Turkey, Tactical Nuclear Weapons, and Strategic Thinking

Apologies for my absence, I have been at back-to-back conferences about Syria and now about tactical nuclear weapons.  I presented my thoughts about Turkish nuclear decision-making about tactical nuclear weapons and missile defense.

I have posted my presentation below (please keep in mind the notes are a rough outline and I like to speak from bullet points)


  • I want to thank the organizers for putting this conference together – I also greatly appreciate the opportunity to be on a panel with such distinguished experts
  • I have been asked to talk about Turkey’s approach to nonstrategic nuclear weapons and missile defense
  • I do think that Turkey is a useful model with which to view some of the difficulties the Allies would face to come to a consensus on nuclear reductions
  • I will start with the nuclear weapons issues and then address missile defense later on in my presentation
  • In short, Turkey values nuclear weapons for deterrence, believes they constrained Russian expansionism during the Cold War, and now believes that they help deter states in the Middle East. They are also an important symbol for a state perpetually wary of relying on verbal guarantees from its security guarantor – the US
  • Like with other countries, Turkey’s nuclear narrative is shaped by its experiences during the Cold War
  • Turkey is unique from the other NATO countries – it sits at the intersection of East and West and connects the Alliance to the Middle East
  • In the past, Turkey’s proximity to the Middle East was quite problematic for NATO, but is now – increasingly – looked at as an asset by the US and the UK – and to a lesser extent, other European allies to project soft and hard power in the Middle East
  • In 1957, the first American tactical nuclear weapons were deployed at air bases in Turkey – the deployment was apolitical, the population did not really know that the weapons were there – and this dynamic continues today
  • And then, on 16 September 1959, the US and Turkey agreed to deploy the Jupiter missiles to Turkey
  • Ankara was eager to have some control over the missiles – arguing that it had to have some say over NATO basing agreements and over its own security
  • This theme is particularly important when understanding Turkish strategic thinking – they are happy to rely on the US – albeit very quietly – but want concrete agreements governing the use of NATO/American weapons for Turkish defense
  • Thus, they need something physical to demonstrate US seriousness, rather than pieces of paper and statements
  • We see this same dynamic in the Missile Defense debate as well, but I will come to that in a moment
  • As we all know, the ballistic missiles were traded in 1962, and they were removed by mid-April 1963
  • Here we come to a VERY – and I want to stress VERY – important number of inter related factors that continue to influence Turkish strategic thinking
  • In parallel to the trading of the missiles – which was not popular in Ankara – the US, in 1964, sent a letter to the Turkish leadership warning them that they could not use US weapons for its planned intervention in Cyprus
  • The US expressed fears that the intervention could trigger Russian involvement in the conflict – in turn, this reaffirmed the suspicions in Ankara about the US being willing to trade Ankara for Washington
  • Again, we also have to take into account the history of nuclear planning, and the moves in the 1960s towards counterforce – a strategy turkey viewed with suspicion
  • These frictions with the US over Cyprus happened again in 1974, when Turkey did invade Cyprus – in response, the US congress imposed an arms embargo and Turkey, retaliated by refusing to continue to allow U-2 flights over the Soviet Union from NATO air bases on its territory
  • But, as is always the case w/ Turkish – US relations, the two sides continued to cooperate and eventually patched things up
  • Turkish – US relations are a bit like a roller coaster – we have our ups and down – usually about once a decade – The Turks, however, rarely forget the downs and the Americans like to focus on the ups
  • The dynamic changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union – Turkey, which up until that time was NATO’s buffer on the southern flank – suddenly was faced with a future of questionable strategic worth to the United States
  • And then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and solved Turkey’s geo-strategic problem. Turkish President Ozal jumped at the chance to support the invasion , even though it harmed the Turkish economy greatly – arguing that Turkey could serve as a model for the Middle East and thereby carve out a new role with the United States.
  • This same debate took place in 2003 – but the then inexperienced Prime Minister Erdogan failed to rally his party to support the invasion. He did! That turned out to be one of the luckiest no votes in his career.
  • They repeated this same model mantra in the mid-1990s in the Turkic states – neither was successful, but it shows how both the US/West and Turkey use the Turkish model talk when it suits their interests – Turkey and the US are sincere when they talk of the Turkish model, but, perhaps, a bit overly ambitious in their messaging
  • Turkey was surprised in the aftermath of Gulf War I – like we all were – about the scale and scope of Saddam’s WMD programs
  • Turkey then crafted its response to proliferation in the region – I have summarized them in three points:
  • First – advocate for nonproliferation – has since joined every major arms control/nonproliferation agreement and the Additional Protocol
  • Second – professionalize the armed forces – and beginning in 1996, cooperation first with Israel, and then later with the US, on missile defense – the BMD program has not gone anywhere, due in large part to Turkish procurement policies – if you want I can address this in the question and answer period
  • This process is ongoing, but is happening slowly, mainly due to bureaucratic issues dealing with conscription – which has to do with Turkey’s secular/Islam divide – and an aggressive arms procurement policy based on offsets
  • Third – continued reliance on NATO nuclear weapons and more broadly – the Alliance’s security guarantee
  • Ankara’s nuclear policy in the post cold war era can be summarized as nonproliferation – not disarmament – and Turkey is not eager to give up the weapons deployed, arguing that they are useful for deterrence and that NATO should not unilaterally disarm
  • However, we saw a noticeable drop in Turkish nuclear readiness – for example, there are conflicting reports about whether or not Turkish F-16s can carry nuclear weapons – In all honesty, it does not really mater if they can or cant – the weapons cant be used quickly and, in the extremely unlikely scenario that these weapons would be used – the US would move assets into place – Turkish planes would likely serve as escort fighters
  • But if anyone can come up with a scenario for the use of weapons in Turkey, I would be interested to hear it . . . I have thought about this, and cant really come up with a scenario where they would be used.
  • So how do we move the Turks?
  • Any solution would have to be part of larger system to ensure burden sharing and protection from WMD threats in the region. Thus, there have been a number of proposal to swap out nuclear weapons for missile defense or other PGMs.
  • As I said, they are interested in missile defense – but only on their terms – which included a dogged pursuit of not just Patriot missile batteries – but the technology that makes them work. In an ideal world, they want a similar agreement to the one struck for the British anti-aircraft missile system Rapier – that agreement allows for co-production in Turkey.
  • Turkey does have a tender for up to 4 long-range-air-defense systems, but they postponed it indefinelty in January 2013, saying that they will talk to the four potential suppliers – US, China, Russia, and a French/Italy consortium – about a co-production deal
  • The idea is to get access to the technology and co-produce the systems in Turkey so that its defense industry can be built up
  • This has been Turkish policy since 1986
  • This moved in parallel to the deployment of US, Dutch, and German Patriot batteries in southern Turkey in response to the Syrian crisis – the issues are separate, but the political process is illustrative of Turkish thinking.
  • Specifically, it underscores Turkey’s willingness to rely on NATO for its security, as well as its pursuit of its own national policy of offsets – however, like in the nuclear debate, Ankara wants firm guarantees for its security
  • It also shows just how misunderstood Turkey was when it described its approach to BMD during the negotiations for the 2010 Strategic Concept
  • Turkey was widely thought of as against BMD because of the talk that the system is designed to counter Iranian missiles
  • Ankara – which at the time had recently negotiated the failed TRR swap deal – WAS eager to remove proposed language saying that Iran was an enemy of NATO
  • However, it was not against missile defense – its demands in that regard were similar to the Jupiter deal in 1959 – they wanted some operation control and wanted a guarantee that they would be used to protect Turkey if attacked by a state in the region – i.e. – Iran
  • I don’t have the time, but I can discuss Turkey’s approach to the Iranian nuclear program in the Q and A, if of interest
  • As a further example, Turkey recently established a space command and has very ambitious plans to launch 17 satellites, some of which will be early warning, and will be linked to the not yet built “Turkish” missile defense system – this is grandiose rhetoric for public consumption, but, nevertheless, it shows that there are plans being made
  • So in one sentence, turkey supports missile defense, but not the naming of specific threats to the Alliance. The issues are separate, but also show the difference between countries about how best to deal with the Iran file
  • So to wrap up, if I had to summarize Turkey’s approach to NATO nuclear weapons, I would paraphrase the 2010 Strategic Concept – “committed to a nuclear weapons free world, but will remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist.” If I could be more blunt, Turks like disarmament, but don’t think that it will happen any time soon – so they might as well hold on to the weapons because they are an important symbol of US guarantees and, oh by the way, they could be used to deter Iran
  • Thus, as for removing the weapons, Turks will tell you that they support the idea in principle, but only if it is agreed to by all NATO states – as well all know, this is a diplomatic dodge and a way for Turkey to hide behind the Baltic States and not reveal publicly just how happy Ankara is to keep the status quo
  • This underscores the necessity of US movement on the issue – Turkey will not be the country to push for the removal – they will react, but only if consensus is reached
  • For missile defense, Turkey is eager, but only on its own terms for an independent capability, which means that they are happy with the NATO system, so long as they get that guarantee that they will cover all of Turkish territory and that Turkey will not be sacrificed is included in the language
  • Thus, you can see the debates aren’t all that new – even though the potential adversaries are.

Thank you

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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