Are U.S. nukes safe at Turkish air base?

National Security | Report questions the security of weapons amid terror threats and political unrest
by Michael Cochrane
Posted 8/22/16, 12:03 pm

Dozens of nuclear bombs stored at a Turkish air base “could fall into hostile hands or become targets for terrorist attacks,” according to a report released last week by a U.S. think tank.

Jointly operated by U.S. and Turkish forces, the Incirlik Air Base plays a key role in the support of air operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It also serves as the storage site for about 50 U.S. tactical nuclear bombs.

In light of the events surrounding the recent coup attempt in Turkey, in which the base’s Turkish commander was arrested and implicated, the Washington-based Stimson Center concluded the United States could not guarantee its forces could have maintained control of the bombs “in the event of a protracted civil conflict.”

The report’s concerns over the security of nuclear weapons at the Turkish air base came as part of a broader analysis of the military and political utility of the B61 tactical nuclear bomb, as well as the cost effectiveness of upgrades and a planned extension of the weapon’s service life.

According to the report, the United States keeps 180 tactical versions of the B61, which can be carried either by long-range bombers or tactical fighters, at six European bases in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey. The report’s authors conclude the risk—particularly in Turkey—of the weapons falling into the wrong hands is too great.

“From a security point of view, it’s a roll of the dice to continue to have approximately 50 of America’s nuclear weapons stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey,” report co-author Laicie Heeley told AFP, noting that while some safeguards are in place, they don’t eliminate risk. “In the event of a coup, we can’t say for certain that we would have been able to maintain control.”

But other analysts insist the United States would never simply leave nuclear weapons in a country experiencing civil conflict.

“I don’t think that any president would take a risk of having nuclear weapons stolen from a country that is in the middle of a civil war,” said Michaela Dodge, a nuclear weapons and arms control specialist at the Heritage Foundation. “That scenario, to me, is inherently implausible because it seems to indicate that we would leave our nuclear weapons in Turkey during protracted civil war. I don’t think that would ever happen.”

Even if stolen, the weapons would be impossible to detonate without the proper electronic nuclear codes and presidential authorization, Dodge noted. In her opinion, the concern that nuclear weapons at Incirlik could be stolen is overblown.

“It seems to be a good opportunity for a headline,” she told me. “But I don’t think there is a chance that would happen.”

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent. 

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