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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What to do about American nukes in Turkey

I'll bet a lot of you didn't know that NATO stores American nuclear weapons in Turkey. Frankly, neither did I. But they do.

For more than 40 years, Turkey has been a quiet custodian of U.S. 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 U.S. pilots, and forty are assigned for delivery by the Turkish Air Force. However, no permanent nuclear-capable U.S. 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 U.S. bases would need to be brought in if Turkey's bombs were ever needed.

The reason for this situation is that NATO no longer uses tactical nuclear weapons. If the Turkish nuclear weapons were ever needed, it would take 'months' to ready them, according to the authors. The question is what, if anything, to do about them.

The authors argue that they should be left alone:
The U.S.-Turkish relationship cooled when Turkey refused to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom, after which Turkish support for U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Russian arsenals should involve forward-deployed nuclear weapons, including the U.S. weapons in Turkey. During any such negotiations, Turkey must be fully confident in NATO and U.S. 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.
I'd be comfortable with that but for one small point about Turkey that the authors don't even mention: Islamism. Turkey is on its way to becoming an Islamist state and that greatly complicates the picture.

If the US does not want another Pakistan on its hands, it may be wise to find a way to quietly disable those nuclear weapons so that they cannot be used to threaten American allies in Europe or the Middle East. Ignoring the problem won't make it go away.


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