America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore
“Among the candidates for most iconic image of this past weekend’s attempted coup in Turkey has to be the many videos of Turkish F-16s, hijacked by the mutineers, flying low over Istanbul and Ankara. Eventually, those planes seem to have bombed the parliament. There were rumors that they considered shooting down the plane of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
What’s clear is that mutineers managed to keep the F-16s in the air only because they were able to refuel them mid-flight using at least one tanker aircraft operated out of Incirlik Air Base. Eventually Turkish authorities closed the airspace over Incirlik and cut power to it. The next day, the security forces loyal to the government arrested the Turkish commander at the base. (The images of him being escorted away in handcuffs are in the contest to qualify as the weekend’s most iconic.)
In retrospect, it is understandable why the Turkish government closed the airspace over Incirlik, even if it did temporarily disrupt air operations against the Islamic State in Syria. But that is in retrospect. In the moment, it raised a disquieting thought. There are a few dozen U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs stored at Incirlik. Does it seem like a good idea to station American nuclear weapons at an air base commanded by someone who may have just helped bomb his own country’s parliament?
To be sure, coups have occurred in other countries where the United States stores nuclear weapons. Turkey, Greece, and South Korea have all seen military juntas seize control while U.S. nuclear weapons were present on their soil.
Counterintuitive as it might seem, nuclear weapons have tended not to be a primary target of coup plotters. This has been true for countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons stationed abroad, but also for coup attempts in France and the Soviet Union. My friend Bruno Tertrais found the French case so peculiar that he wrote a great little paper about it.
The weapons at Incirlik are stored in vaults in the floor of the protective aircraft shelters. The shelters are inside a security perimeter. The United States and its NATO allies recently invested $160 million on security upgrades for nuclear weapons, the most visible aspect of which is new security perimeter at Incirlik visible in satellite images. And, of course, if the coup plotters have accessed a weapon, it would require someone to enter a code to arm it. It would not be a simple thing to snatch and use a U.S. nuclear weapon. Coup plotters generally have other things to worry about.
At the same time, if a hostile junta were to seize control of a country with U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in it, things might be dicier. An airbase is a not a fortress; it is not intended to withstand a siege by the host government any more than an embassy might. Use control devices such as “Permissive Action Links” can prevent someone from easily using a stolen weapon, but may eventually be bypassed. There has long been talk about developing security features that would render a lost or stolen weapon a “paperweight” but that’s mostly been just that — talk.
The security situation in Turkey has been deteriorating for some time. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense evacuated military and civilian families from Incirlik, citing concerns about terrorist threats. Then, in April, two goons from a local right-wing group attempted to “sack” a U.S. airman on base. (Sacking is just that — throwing a sack over someone’s head, in this case retaliation for a perceived slight against Turkish soldiers.) This occurred about one kilometer from the weapons perimeter. And now an official in the Erdogan government insinuated that the United States may have played a role in the coup, largely on the basis that a cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who has a large number of followers in Turkey, resides in exile in the United States.”
….Continue reading the thoughtful and provocative article by Jeffrey Lewis @ ForeignPolicy.com