Turkey’s Future Nuclear Posture: Chinese Missile Systems and the F-35

Turkey has hosted American nuclear weapons since 1959. Ankara supports the forward deployment of the B-61 and argues that the current deployment of ~65 or so nuclear weapons at Incirlik air base is vital for NATO burden sharing and Turkish defense. Currently, the United States is modernizing the current B-61 “mods” deployed abroad. The updated weapon will use the explosive package from the B61-4 and outfit the updated weapon – the B61-12 – with a guided tail kit to increase the weapon’s accuracy. The B61-12 is certified for delivery via the F-15, F-16, B-2, F-35, and the German Tornado.

As one of the five European countries that host American nuclear weapons, Turkey currently relies on the F-16 for nuclear strike missions. In the future (probably around 2027), Ankara intends to replace the F-16 with the F-35. In turn, Ankara is likely to purchase some nuclear capable F-35s, in order to continue to contribute to NATO’s nuclear mission. (For reference, there is some confusion about whether or not Turkey’s pilots still train for the nuclear mission. However, it is very likely that Ankara still retains nuclear capable F-16s.)

Ankara is currently making plans to continue with its nuclear mission. It has indicated that it will purchase up to 100 F-35s. Moreover, in private, Turkish officials continue to argue that the presence of nuclear weapons in Europe is necessary for burden sharing and for deterring asymmetric threats in the region (think Syria). Yet, there are now questions about the whether the United States will sign off on the export of its latest aircraft, should Ankara proceed with its purchase of Chinese missile defense technology.

Ilhan Tanir, a DC based journalist tweeted for Turkey’s Vatan newspaper, “I got it from best authority that US “threatened” Turkey abt delivery of F35s if Ankara didnt back down from selection of Chinese air defense.”

And, according to Reuters: The sources said Turkey’s missile defense deal could also affect its plans to buy radar-evading F-35 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp, which also builds the PAC-3 missiles used by the Patriot missile defense system.”Do you really want a Chinese radar painting the F-35s every time they fly in or out of a Turkish base?” said one of the sources. Turkey’s Defense Industry Executive Committee had been expected to approve an initial order of two jets in December or January, the first of 100 F-35s it plans to buy in coming years to replace its aging fleet of F-4 Phantoms and early F-16s, according to a third source familiar with the F-35 program. But that order could now be delayed until concerns about the missile defense system procurement had been addressed, said one of the sources familiar with the U.S.-Turkish discussions.

For Ankara, nuclear weapons continue to play a role in the country’s defense. Moreover, the weapons are seen as a symbol of the United States’s commitment to come to Turkey’s defense. Yet, even while this is the policy, Ankara chose a system that endangers its future nuclear status. In turn, this raises questions about the criteria used to make the missile defense choice. The choice could impact Ankara’s overall defense posture and has already done incredible damage to Turkey’s image in Washington.

I suspect that Washington will sign off on the F-35 transfer, but will seek to use issue as leverage to change Turkey’s mind about missile defense. For one, Ankara does not have a viable alternative to the F-35. The Eurofighter is not certified to carry the B61-12. Ankara could opt for the F-18, but, like the Eurofighter, it is also not certified for nuclear missions. Turkey, therefore, now finds itself in a very difficult position vis-a-vis its missile defense choice and its future nuclear posture.

But, one thing is clear the SSM did not really take this into account when it factored in all of the costs involved in this project. Is this evidence of the decline of nuclear weapons in Turkey’s defense posture, or SSM ineptitude? Perhaps, it is a bit of both.

As always, tweet comments, criticisms, and thoughts to @aaronstein1

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About aaronstein1

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