Thinking about Turkey’s [NATO] Nuclear Posture

Turkey has hosted American nuclear weapons since 1957. In 1995, American B61 gravity bombs were removed from Akinci and Balikesir air bases and consolidated at Incirlik air base, near Adana. As of now, the United States deploys between 60-70 nuclear weapons in 24 underground vaults at the air base. The other vaults at Akinci and Balikesir are in care taker status, which means that they could, in theory, still be used (This is not likely). Currently, the B61 is undergoing a significant life-extension-program in the United States. The new bomb, dubbed the B61-12 will have a guided GPS aided tail kit – making it the first smart bomb in the US nuclear arsenal – and will use the physics package from the B61-4. Thus, the new bomb will have a dial-a-yield capability ranging from .3 to 50 kilotons.

As for Turkey’s nuclear status, Turkish dual-capable F-16s are reportedly no longer certified for the nuclear mission. Moreover, as part of the base realignment in 1995, an American nuclear fighter squadron is no longer permanently stationed at Incirlik. Thus, if the B61s in Turkey were to have to be used, the United States would first have to fly in a squadron from another base in Europe. This, in turn, raises questions about perceptions during the build-up to a conflict. Signaling plays a large part for deterrence and, I am assuming, NATO security planners believe that an American show of force in Turkey – perhaps similar to what took place in the Korean peninsula a couple of months back – would be useful as a signaling tool to a potential foe.

However, it also raises the possibility that a well armed adversary, like Russia, could view the re-introduction of American F-16s in Turkey as an indication of imminent nuclear use and could resort to – what is perceived to be – a pre-emptive  nuclear strike against NATO targets. (If Russia, like the United States, practices counterforce, that is a whole hell of a lot of targets in Turkey.) Thus, an American show of force to reassure an ally could end up triggering an unintended nuclear escalation. Thus, one has to ask whether or not Turkey’s current DCA status is wise.

Moreover, as discussed here, the dual-capable-aircraft in the five states that host American nuclear weapons are rapidly reaching the end of their service life. Turkey, Italy, and the Netherlands have indicated that they will purchase the F-35 (capable of carrying the B61), but Germany has opted to replace its aging Tornado fleet with the Eurofighter. The aircraft, while excellent, is not certified to carry the B61-12 (Apparently, the consortium that designs the Eurofighter does not want to share proprietary information with American defense firms.) Thus, there is the possibility that once Germany retires its Tornado fleet, one of the five nuclear hosts will not have the aircraft needed to deliver them. If this scenario comes about, some have suggested that NATO will then have to “disarm by default.” To combat this looming problem, there are rumors that the B61-12 will be made “‘platform-independent’; in other words, [certified] to ensure the B61-12 is capable of being deployed on any almost any aircraft that can handle the bomb’s physical dimensions.”

However, one has to ask whether or not it is wise to make a nuclear weapons “platform independent.” Again, I go back to the importance of signaling. If, for example, the Eurofighter is cleared to carry the B61, the potential increase in the number of platforms capable of carrying a nuclear weapons could complicate Allied efforts to signal to a potential foe – again think Russia.

This, of course, leads me to my final point. For Turkey – and other pro-nuclear states in the Alliance (think the Baltic NATO states) – does the current forward deployment really enhance Alliance security? If, as stated in the latest NATO Strategic Concept, the ultimate security of Alliance rests on the strategic forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, then why should Turkey, and others, continue to support the forward deployment of B61s?

Moreover, for deterrence in general, delivery vehicles (think the B-2) have been re-purposed for conventional missions. Thus, if hostilities were to break out with a nuclear armed foe, how would the use of American B-2s be perceived? Would it be escalatory? I don’t know, but for Turkey, which ultimately relies on American security guarantees, it is something to consider alongside the potential signal of re-introducing American F-16s at Incirlik during a conflict.

As of now, Turkish behavior suggests that Ankara will continue to pursue its decades old disarmament policy of mutual, reciprocal and verifiable reductions with the Russian Federation. Thus, it would be unwise to expect any radical change in Turkish nuclear weapons posture. However, it would be prudent for analysts to at least think through some of the negative aspects of maintaining the current nuclear posture, as well as the implications of Turkey’s policy.

As always, if you have comments, questions, or criticisms tweet @aaronstein1

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About aaronstein1

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