How Safe are U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Turkey?

05 August, 2016

Military and political experts are warning the United States against storing nuclear weapons in Turkey.

Those experts say the recent attempt to overthrow Turkey's government shows one of the risks of deploying American weapons overseas.

Jeffrey Lewis is an arms expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey in California. He told VOA that the nuclear arms in Turkey are very safe in what he calls the near term. "[But] generally speaking, it is not a good idea to have nuclear weapons in a politically unstable country," Lewis said.

The military-led coup of July 15 failed to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since then, his government has led a campaign against members of the armed forces, judiciary and media.

The U.S. military stores B61 nuclear bombs at an airbase in southern Turkey. The bombs are equipped with "Permissive Action Links," known as PALs. They prevent arming and using the weapons without approval from the top U.S. leadership.

FILE - A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jet lands at Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana, Turkey, Dec. 10, 2015.
FILE - A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jet lands at Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana, Turkey, Dec. 10, 2015.

The B61 bombs are heavily guarded and kept in underground shelters. Up to 50 of those weapons are believed to be stored at the airbase. But in July, the Turkish commander of the base was arrested after being accused of involvement in the failed coup against the government.

Ensuring Security

The United States has about 200 B61 bombs in and around Europe, according to Amy Woolf. She studies nuclear weapons policy for the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

American bombs in Turkey are mostly in storage, Woolf said. She noted that Turkey does not have aircraft designed to hold nuclear weapons. In addition, Turkey does not let the U.S. permanently deploy such aircraft to the base.

Currently, some of the airplanes that pass through the airbase could drop nuclear weapons. But those aircraft are involved in operations against suspected terrorist targets.

Woolf said that for NATO member countries, the weapons are there in case "the fundamental security of any of its members" was to be threatened.

U.S. defense policy expert Kori Schake told VOA that removing the nuclear arms from Turkey would send the wrong message to America's allies.

"Countries that feel protected by the U.S., [like] Japan, South Korea, Turkey, have not developed nuclear weapons of their own," Schake said. Without that guarantee, she says, "the risk is that they might develop nuclear weapons of their own."

There is another negative effect of removing the nuclear weapons from Turkey. Without the security of the bombs, Turkey could develop alliances with Russia or even Iran.

Time to Move Them?

Jeffrey Lewis thinks that Turkey's president is much more concerned about political opposition than about having nuclear weapons in the country. "It's not something Erdogan is bringing up," he said.

Hans Kristensen agrees. He directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He says that there would not be any serious political problems if the nuclear weapons left southern Turkey.

Kristensen said that because of the political situation in Turkey, it might be time to consider moving the weapons.

"You only get so many warnings before something goes terribly wrong, and there are plenty of warnings" in the area now, he said.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Sharon Behn reported this story for VOANews. Jim Dresbach adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

coupn. a sudden attempt by a small group of people to take over the government usually through violence

accordingp. as stated, reported, or recorded by

fundamental - adj. of or relating to the basic structure or function of something

negative - adj. harmful or bad