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Nuclear Security in Turkey: A Case for Consolidation

Nuclear Security in Turkey: A Case for Consolidation

The Incirlik air base in Turkey. Source: incirlik.af.mil

The Incirlik air base in Turkey. Source: incirlik.af.mil

By Daniela Mintz Pimstein

Experts estimate that the United States currently has around 50 B-61 gravity nuclear bombs at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The B-61 gravity bomb is an air-delivered weapon, meaning an aircraft must deploy it[HH1] . The United States has begun to upgrade the B-61s to the B61-12, which will be completed by the mid-2020s. The B-61-12 bombs are undergoing the Life Extension Program (LEP), which is intended to extend the service life of the B-61-3 and B-61-4 bombs. The price per bomb for these upgrades is estimated at being around $25 million. Therefore, the nuclear bombs stationed at Incirlik cost $1.25 billion in total.

The attempted coup on July 15, 2016 alone should provide sufficient concern for the security of the nuclear weapons deployed at the Incirlik Air Base.  Although the majority of the attempted coup occurred in Istanbul and Ankara, Incirlik was still involved in the coup. Power to the air base was to cut off during the coup, and the airspace was closed. Incirlik had to rely on backup generators for a full week after the attempted coup. Furthermore, the location of Incirlik in southern Turkey makes it optimal for carrying out airstrikes against ISIL. The airspace being closed off had ramifications for NATO since planned airstrikes against ISIL could not be executed while the airspace was closed. Over a week after the attempted coup, Incirlik remains at the highest security level: FPCON Delta. Force Protection Delta is used when either there has been a localized terrorist attack or there is intelligence that it is likely.

Although Incirlik can be used to launch strikes against ISIL because of its proximity to Syria and Iraq, this proximity may not be [HH2] optimal for the actual security in the storage of nuclear weapons. Additionally, Turkey has experienced a slew of terrorist attacks over the past year linked to ISIL, including the most recent one at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. The overall picture is bleak.

The decision to withdrawal the U.S. nuclear weapons or not from Turkey can be made through cost-benefit analysis. There are two costs to consider: unauthorized used of the bombs and actual cost of the bomb.

The primary cost to consider at this time is the potential chance of theft and/or unauthorized use of the B-61 nuclear bombs. The attempted coup showed that non-U.S. personnel could access the base, especially since Incirlik has both an American and Turkish section. Incirlik’s use as one of the main sites during the attempted coup strongly highlighted the potentially easy access that rogue Turkish militants or terrorists could have to the vaults where the bombs are stored. If members of the coup were able to land at and use the base to fuel planes during the attempted coup, rogue actors could also develop a plan to steal a B-61 bomb from the base. The security measures set up at the base are “not intended to protect the weapons against a host nation that attempts to seize them.” Unauthorized access to one of the nuclear weapons is the pressing concern given the problems exhibited by Turkey. Apart from the internal political situation in Turkey, the country’s location in a volatile region had it susceptible to terrorist attacks and increased the vulnerability of the weapons at Incirlik. There are multiple security concerns to evaluate when considering the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in Turkey.

Furthermore, if the U.S. were to decide to dismantle the fifty or so B-61 nuclear bombs at Incirlik, rather than to shift them to another base in Europe, it would be able to save around $1.25 billion alone from not having to put those weapons through the LEP. Thus, at this given point in time and for the foreseeable future, the costs of maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey far exceeds the potential benefits of continuing to station them in Turkey.

These costs, however, must be weighed against the benefits of maintaining the B-61 bombs in Turkey. The most commonly argued benefit is that of deterrence. The B-61s were originally stationed at Incirlik in Turkey as deterrence against the Soviet Union. Kori Schake argues that even today they are still an integral part of the U.S. deterrence strategy and that withdrawal would send the signal that the U.S. would not come to Europe’s defense in times of war of conflict, therefore increasing the likelihood of war.  However, other experts argue that today there is no Russian threat to Europe and that domestically-based and submarine-launched weapons will sufficiently deter aggression. More specifically, extended deterrence could still be maintained by four different nuclear weapons other than the B-61-12 bombs; U.S. European allies could rest assured without the B-61 bombs in Turkey.

Moreover, it is important to note that there is no strategic link to the B-61 nuclear bombs at Incirlick. One must evaluate the validity of the arguments about the benefits of deterrence against the fact that the U.S. simply does not have an aircraft capable of delivering the B-61 bombs at Incirlik. Because the U.S. doesn’t permanently station a nuclear fighter wing in Turkey, there is instead a nuclear fighter wing that makes rounds periodically from the other U.S. bases around Europe. Aaron Stein raises an important point that since there is no permanently stationed nuclear fighter at Incirlik, if a nuclear fighter were to be spotted flying over Turkey or landing at Incirlik, it would be perceived as an immediate red flag by Russia. During a time of crisis, Russia could incorrectly perceive the reason for the presence of the nuclear fighter, with grave consequences. The attempt to deter through the current stationing of B-61s at Incirlik, consequently, may actually spark more conflict than simply withdrawing the weapons. Another argument is that if political reasons sway the U.S. to continue to station the B-61 nuclear weapons in Europe, the bombs should age out and then be retired; the refurbishments through the LEP program are incredibly expensive and seem to be an unnecessary expense for the U.S., given its other capabilities.

At this point in time, the benefits of maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey are minimal while the costs are insurmountable. It is time for the U.S. to withdraw its B-61 tactical nuclear weapons from Turkey. At the end of the day, without an aircraft capable of delivering them, the B-61s serve a purely symbolic rather deterrent role, and therefore are a liability without a benefit to the U.S.

I agree with the recommendation of Jeffrey Lewis that the United States should seek to consolidate the nuclear weapons in Turkey. This does not mean that the other tactical nuclear weapons in Europe should remain as they are. Rather, the weapons that are stationed at host bases, rather than American bases abroad, would all be consolidated onto a few American bases. Other than the weapons at Incirlik in Turkey, there are a few other bases that fit this host base description, including two bases in Italy (Aviano and Ghedi) and a base in Belgium (Klein Brogel). Therefore, the weapons in Turkey should not be the only ones that should be withdrawn; all the weapons kept in host bases should be consolidated onto actual U.S. bases in European countries, such as the United Kingdom and Germany.

Recent events, while definitely eliciting concern for the nuclear weapons the United States has deployed in Turkey, also draw our attention to the security of the entire arsenal deployed in NATO countries. Especially with the approval of the prohibitively costly Life Extension Program and rise of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, it is important for policymakers to consider the security of all tactical nuclear weapons deployed at host bases in Europe, including Italy, Belgium and Turkey.

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