During Turkey's Coup Attempt, the US Lost Control over 50 Hydrogen Bombs
July 22, 2016 Bonnie Kristian / The National Interest & Eric Schlosser / The New Yorker & Alexandra Bell and Benjamin Loehrke / The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
During the recent military coup attempt in Turkey, the US briefly lost access to the Incirlik Air Base and a critical underground storage facility containing around fifty American-made B-61 hydrogen bombs -- roughly a quarter of the nukes of NATO -- each one capable of producing a boom up to eleven times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The bombs simply sit at the base, underground, waiting to be used or misused.
America Keeps Lethal Nukes All Over Europe for No Good Reason Bonnie Kristian / The National Interest
(July 20, 2016) -- That the United States briefly lost access to the Incirlik Air Base was almost a footnote in the glut of news about the recent military coup attempt in Turkey. And what attention the incident did get was focused on the immediate implication: Incirlik is central to the United States' anti-Islamic State air campaigns, and those dependent on the base were forced to come to an immediate halt.
Now, as the Erdogan government consolidates its restored authority, Incirlik is open to America once again, though as of this writing it reportedly remains without power. With the help of generators, US operations on the base are back in action. All's well that ends well, right?
Not quite. As Eric Schlosser details in a must-read report in the New Yorker, it wasn't only anti-ISIS efforts that were imperiled by that loss of access. Incirlik is also home to around fifty American-made B-61 hydrogen bombs -- roughly a quarter of the nukes of NATO -- each one capable of producing a boom up to eleven times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. [See story below -- EAW.]
Sure, they're stored in a secure underground vault. Sure, they're equipped with switches known as Permissive Action Links (PALs), designed to prevent a bomb from detonating if the user doesn't enter the correct code.
Sure, there are significantly fewer American-supplied nukes distributed among NATO members than there used to be, thanks to stockpile cuts made by both Presidents Bush.
But it doesn't take a lot of H-bombs to wreak a lot of havoc. As Schlosser notes, PALs can be bypassed with the right skills. And though there are obviously generators galore at Incirlik, loss of base power plus a significantly below-average US troop presence don't exactly make those vaults more secure.
Incirlik is hardly the only foreign base at which American nuclear weapons are stored. On top of the fifty or so there, about 130 additional B-61s are placed with Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. At some of those locations, security is hardly tight.
At the Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium, for instance, you can watch video on YouTube of antinuke activists climbing onto the property with nothing more high-tech than a rug to cover some fence spikes.
They get to the building where twenty nuclear weapons are located, put stickers everywhere and are eventually confronted by a single soldier with an unloaded gun.
Now, the good news is that these nuclear stockpiles have typically not been a target of terrorist plots. Even in an extraordinary situation like we saw at Incirlik last week, stealing or otherwise compromising one of these weapons caches wouldn't be easy. Yet the fact that they have not proven a significant vulnerability to date hardly means we should maintain this arrangement.
Indeed, what makes the whole scenario puzzling is how little defense value the United States gains from having H-bombs strewn about Europe. The theory is that having these bombs so close to Russia will act as a deterrent to aggression, but that Cold War-era idea is increasingly little more than an outdated relic on both political and technological grounds.
Since "missiles carrying nuclear warheads reach targets much faster, more reliably, and with much greater accuracy," as Schlosser says, were the United States to actually employ its nuclear stockpile, we almost certainly wouldn't select one of these farm-team bombs.
This is something Moscow unquestionably realizes, which means it is not those 180 bombs that restrain the Russian bear. And anyway, in an era when we overwhelmingly face nonstate adversaries, using a weapon as indiscriminate and inhumane as a nuclear bomb becomes ever more difficult to justify.
All this adds up to suggest that placing this excess of H-bombs with internally volatile NATO allies has at best a neutral impact on US security. More likely it is an unnecessary and expensive risk borne out of an antiquated mindset which no longer reflects the world in which we live. Bringing our troops home from Europe might not yet be on the horizon, but bringing our bombs home should be.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time, Relevant, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
(July 17, 2016) -- Among the many questions still unanswered following Friday's coup attempt in Turkey is one that has national-security implications for the United States and for the rest of the world: How secure are the American hydrogen bombs stored at a Turkish airbase?
The Incirlik Airbase, in southeast Turkey, houses NATO's largest nuclear-weapons storage facility. On Saturday morning, the American Embassy in Ankara issued an "Emergency Message for US Citizens," warning that power had been cut to Incirlik and that "local authorities are denying movements on to and off of" the base.
Incirlik was forced to rely on backup generators; US Air Force planes stationed there were prohibited from taking off or landing; and the security-threat level was raised to FPCON Delta, the highest state of alert, declared when a terrorist attack has occurred or may be imminent.
On Sunday, the base commander, General Bekir Ercan Van, and nine other Turkish officers at Incirlik were detained for allegedly supporting the coup. As of this writing, American flights have resumed at the base, but the power is still cut off.
According to Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, underground vaults at Incirlik hold about fifty B-61 hydrogen bombs -- more than twenty-five per cent of the nuclear weapons in the NATO stockpile.
The nuclear yield of the B-61 can be adjusted to suit a particular mission. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had an explosive force equivalent to about fifteen kilotons of TNT. In comparison, the "dial-a-yield" of the B-61 bombs at Incirlik can be adjusted from 0.3 kilotons to as many as a hundred and seventy kilotons.
Incirlik was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of the Second World War; when Turkey joined NATO, in 1952, it became a crucial American base during the Cold War. With a flight time of about an hour to the Soviet Union, the base hosted American fighters, bombers, tankers, and U-2 spy planes. And, like many NATO bases, it stored American nuclear weapons. NATO strategy was dependent on nuclear weapons as a counterbalance to the perceived superiority of Soviet conventional forces.
The threat of a nuclear attack, it was assumed, would deter Soviet tanks from rolling into NATO territory. And granting NATO countries access to nuclear weapons would strengthen the alliance, providing tangible evidence that the United States would risk a nuclear war for NATO's defense.
By the mid-nineteen-sixties, more than seven thousand American nuclear weapons were deployed in Western Europe, Greece, and Turkey. They came in all sizes, shapes, and yields: nuclear warheads, bombs, land mines, depth charges, artillery shells, even small nuclear projectiles that could be fired from a recoilless rifle.
The weapons were technically in the custody of US officers, ready to be handed over for use in wartime by NATO personnel. But custody of the weapons was not the same as control of them. A delegation of US senators visiting Europe in 1960 was shocked to find hydrogen bombs loaded onto German planes that were on alert and crewed by German pilots; thermonuclear warheads atop missiles manned by Italian crews; nuclear weapons guarded and transported by "non-Americans with non-American vehicles."
The theft or use of these weapons by NATO allies became a grave concern. "The prime loyalty of the guards, of course, is to their own nation, and not to the US," the Senate delegation warned in a classified report.
Two years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara worried that Turkish officers might try to fire some of NATO's nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union without permission -- and ordered American custodians to sabotage the missiles, somehow, if anyone tried to launch them. Coded switches were subsequently placed inside NATO's hydrogen bombs.
These switches, known as Permissive Action Links (PALs), were designed to hinder unauthorized use of the weapons; the bombs wouldn't detonate if the operator didn't enter the right code. But PALs could be circumvented by someone with the proper technical skills.
When two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, were on the cusp of war in 1974, the United States secretly removed all of NATO's nuclear weapons from Greece and cut the arming wires of every nuclear weapon stored in Turkey, rendering them inoperable.
Thanks largely to stockpile reductions during the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, the United States now has about a hundred and eighty nuclear weapons deployed with NATO, all of them B-61 bombs. In addition to Incirlik, the weapons are stored at bases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy.
Today, the symbolism of these bombs is far more important than their military utility; missiles carrying nuclear warheads reach targets much faster, more reliably, and with much greater accuracy. The advocates of retaining nuclear weapons in NATO argue that the B-61 bombs demonstrate America's enduring commitment to the alliance, intimidate Russia, and discourage NATO members from developing their own hydrogen bombs. Opponents of the weapons, like Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, consider them "absolutely senseless" -- and an inviting target for terrorists.
With a few hours and the right tools and training, you could open one of NATO's nuclear-weapons storage vaults, remove a weapon, and bypass the PAL inside it. Within seconds, you could place an explosive device on top of a storage vault, destroy the weapon, and release a lethal radioactive cloud. NATO's hydrogen bombs are still guarded by the troops of their host countries.
In 2010, peace activists climbed over a fence at the Kleine Brogel Airbase, in Belgium, cut through a second fence, entered a hardened shelter containing nuclear-weapons vaults, placed anti-nuclear stickers on the walls, wandered the base for an hour, and posted a video of the intrusion on YouTube. The video showed that the Belgian soldier who finally confronted them was carrying an unloaded rifle.
Security concerns at Incirlik Airbase recently prompted a major upgrade of the perimeter fence that surrounds its nuclear-weapons storage area. Incirlik is about seventy miles from the Syrian border, and since October American aircraft and drones based there have been attacking ISIS forces. Its proximity to rebel-controlled areas in Syria and the rash of terrorist acts in Turkey led the Pentagon, a few months ago, to issue an "ordered departure" of all the family members of American troops at Incirlik. They were asked to leave immediately. About two thousand US military personnel remain stationed there.
Although Incirlik probably has more nuclear weapons than any other NATO base, it does not have any American or Turkish aircraft equipped to deliver them. The bombs simply sit at the base, underground, waiting to be used or misused.
(November 23, 2009) -- For more than 40 years, Turkey has been a quiet custodian of US tactical nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, Washington positioned intermediate-range nuclear missiles and bombers there to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union (i.e., to defend the region against Soviet attack and to influence Soviet strategic calculations).
In the event of a Soviet assault on Europe, the weapons were to be fired as one of the first retaliatory shots. But as the Cold War waned, so, too, did the weapons' strategic value. Thus, over the last few decades, the United States has removed all of its intermediate-range missiles from Turkey and reduced its other nuclear weapons there through gradual redeployments and arms control agreements.
Today, Turkey hosts an estimated 90 B61 gravity bombs at Incirlik Air Base. Fifty of these bombs are reportedly assigned for delivery by US pilots, and forty are assigned for delivery by the Turkish Air Force.
However, no permanent nuclear-capable US fighter wing is based at Incirlik, and the Turkish Air Force is reportedly not certified for NATO nuclear missions, meaning nuclear-capable F-16s from other US bases would need to be brought in if Turkey's bombs were ever needed.
Such a relaxed posture makes clear just how little NATO relies on tactical nuclear weapons for its defense anymore. In fact, the readiness of NATO's nuclear forces now is measured in months as opposed to hours or days.
Supposedly, the weapons are still deployed as a matter of deterrence, but the crux of deterrence is sustaining an aggressor's perception of guaranteed rapid reprisal -- a perception the nuclear bombs deployed in Turkey cannot significantly add to because they are unable to be rapidly launched. Aggressors are more likely to be deterred by NATO's conventional power or the larger strategic forces supporting its nuclear umbrella.
So in effect, US tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey are without military value or purpose. That means removing them from the country should be simple, right? Unfortunately, matters of national and international security are never that easy.
Roadblocks to Removal
In 2005, when NATO's top commander at the time, Gen. James L. Jones, supported the elimination of US nuclear weapons in Europe, he was met with fierce political resistance. (In addition to the 90 B61 bombs in Turkey, there are another 110 or so US bombs located at bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.) Four years later, some US and European officials still maintain that the political value of the nuclear weapons is enough to keep them deployed across Europe.
In particular, they argue that the weapons are "an essential political and military link" between NATO members and help maintain alliance cohesion. The Defense Department's 2008 report on nuclear weapons management concurred: "As long as our allies value [the nuclear weapons'] political contribution, the United States is obligated to provide and maintain the nuclear weapon capability."
Those who hold this view believe that nuclear sharing is both symbolic of alliance cohesion and a demonstration of how the United States and NATO have committed to defending each other in the event of an attack. They argue that removing the weapons would dangerously undermine such cohesion and raise questions about how committed Washington is to its NATO allies.
But NATO's post-Cold War struggles with cohesion are a result of far more than disagreement over tactical nuclear deployments. NATO has given Turkey plenty of reasons to doubt its members' commitment to Ankara on several recent occasions. For example, before both Iraq wars, some NATO members hesitated to provide Turkey with air defenses or to assist it with displaced persons who had fled into its territory.
Moreover, Turkey, which values NATO as a direct connection to Washington, witnessed the United States completely ignore its vehement opposition to the most recent Iraq War. Additionally, Ankara is dismayed by the reluctance of some of its NATO allies to label the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has caused violent chaos along the Turkish border, as a terrorist organization.
Then there is the issue of Tehran's nuclear program, which seriously complicates any discussion of the United States removing its tactical nuclear weapons from Turkey. An Iranian nuclear capability could spark an arms race in the Middle East and bring about a "proliferation cascade," which could cause Turkey to reconsider its nuclear options -- especially if the United States pulls its nuclear weapons from Incirlik.
When asked directly about its response to an Iranian nuclear weapon, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said that Turkey would immediately arm itself with a bomb. This isn't Ankara's official policy, but it seems to indicate a general feeling among its leaders. Whether Turkey is primarily concerned about security or prestige, the bottom line is that it would not sit idly by as Iran established a regional hegemony.
A Prescription for Withdrawal
Preventing Turkey (and any other country in the region) from acquiring nuclear weapons is critical to international security. Doing so requires a key factor that also is essential to paving the way toward withdrawal of US nuclear weapons: improved alliance relations.
The political and strategic compasses are pointing to the eventual withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Europe -- it's a strategy that certainly fits the disarmament agenda President Barack Obama has outlined. But to get there, careful diplomacy will be required to improve US-Turkish ties and to assuage Turkish security concerns.
The US-Turkish relationship cooled when Turkey refused to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom, after which Turkish support for US policy declined through the end of the George W. Bush administration. Obama's election has helped to mend fences, and his visit to Turkey in April was warmly received.
In fact, all of the administration's positive interactions with Turkey have been beneficial: Washington has supported Turkey's role as a regional energy supplier and encouraged Ankara as it undertakes difficult political reforms and works to resolve regional diplomatic conflicts. For its part, Turkey recently doubled its troop contribution to NATO's Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan -- a boon to US efforts there.
By incorporating Ankara into its new European missile defense plans -- intended to protect Turkey and other countries vulnerable to Iran's short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles -- Washington could further shore up its military relationship with Turkey.
Ship-based Aegis missile systems will be the backbone of the strategy, with considerations left open for later deployments of mobile ground-based interceptors in Eastern Europe or Turkey. This cooperation could provide the bond with Washington and perception of security that Turkey seeks in the face of a potential Iranian bomb.
Because Russia weighs significantly in Turkish security calculations, reductions to Russian strategic and nonstrategic nuclear arsenals also would help improve Ankara's peace of mind.
The United States and Russia soon will seek ratification of a follow-on agreement to START. And treaty negotiations in pursuit of further reductions to the US and Russian arsenals should involve forward-deployed nuclear weapons, including the US weapons in Turkey.
During any such negotiations, Turkey must be fully confident in NATO and US security guarantees. Critically, any removal of the weapons in Turkey would need to happen in concert with efforts to prevent Iran from turning its civil nuclear energy program into a military one. Otherwise, Washington would risk compromising Turkey as a NATO ally and key regional partner.
If used properly, Turkey actually can play an important role in this complex process, and the United States and its allies should seriously consider Turkish offers to serve as an interlocutor between Iran and the West.
First, Ankara's potential influence with Tehran should not be underestimated. As Princeton scholar Joshua Walker has noted, given its long-established pragmatic relations and growing economic ties with Iran, Ankara is in a position to positively influence Tehran's behavior.
More largely, if the United States and European Union task Turkey with a bigger role in the diplomatic back-and-forth with Iran, it would help convince Ankara (and others) of Turkey's value to NATO and have the additional benefit of pulling Ankara into a closer relationship with Washington and Brussels.
As a result, Turkey would obtain a stronger footing in alliance politics, contain its chief security concerns, and foster the necessary conditions for the removal of tactical US nuclear weapons from Turkish soil.
Bell is the project manager at the Ploughshares Fund and a Truman National Security Fellow. She recently traveled to Turkey and has written about US nuclear weapons stationed there for Good Magazine.
Loehrke is senior policy analyst at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.
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