It's a nice place for nukes, but not the best place for nukes.

Photographer: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Why the U.S. Should Move Nukes Out of Turkey

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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A week ago, the question of whether the U.S. should continue to station nuclear missiles in Turkey was of interest only to a passel of national-security geeks and nonproliferation advocates. One failed coup later, the discussion has spread to CNN, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere. Who's winning the debate?

The U.S. has an undisclosed number of B61 tactical nuclear bombs -- probably around 50 -- in bunkers at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. The U.S. Air Force has operated out of Incirlik for years, more so recently in the fight against Islamic State across the nearby borders of Syria and Iraq.

The B61 is a variable-yield device, meaning the size of the nuclear explosion can be adjusted as low as 0.3 kilotons or as high as 340. (The bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, by comparison, was 15 kilotons.) Such "dial-a-yield" capability is valuable to U.S. deterrence strategy because it remains at least theoretically plausible to potential adversaries that the U.S. would actually use one in a limited nuclear war. (Nobody even remotely imagines that the U.S. would use a massive warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile other than in an existential fight against a major power such as Russia.)

The U.S. stores a few hundred other B61s at bases in Europe, with allies like Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. At those facilities, there are NATO-member planes equipped to carry the tactical nukes. Oddly, there are no such planes at Incirlik or in the Turkish air forces, meaning after a coup in Turkey, the new regime would not immediately be capable of deploying the weapons. 

But wouldn't it be safer to keep nukes out of Turkey's hands altogether? Why keep the B61s at Incerlik?    

The highest-profile argument against the weapons came from the author and filmmaker Eric Schlosser, known mostly for his muckraking reports on the fast food industry. Schlosser has solid background in the issue -- his book about a nuclear-missile accident in Arkansas in 1980 was a Pulitzer Prize finalist -- but his New Yorker piece is more successful at scaremongering than informing. For one, he glosses over the difficulties that either a rogue Turkish regime or terrorists would have in overriding the safety measures required to detonate the bomb, or even to turn it into a "dirty bomb" by destroying the missile casing and spreading a cloud of radioactive material to the surrounding area.

Schlosser also makes a big deal of the handful of times that European anti-nuke advocates have snuck onto bases holding the missiles. But NATO insists they never penetrated bunkers holding the weapons. In any case, the bombs at Incirlik are not guarded by local forces but by U.S. personnel, and in recent years the Pentagon has spent millions upgrading security.

A more persuasive case against the deployment was made at the Foreign Policy website by Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Based on history, he is not especially concerned about coup plotters' gaining access to the nukes. His point is that Turkey is not a sensible base for nuclear deterrence anyway.

Even if there are no planes to deliver the bombs, some U.S. officials felt that having nuclear weapons deployed outside of Europe and on Iran’s doorstep helps deter Tehran from using any nuclear weapon it might acquire, thus reassuring America’s allies and partners in the Middle East.

In theory, the Iran deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) manages the problem of an Iranian bomb. In practice, though, Washington clearly feels it needs to reassure allies and partners who are more frightened by the fact that it made a diplomatic agreement with Tehran than they were by Iran’s unconstrained nuclear program. While I find that reasoning bizarre, I accept that withdrawing nuclear weapons to Germany or the U.K. might unnerve some partners in the Middle East. But, after the events of the past weekend, leaving them in place seems positively terrifying.

It didn't take long for Lewis to find his foil.

On Wednesday, in the Times's Room for Debate opinion feature, he found himself debating Kori Schake of the right-leaning Hoover Institution. Schake argues that the forward presence of U.S. nuclear missiles not only keeps adversaries cowed, but also aids global efforts to stem nuclear proliferation.

U.S. allies rely on the U.S. arsenal; she writes that pulling out "could easily lead countries like Turkey to develop nuclear weapons of their own."

Lewis isn't buying it. He says the U.S. Air Force considers the nukes at Incirlik "an expensive distraction from the mission of countering the Islamic State," and he says their intended purpose is to symbolize a commitment to NATO.

Reassuring our Middle Eastern allies of our staunch support in efforts to counter Iranian adventurism is a high priority, as is nuclear nonproliferation. But Lewis's more practical arguments win the day. And his solution seems sensible: to consolidate our foreign-based tactical nukes as tightly as possible into European locations, while maintaining the capability to attack Iran from there.

This would mean persuading the NATO allies, especially a reluctant Germany, that the post-Cold War world still requires a Cold War-style nuclear deployment on their soil.

But the payoff would be significant: The weapons would be more secure, at a lower cost, and would deliver a warning to the most likely nuclear threat the West faces -- Vladimir Putin's Russia.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net