Turkey and the Dual-Key Arrangement: Ankara’s Interest in Using Nuclear Weapons

Turkey has hosted American nuclear weapons since February 1959. Negotiations with Turkey for the deployment of a Jupiter missile squadron began on 10 September 1959. As of 16 September, the Turkish government accepted the U.S. draft proposal for the Jupiters without making any changes to the text of the draft agreement.

In an interview about the decision to deploy Jupiter Missiles in Turkey, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Raymond Hare, indicated that “there were only two countries that were convinced of the utility of the Jupiters; they were Italy and Turkey.” At the time of deployment, the Kennedy Administration had already warned the Turks that the missiles were obsolete and were slated for replacement by the Polaris missile submarine.

The Turks, however, were wary of relying on U.S. subs deployed in the Mediterranean for defense and favored the deployment of the outdated missile on Turkish territory. Turkey has never been fond of verbal guarantees and prefer something tangible to demonstrate the American commitment to come to Turkey’s defense. The missiles were that something.

The agreement was finalized on 16 September 1959. During the brief negotiations, Ankara only made three demands: 1) They wanted a missile key, 2) They wanted the agreement to be completed before Foreign Minister Zorlu visited the UN General Assembly on 19 September, 2) And they wanted the funding for the missiles to come from the U.S. military assistance program.

The United States was a bit taken aback at the hastiness of the negotiations, but Ankara’s demand for a missile key was not out of the ordinary. U.S. dual basing agreements work on a dual-key arrangement, which allow for the host nation to be able to deliver the weapon, even though they remain under U.S. custody.

After the conclusion of the agreement, American military personnel trained the Turkish air force to launch the missiles, in the event that NATO command in Brussels gave the order. (Given the flight times from the USSR to Turkey, these missiles really did serve no purpose and this point was made to the Turks on multiple occasions.) The 1 megaton warheads were always under the control of the U.S. military and were stored separately.

In 1967, however, Turkey sought to carve out a bit more freedom in the actual use of nuclear weapons. I am not sure why, but I suspect the change-of-heart had to do with lingering doubts about the United States’ security commitment after the 1964 Johnson letter and the 1963 decision to remove the missiles from Turkey. Moreover, at the time, Ankara was dismayed at the new American “flexible response” defense plan, which relied more heavily on conventional weapons to thwart a Soviet attack, and called for a deliberate and step-by-step process to signal the eventual use of nuclear weapons. Turkish policymakers thought the plan was an excuse to “trade Ankara for Washington” and felt that the U.S. should implement a war plan that emphasized the massive and quick use of nuclear weapons against Soviet targets.

Whatever the reason, Turkey, at a 1967 NATO Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) meeting in Ankara, put forward a plan to deploy atomic demolition munitions in the eastern mountainous parts of Turkey. I would presume that the Turkish General Staff was referring to the current border with Georgia, but no location is specified in the archival documents I have seen.

The United States and Turkey agreed to look into the proposal and study the “comparative advantages” of operationalizing a “defensive barrier using conventional and nuclear demolitions” and revisit the issue at a future NATO NPG meeting. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – who was prodding the allies to come up with a plan to use the 7,000 nuclear weapons in Europe – is reported to have favored the Turkish plan. Yet, in a critical difference from the Jupiter missile discussion, Ankara is said to have asked for “more control over when to use them” and reportedly asked for “permission to detonate the mines automatically in the face of an invasion of division strength.”

The policy was largely in line with Ankara’s desire for a missile key, but differs in that Turkey asked for pre-authorziation to use the nuclear weapons. NATO never agreed to such an arrangement and, at least according to the DOD record on the overseas deployment of nuclear weapons as of 1978, the U.S. never deployed nuclear land mines in Turkey. Yet, the records on such deployments after 1978 are classified. Moreover, I know the record on the nuclear weapons in Turkey is incomplete because the DOD document does not mention the deployment of the B61 bomb at airbases in Turkey.

I am, however, fairly confident that nuclear land mines were never actually deployed in Turkey. The introduction of the B61 in or around 1980 would have rendered such weapon systems redundant.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s thinking about the use of nuclear weapons is representative of current Turkish defense decision-making.  Ankara has always valued its ability to operate independently of the United States and constantly looks at ways to ensure that it has the flexibility to respond to threats without Washington’s approval. This continues.

During recent discussions for the deployment of a radar system to support a NATO missile defense system, Turkey is reported to have repeatedly asked for assurances from the allies that all of Turkish territory would be covered by the proposed missile defense system. Moreover, there are even reports that Ankara asked for authority to launch missile interceptors, should Turkish territory be targeted.

The situations are obviously different, but the dynamics underpinning Turkish decision-making remain the same. One would be wise to take them seriously, as policymakers seek to chart a new course for Western-Turkish defense ties in the post-Cold War world.

As always, tweet comments, criticism, question to @aaronstein1

About aaronstein1

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