Almost as soon as Turkish troops began their invasion of Syria and were even shelling US special forces, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the United States started openly discussing suspension of Turkey’s membership in NATO.
At the same time, old debates about whether or not the United States should withdraw the roughly 50 B61 nuclear gravity bombs at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey also began resurfacing. Unlike in years prior, however, this time such a move may actually be in the offing. Over the weekend, two American officials told the New York Times that the State and Energy Department personnel were already reviewing plans to evacuate the weapons.
Pulling the nuclear weapons out of Turkey may seem like a bold step; the New York Times report states that removing them would spell the “de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance.” But the United States has been reducing the number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and consolidating the remaining ones at ever fewer bases since the end of the Cold War. For example, it withdrew tactical nukes from Greece in 2001, and from Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Lakenheath Air Base in the United Kingdom sometime in the mid-2000s. In fact, the Bush administration may have even removed some of the B61 gravity bombs from Turkey at the same time.
Almost all of the details about previous withdrawals have remained secret—the US government will not even confirm or deny the locations of its nuclear weapons. As a result, it is difficult to know exactly how the United States would go about removing nuclear weapons from Turkey if it chose to do so. But, based on the available public information, here is one possibility of how it might happen.
The first step might require an agreement between the United States and Turkey to end their nuclear sharing relationship. Lest one think that Turkey would object, consider that Turkey has not taken any interest in maintaining the basic capabilities to use the weapons; Turkish pilots have not been certified to carry nuclear weapons on their aircraft since the mid-1990s. It is also possible that the United States could make the decision unilaterally, as President Bush appears to have done during his tenure.
Following such a decision, there are several options for physically removing the weapons, but the most likely scenario would involve airlifting them out. According to a blog post by Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, personnel from the 4th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State would arrive with two C-17 aircraft, load up the nuclear weapons, and fly them out. It is not clear how much preparation such an operation would require, however. Some have suggested that the mission would be logistically complicated, but the United States has certainly had plenty of experience and may have conducted a practice run in Turkey earlier this year.
The final step is to take the weapons to a storage vault somewhere else, either at another air base in Europe or back to the United States. Aviano Air Base in Italy may be the best European option from a political perspective, but it probably does not have enough space for all of the weapons at Incirlik. (Aside from Turkey and Italy, the United States also has tactical nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.)
There is, however, another option for evacuating the nuclear weapons from Turkey—one that may be less politically fraught. As Aaron Stein, the Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, pointed out on Twitter, the B61 bombs in Turkey are slated to receive a makeover in the form of a new tail kit in the coming years. This upgrade will be conducted on US soil, not in Turkey. So in theory the United States could simply slow-walk the modernization operation and never return the bombs to Incirlik.
Would removing the tactical nuclear weapons do permanent damage to the US-Turkey relationship? Perhaps. But relations between the two countries has been in steady decline for years. As Ankit Panda, adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, writes, “This dysfunctional alliance can’t and won’t be saved by the physical presence of American bombs on Turkish soil.”