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Why Are U.S. Nuclear Bombs Still in Turkey?

The best time to get atomic weapons out was several years ago. The second best time is now.

President Donald Trump reaches to shake Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2017, in New York City. (Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty)

The American relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has been fraught for half a decade, but never this bad. Last week, American troops were intentionally targeted by Turkish artillery units in Northern Syria as Erdoğan’s forces advanced and President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. into a unilateral withdrawal. The Pentagon sternly warned that Turkey’s troops would face “immediate defensive action” from American forces if such an encounter were to be repeated.

This was a doubly unprecedented targeting of the United States military. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey is a capital-A ally, treaty-bound to defend the collective security of all its 28 nation members, including the United States. Turkey is also part of a select group of five NATO members—along with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy—whose territory hosts American nuclear weapons, too.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, newly established U.S. nuclear missile batteries in Turkey were briefly famous, becoming a bargaining chip in the negotiations to avoid atomic war with the Soviet Union. Those missiles were removed in 1963, but 50 B61 nuclear gravity bombs currently reside in specialized underground vaults at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, some 20 miles from the Mediterranean coast. These air-dropped bombs are capable of delivering a range of nuclear yields, from 300 tons up to 170 kilotons, or roughly eleven times the yield of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945. (For a more concrete description of these weapons’ destructive force, watch this.) Turkish F-16 fighters used to be certified to carry and deliver these weapons, but Turkey no longer has the pilots for that task; now, the weapons at Incirlik are there for rotational U.S. aircraft to drop them, if it’s ever necessary.

In light of Turkey’s precipitous Syrian advance, it’s fair to ask whether the U.S. should reconsider its weapons posture at Incirlik—or, as arms-control researcher Jeffrey Lewis put it last week: “Seriously, it’s time to take our fucking nuclear weapons out of Turkey.” That thought apparently also occurred to U.S. officials at the State Department and Department of Energy; sources tell The New York Times that since Erdoğan’s onslaught against the Kurds began, those officials have been “reviewing plans” to get the bombs out of Incirlik. It should have happened much sooner—say, when a coup threatened to topple Erdoğan’s government in 2016, or in the aftermath, as he drifted from the U.S.’s orbit—but removing a nuclear arsenal from Turkish soil is a necessary step in reducing a global danger. Alliances are built on closely shared interests and values, and—presidential phone calls notwithstanding—the U.S. and Turkey no longer have any.

Technically, we didn’t know that those 50 or so warheads were still at Incirlik until the Times report confirmed it this week. It’s general American policy to neither confirm nor deny the specific location of nuclear weapons on vessels and storage sites overseas. That practice was a major part of what led to the late-1980s rupture in the U.S.-New Zealand alliance: Wellington’s Labour government grew uncomfortable with the likelihood of nuclear weapons passing through New Zealand waters, and the U.S. government wouldn’t certify that its vessels were explicitly nonnuclear.

What we do know is that B61 warheads in NATO nations are held for safe storage in special electronic vaults—known as a Weapons Storage and Security System, or WS3—in the floors of hardened bunkers. Deep inside Incirlik, these vaults are some of the last checks against nuclear theft or detonation by, say, a rogue Turkish government or allied militia. Some additional safety is provided by permissive action links—essentially, access entry codes—on the bombs themselves, but these delay rather than prevent unauthorized use. Given sufficient time and access to these weapons, a sophisticated adversary with the resources of a nation-state could likely figure out a way to use them—if not as designed, then in a way that would still release disastrous and deadly radiation. The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to physically remove the weapons.

When it comes to occasionally pulling its nuclear weapons out of allied countries, the United States has some well-known experience: It’s removed arms from the United Kingdom, Greece, and a German base under NATO auspices, with little logistical or political difficulty. Turkey’s case appears a bit more fraught: The Times, based on an interview with one unnamed U.S. official, suggested that the American nuclear bombs “were now essentially Erdoğan’s hostages.” That’s literally untrue, since the weapons remain in U.S. Air Force custody, but the underlying idea is that “to fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance.” But that statement seems inaccurate, too: This dysfunctional alliance can’t and won’t be saved by the physical presence of American bombs on Turkish soil. The weapons are a liability and serve no valid reassurance purpose—not to Turkey specifically, or to NATO more generally. The bombs can most certainly leave, and Turkey can remain as NATO’s intolerable black sheep—its status in the alliance being a problem for another day.

Where those weapons could go after being removed from Turkey is a different thorny question. Given deep-seated European skepticism of American intentions at the moment, accepting a nuclear deployment under a Trump president would kick off a political hurricane—one that each NATO member nation is eager to avoid. But as Turkey expert Aaron Stein notes, the U.S.’s oldest NATO-deployed B61s, including those at Incirlik, were slated for upgrades and maintenance, for which the weapons would rotate out to the United States, likely the Pantex nuclear assembly plant in West Texas. (The bombs are due to receive a new “tail kit assembly” as part of planned modernization to increase their “precision.”) This upgrade has been considerably delayed, but the bombs might need to come home sooner than planned.

That’s because waiting out the current U.S.-Turkish crisis seems... imprudent. President Trump was already beleaguered by Turkey controversies before the anti-Kurdish offensive began: His first national security adviser admitted in federal court that he was a paid Turkish agent. We also learned this week that Trump pressured Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state, to get a Turkish Erdoğan-connected gold dealer, represented by Rudy Giuliani, free of federal charges in connection with Iranian sanctions violations.

In an attempt to control the damage from the Turkish Syria offensive, Trump has now fallen back on bluster, threatening “to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper has likewise promised that in an upcoming visit to NATO, he will demand consequences for Turkey’s bloody incursion. The U.S. is already in an untenable position, screaming threats at a putative U.S. ally for doing something that Trump assented to in the first place, against virtually all advice from U.S. officials.

At least take nuclear explosives out of the equation. There’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube—or bringing back the U.S.-allied Kurds who’ve been slaughtered as a result of Turkish cruelty and presidential nihilism—but there are lingering risks that can be managed. Removing the U.S. atomic arsenal from Turkey won’t fix the world, but it could save the world from experiencing its stupidest disaster yet.