleet of F-16s will also be retired around the same time, but they are slated for replacement by the F-35. The three have also pressured NATO to remove the weapons, but have been blocked by the need for consensus. Thus, it is unclear what will happen to the few bombs still stashed in these three countries once their current fleet of DCAs are retired. Thus, Turkey and Italy (which is also buying the F-35) are faced with the prospect of being the only two hosts of American nuclear weapons with host DCAs.
Turkey, despite its ardent support for these weapons, has avoided acknowledging their presence. While never stated outright, the Turkish government believes that the public would likely not look too fondly on the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory. Moreover, Turkish leaders are generally averse to admitting that the country’s security plans rely heavily on the American security commitment. Thus, Turkey goes out of its way to downplay its quiet insistence that the weapons remain and that any decision to remove the weapons should be done through consensus. (The Baltic NATO states, along with Turkey, are strong proponents of the deployment, thus preventing consensus on the issue).
While not imminent, Turkey’s current approach to NATO nuclear weapons has an expiration date. Nevertheless, Ankara has shown no indication that it is considering making policy changes. If I were in Ankara, I would be paying attention to Obama’s forthcoming nuclear guidance and the role that is assigns tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, I would be watching closely for movement on the start of negotiations for the follow on to the recently concluded New Start Treaty (The treaty – as is true for all US – Russian nuclear weapons agreements – only deals with strategic nuclear weapons). President Obama has made clear that the next round of negotiations will have to include tactical nuclear weapons, which to me suggests either the consolidation of NATO nuclear weapons at one site in Europe, or their removal all together, in a decade or decade and a half.
Turkey, which attaches incredible political significance to the weapons, should be paying attention to these issues. Moreover, the Turkish media, which ignores this issue, should be asking more questions about the role American nuclear weapons play in Turkey’s defense planning. Lastly, Turkey should take steps to explain the divergence in its approach to the implementation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and its quiet support for nuclear weapons on its territory.
A lot of tangential issues are moving in parallel on the NATO nuclear weapons issue, and Turkey would be well served to get out in front of all of them. Thus far, Ankara has chosen the status quo. If Ankara continues to dither on the nuclear weapons issue, it may not have a real choice to make. The DCA deadline is looming and some in Europe want these weapons gone. Turkey, therefore, should declare that it is prepared to rely on the U.S./UK/French strategic forces (long range missiles) for its deterrence. Most of the Western European alliance members have tacitly endorsed this position, thus brining Turkey more into line with the West European bloc of NATO and away from the Baltic members of NATO.