Turkey’s Airplane-less Nuclear Weapons: A Classic Crisis Stability Problem? (Updated)

As Hans K. notes over at Strategic Security, the United States Air Force’s 2015 Budget shows “that integration of the B61-12 on NATO F-16 and Tornado aircraft will start in 2015 for completion in 2017 and 2018.” The upgrade includes:

software upgrades on the legacy aircraft, operational flight tests, and full weapon integration. Development of the guided tail kit is well underway in reparations for operational tests. Seven flight tests are planned for 2015. The nuclear warhead and some non-nuclear components won’t be ready until the end of the decade. The first complete B61-12 is scheduled for 2020.

Turkey has a very unique nuclear posture. Ankara has hosted American nuclear weapons, deployed under the aegis of the NATO alliance, for more than 5 decades. After the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s nuclear posture began to change. In 1995 the Base Realignments and Closures (BRAC) study recommended the consolidation of air force operations in Europe in four air bases in Europe: RAF Lakenheath in Britain, Ramstein airbase in Germany, Incirlik airbase in Turkey and Aviano airbase in Italy. In Turkey this resulted in the withdrawal of the 39th Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS) from Balikesir airbase and the 739th MUNSS from Akinci airbase. The two teams completely withdrew from Turkey in April 1996 and the nuclear weapons stored at the base were transferred to Incirlik where they were still reserved for delivery by Turkish F-16s. The weapons were stored in the WS3 vaults that had been completed in 1990. The six vaults apiece at Balikesir and Akinci are empty, but they remain in caretaker status. In the event of a conflict, weapons from either the United States or Incirlik could, in theory, be reintroduced.

Update: My reading of the satellite imagery was off yesterday because the images I included showed the igloos in the ammunition storage sites, not the protective aircraft shelters. The shelters contain the underground vaults, the igloos do not. For clarity, I have inserted better pictures into the post. Thank you to Hans Kristensen for pointing out my error. After reviewing my work, I noticed that that weapons storage area at Incirlik is fenced, as is the weapons storage site at Balikesir. The fenced storage site at Incirlik is next to the double-fenced igloos.

Fencing surrounding the weapons storage area at Incirlik:


Incirlik aircraft shelters with the WS3 vaults:

Protective Air Craft Shelter


For clarity, I also added Hans Kristensen’s satellite photos of Incirlik. I took the following photos from Hans Kristensen’s “U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” report for the NRDC.



And Balikesir for comparison:


And Balikesir’s weapons storage area ringed with double fencing:


Up until the weapons’ removal from Akinci and Balikesir, Turkish dual-capable aircraft were responsible for delivering the weapons. After the consolidation of weapons in Incirlik, Ankara decreased the readiness level of its dual-capable F-16s. I have been told that Ankara decertified its nuclear fighter wings to save money. And, in return, Ankara received a very strong nuclear guarantee from the United States. The decision reflects the broader trend within NATO to increase the time needed to use forward deployed nuclear weapons, but also symbolizes Turkey’s very gradual devaluation of nuclear weapons for Turkish war planning.

As of 2001, Turkey hosted 90 B61 nuclear gravity bombs, fifty of which were for delivery by U.S. aircraft. The other forty were reserved for delivery by Turkish F-16s from either the 4th or the 9th air wings currently stationed at Akinci and Balikesir. In 2005, Turkish policymakers turned down an American offer to permanently station the 52nd fighter wing at Incirlik airbase. Instead, the fighter wing rotates in and out of Turkey, while the nuclear weapons are under the custody of the 39th air wing. By 2010 the number of B61 gravity bombs in Turkey had dropped to 60-70, fifty of which were slated for delivery via American aircraft and the rest by Turkish F-16s. Turkey, therefore, has dual-capable-aircraft, but does not have certified pilots to deliver nuclear weapons. (Update: They are, however, nuclear-capable. And they are receiving a “stop-gap” upgrade to carry the B61-12, should the delivery of the F-35 be delayed. Nevertheless, Turkish pilots aren’t certified for the mission anymore.)

Thus, if NATO were to want to use the weapons stored in Turkey, the United States would first have to fly in the 52nd fighter wing, pick up the bombs, and then deliver them to their targets. The Turkish DCAs would acts as fighter escorts. While the posture does reflect NATO’s approach to nuclear deterrence in the post-Cold War world, it does raise a number of questions. For example: How would Moscow interpret the basing of American DCAs at Incirlik during times of a crisis? Second: Under what conditions would Turkey move to re-certify their pilots for the nuclear mission? Third: Will Turkey’s nuclear weapons status change after the deployment of B61-12 in ~2020 and Ankara’s receipt of the F-35?

The questions are difficult to answer, given Ankara’s nuclear opacity. However, the “signaling” issue is, I believe, a serious issue for Turkish/NATO policymakers. For example, in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States and NATO have opted to move fighters to Baltic air bases to demonstrate Alliance solidarity.

Now, if Russia were to actually threaten a NATO member, how would the Alliance react? It is no secret that the Baltic states favor the maintenance of forward deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, and argue that they are a necessary tool to deter the nuclear armed Russian military. Thus, if one were to game out a scenario of a slow-moving crisis – perhaps similar to Russia’s maintenance of 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and its provocative acts in eastern Ukrainian cities – in a Baltic NATO state, I could envision a discussion about “signaling” the Alliance’s intent to escalate the conflict to protect its far-eastern flank. And, if the Alliance did opt to increase the readiness of its DCA fleet, then I would presume that would include the “temporary” basing of US DCAs at Incirlik. How would Moscow interpret such an act? While other Alliance members also have a very relaxed nuclear posture, Turkey is unique because of its decision not to permanently station DCAs with the bombs at Incirlik.

The question is difficult to answer, but it appears to be a classic crisis stability problem. Moving forward, Turkey has shown no indication that intends to alter its nuclear weapons posture. Nevertheless, Ankara – by all accounts – will purchase some dual-capable F-35s. Turkey, therefore, appears to be content with the current nuclear status quo. Thus, if tensions with Moscow continue, the “tactical nuclear signaling issue” could pose a unique set of challenges for Turkey/NATO/US defense officials.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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1 Response to Turkey’s Airplane-less Nuclear Weapons: A Classic Crisis Stability Problem? (Updated)

  1. Hans Kristensen says:

    Aaron: Be aware that the satellite images show the munitions igloos, not the protective aircraft shelters. It is the protective aircraft shelters, not the igloos, that contain the underground vaults for the weapons. Moreover, although the Turkish mission has clearly been fading and the F-16s no longer fully certified, they are still nuclear-capable and scheduled for an upgrade to be able to deliver the new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb around 2020. After that the Turkish F-35s would potentially take over the mission but we’ll see if that ever happens. You can find our latest estimate of the deployment in Europe here: http://blogs.fas.org/security/2014/03/nato-nuclear-costs/

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