BACKGROUND: NATO’s collective defense policy has always preserved the option of employing nuclear weapons, including using them first for purposes of deterrence, defense, and retaliation. During the Cold War, these nuclear forces were seen as essential compensation for the inability of the allies to meet their defense spending and conventional force commitments. Even after the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, NATO’s Strategic Concept of 1999 reaffirmed the alliance’s flexible response strategy of having nuclear options. NATO “nuclear sharing” is a longstanding alliance concept that allows member states not having their own nuclear weapons to “share” U.S.-provided nuclear bombs that they can theoretically launch on their own means of delivery (primarily airplanes). The arrangement allows more NATO member countries to participate in the alliance’s planning and possible use of nuclear weapons if they so choose. In peacetime, American soldiers stationed at their storage sites—specially constructed vaults on certain airfields—keep them under their control while host-nation pilots train with dummy warheads. In wartime, the American president can authorize their release, as well as the codes for detonating them, to the host-nation’s military command. In turn, the NATO nations hosting U.S. nuclear weapons equip and train their air forces to deliver them.
NATO governments refuse as a matter of policy to confirm or deny the location of U.S. nuclear weapons, whether based in foreign countries or deployed aboard U.S. planes or ships. According to publicly available information, Turkey has hosted U.S. nuclear weapons for decades. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the United States deployed intermediate-range missiles and bombers armed with nuclear warheads in Turkey and other European countries. At the time, the U.S. military was having difficulty developing accurate intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of attacking the Soviet Union from their launch platforms in the continental United States, so having missiles and planes in Turkey made it easier to threaten attacks directly against Soviet territory. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union demanded the removal of the Jupiter medium-range missile, which Washington was planning to do in any case since U.S.-based ICBMs became more capable. After 1963, the only nuclear weapons based in Turkey were U.S. gravity bombs, but their number and locations have not stayed constant. In 1995, the U.S. nuclear bombs at the Turkish national bases Akıncı and Balıkesir were removed, concentrating all the remainder at İncirlik.
The group of experts helping to revise NATO’s Strategic Concept looks ready to recommend that the alliance retain its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) until Russia also agrees to reduce its much larger holdings of these weapons. Several allied governments believe that the only way to induce Moscow to agree to such reductions is to link them to NATO’s own nuclear policies. But another factor that may be influencing their decision is that members of Turkey’s national security establishment are thought to be reluctant to relinquish the remaining nuclear weapons that the United States bases on Turkish territory under NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangement.
Today, Turkey remains one of five European members of NATO that hosts U.S. nuclear weapons within the framework of the alliance’s nuclear-sharing arrangement. The NATO nuclear arsenal in Turkey is unique in several respects. First, thanks to major reductions in other countries, Turkey has more U.S. nuclear weapons than any other alliance member outside the United States. Of the 200 or so B-61 nuclear bombs stationed in Europe, Turkey hosts approximately 90 at İncirlik Air Base.
Second, according to public opinion polls, a majority of those surveyed in the five countries hosting U.S. TNWs would like to have the weapons removed, but in Turkey, public opposition to the continued deployment of nuclear weapons is the highest of all the host countries. In addition, Turkish legislators have complained that having U.S. TNWs on their soil weakens Turkish diplomatic efforts to oppose nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. At the same time, these high-level security decisions are often made by Turkish leaders even in the face of substantial popular opposition. The national security establishment of Turkey is traditionally granted considerable discretion in deciding such important policies.
Turkey is also unique in that, unlike the other four participating countries, the country does not host a permanent nuclear-capable U.S. fighter wing, while the Turkish Air Force reportedly is not certified to conduct nuclear missions. Turkey does not normally allow the U.S. Air Force to deploy the fighter-bombers to Incirlik that are needed to deliver the bombs and has imposed additional restrictions on U.S. military deployments during crises, reducing their value as credible deterrents or operational weapons. There is also no evidence that Turkish pilots even rehearse their possible employment. As a result, the only way these weapons could be used is if the United States or other NATO countries send nuclear-capable bombers to Turkey, where they could be loaded with the bombs.
This impractical requirement indicates that the main purpose of the U.S. nuclear bombs in Turkey is not for operational use. Rather, they serve to symbolize the alliance’s commitment to Turkey’s defense, underscore the special security relationship between Washington and Ankara, and elevate Turkey’s status within NATO and European security deliberations—thereby compensating for Turkey’s exclusion from the European Union and its security and defense initiatives.
IMPLICATIONS: Attempting to withdraw the nuclear weapons from Turkey could present serious problems. Many Turkish policy makers already doubt the credibility of U.S. and NATO security commitments due to several earlier incidents following the end of the Cold War. Before both wars against Iraq, some European members of NATO proved reluctant to meet Turkish requests to deploy air and missile defenses to protect Turkey from Iraqi missile strikes. Although the United States did offer some protection, the Turkish government and public were unenthusiastic about their forced involvement in the wars, which was inevitable due to the proximity of the battlefields to Turkish territory. The unpopularity only increased after Washington’s support for the Iraqi Kurds, which raised concerns in Turkey that similar aspirations among Turkey’s Kurdish minority might be encouraged. Turks have also been disappointed by fellow NATO member’s reluctance to support its military operations against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Iran is another issue that could affect the future nuclear weapons policies of Turkey. Thus far, neither the Turkish nor the Iranian government has publicly linked Iran’s nuclear policies and “Turkey’s” nuclear weapons. In principle, the connection could run in various directions. On the one hand, Turkey’s ruling Justice and development party (AKP) deny that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, in which case either the status quo or the elimination of Turkey’s TNWs might be acceptable. On the other hand, those members of Turkey’s national security establishment concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions might either seek to retain the nuclear weapons on Turkish soil as a security hedge or demonstratively eliminate them to encourage Tehran to behave similarly.
The United States and other countries might also need to consider how removing the weapons might affect Turkey’s calculations about whether it might develop its own nuclear deterrent, which would contribute to the feared proliferation wave in the greater Middle East that could undermine the non-proliferation agenda of the Obama administration and other NATO governments. Some Turkish officials see having physical access to TNWs as part of their bargain with the United States and the other allies for not developing an independent Turkish nuclear arsenal.
As part of the current NATO deliberation, there have been proposals to increase the number of U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Turkey as part of an alliance-wide consolidation of NATO’s TNW arsenal. Some proponents of retaining NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements favor removing them from those European countries that no longer want them on their soil and relocating them into those countries that do, which might only include Turkey and perhaps Italy. If NATO withdrew U.S. TNW from all other European countries, the Turkish government could find it uncomfortable remaining the only NATO nuclear-hosting state, and might request their removal from its territory as well. But then Turkey might proceed to develop an independent nuclear deterrent in any case for the reasons described above.
CONCLUSIONS: The Obama administration’s decision to deploy U.S. missile defenses more closely to Turkey—and thereby ensure its protection from an Iranian nuclear attack—should help assuage Turkish concerns. But the most profitable non-proliferation tool in Turkey’s case would be to assure Turks that they will play an essential role in NATO’s security policies and that their preferences will have a major impact in shaping the alliance’s nuclear policies. Insofar as some members of Turkey’s security community are still concerned by Russia’s nearby nuclear and conventional security forces, then NATO initiatives aimed at linking any withdrawal of U.S. TNW from Turkey would presumably be welcome in Ankara. The recently concluded New START Treaty does not address TNWs, but negotiations between Russia and NATO might be warranted, with some level of Turkish participation.
Above all, the allies will need to avoid the appearance of sacrificing Turkish security interests in order to achieve a nuclear deal with Iran. In 1962, the United States might have been able to agree to remove the U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey in return for securing Moscow’s consent to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Cuba without seeking Ankara’s approval. In today’s climate, when Ankara’s security relations with the West are already under great strain, such a deal could well precipitate an enduring break in Turkey’s security ties with NATO. If Turkish policy makers decide to seek elimination of all U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil, in return for some kind of deal with Iran or for other reasons, then that decision should be respected. But the NATO allies should not compel the Turks to keep or remove the weapons without their consent.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis, the Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".