Nuclear Weapons in Turkey are Destabilizing, But Not For the Reason You Think


Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last week, concerns have been raised about the safety and security of American nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik Air Force base. People have wondered if the United States still needs to store nuclear weapons abroad. There have also been questions about the particular mission of the B-61 — a gravity bomb designed for delivery by piloted aircraft. The debates about the B-61, however, have failed to account for how the United States’ “pick up and drop” approach to NATO’s nuclear weapons posture in Turkey could prompt a first strike — and therefore undermine the deterrent mission the bombs are supposed to support.

A Brief History of Nuclear Forces in Turkey

As early as 1956, the United States and Turkey began to discuss the deployment of “special weapons” in the “Adana area” (Incirlik). The first nuclear capable delivery system in Turkey, the Honest John rocket system, was deployed in Adana in 1957, with the associated warhead being deployed in 1959.* Following the signing of the 1959 “Agreement for the Cooperation on the uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes,” the United States began to build up its nuclear assets in Turkey, deploying gravity bombs and nuclear artillery shells.

That same year, Turkey and the United States agreed to deploy three Jupiter missile squadrons at Cigli Air Force base near Izmir. The Jupiter deployment was, by and large, a result of bureaucratic inertia. In short, the United States had made the decision to deploy missiles in Europe. Turkey received the last three squadrons, despite plans to replace the capability provided by the Jupiters with the Polaris submarine launched missile — and a commitment to keep at least one sub in the Mediterranean.

The Jupiters, American interlocutors told their Turkish counterparts at the time, were old, antiquated, and slated for replacement — and almost from the outset of their deployment, the United States had already begun planning to remove them, a proposal the Turkish government resisted. The missiles took too much time to fuel, and therefore were exposed to a Russian first strike from bombers or medium range ballistic missiles operating from bases close to the Turkish border. The missiles were eventually “traded” during the Cuban Missile Crisis — a proposal that Turkey vehemently disagreed with at the time, largely because Ankara viewed Cuba as a weak, Soviet satellite, whereas Turkey was a key U.S. treaty ally. Ankara, therefore, believed that the United States should remove a system from a non-NATO country, similar to the Soviet action with Cuba.** Despite American discomfort with the Jupiter, there was little debate about the need for nuclear weapons in Turkey to defend a vital overland route to the Middle East and the warm water ports of the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf from a Russian land attack.

Following the removal of the Jupiters in 1963, the United States retained nuclear artillery shells and gravity bombs in Turkey, which were seen at the time as more “useable” nuclear options. The United States planned to rely on these nuclear forces to slow down a Soviet attack before American and British reinforcements could augment retreating Turkish forces. The plan for the defense of Turkey, written between 1945 and 1952, was to strike advancing Soviet armor with gravity bombs in or near Turkish territory.

To support this mission, Turkish pilots were certified to carry nuclear weapons, presumably sometime after the first deployment of gravity bombs. For all of the Cold War, American and Turkish air crews trained together to fight World War III. During this entire period, nuclear weapons were loaded on to planes on alert status, ready to take to the air in minutes to deliver their weapons, upon receiving launch authority from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

Turkey’s role in the strike, mirroring that of NATO’s overarching de-emphasis of nuclear weapons, has declined considerably since 1991. After the end of the Cold War, the United States withdrew almost all of its nuclear weapons from Europe, leaving a couple hundred in specially designed underground vaults, built into the floor of hardened aircraft shelters. The remaining weapons have been consolidated at airbases in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Turkey. In every case but Turkey, the host nation also has so-called dual capable aircraft (DCA), piloted by non-American personnel, trained and capable of carrying nuclear weapons to their targets.

Turkey remains a part of the nuclear strike mission, but its nuclear capable F-16s, now based at Balikesir and Akinci, would act as escorts for forward deployed American aircraft, rather than carry the weapons. Turkey, for economic reasons, chose to decertify its pilots, leaving it with aircraft technically capable of carrying and releasing nuclear weapons, but without the trained pilots to do so. Thus, during a time of conflict, Turkey would rely on the United States to carry the bombs at Incirlik. Yet, after changing the terms of basing agreements during the 1990s, the United States no longer permanently stations a nuclear fighter wing in Turkey; instead, the air wing rotates through the base at sporadic intervals from different U.S. air bases in Europe.

Why Our Nuclear Posture in Turkey is Now Destabilizing

Whether during wartime, a period of tension, or peace, it is unlikely the presence of a U.S. fighter wing at Incirlik would go undetected. The air traffic in and around the base is closely monitored and Russia, through a variety of means, can count the number of deployed aircraft deployed. The proliferation of open source satellite imagery allows for anyone to do the same. If the use of nuclear weapons is being contemplated during a conflict, each side would rely on these intelligence gathering means, along with numerous other indicators, to gauge the nuclear intent of the adversary.

The flying in of an American nuclear fighter wing during a time of crisis could signal to Moscow an intent to use nuclear weapons, prompting a debate about a first strike. In such a scenario, however, the United States may simply be trying to reassure a NATO ally. For example, after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24 late last year, a dozen U.S. F-15s forward deployed to Incirlik for joint combat air patrols along the border. The F-15 is certified to carry the B-61.

Russia has also, reportedly, developed a new cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, returning a strike capability — a specific missile to hold NATO targets at risk in Europe — to the Russian armed forces. Alternatively, the Russian Navy could use a sea-launched cruise missile, fired either from the Black Sea or the Mediterranean, both of which would reach their presumed target of Incirlik in minutes. In our hypothetical scenario, an American decision to forward deploy dual capable aircraft in Turkey during a time of crisis could be interpreted as a precursor to a first strike, prompting a Russian decision to strike first, which it has the capability to do via a number of platforms on or near the Turkish border.

To make the nuclear balance more stable, the weapons currently stored in Turkey should be relocated to a different airbase in Europe, where DCAs are located — a proposal my colleague, Jeffrey Lewis, laid out in Foreign Policy. The Turkish Air Force would retain its role in the nuclear strike mission, similar to other NATO states that do not host nuclear weapons, and could escort American and European jets on the way to their targets. To assuage potential Turkish concerns about “alliance solidarity and burden sharing,” NATO could explore augmenting its conventional presence in the country, perhaps proposing the forward basing of missile defense assets. The nuclear weapons could remain in Europe until the United States and Russia agree to discuss limits on tactical nuclear weapons, rather than focusing talks only on “strategic” delivery vehicles and warhead limits.

This change to NATO’s nuclear posture would not degrade the alliance’s nuclear strike capabilities. The consolidation of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe would result in greater stability during times of crises, replacing the odd nuclear posture that could, during a time of extreme tension, lead to confusion and worst case assumptions from a nuclear armed adversary.


*Transmission of the exchange of notes regarding the entry into force of Agreement for the Cooperation on the uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes, File no: 611.8297/7-2959, July 29, 1959, General Records of the Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Box 2553.

** Turkish Position with regard to Trading Jupiters for Soviet Missiles in Cuba,” NARA, Cuban Missile Crisis, CC01328, Secret, Cable Paris, Corrected Copy, Polto 506, October 25, 1962, The Digital National Security Archive.


Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.