Turkey coup attempt raises fears over safety of US nuclear stockpile
The attempted coup in Turkey on Friday and the subsequent closure of the Incirlik airbase in the south of the country have raised fresh questions about the wisdom of the US stationing the biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons in Europe at such a vulnerable site.
Even before the abortive putsch, the potential terrorist threat to the base, 68 miles from the Syrian border, led to a significant upgrade in the security perimeter around the designated Nato area, where an estimated 50 B61 nuclear bombs are stored in 21 vaults. Friday’s events have increased concerns over whether any such security enhancements can mitigate the risks of holding on to such a dangerous arsenal in such a volatile location.
The Turkish government claimed that some of the coup plotters were based at Incirlik and flew aircraft out of the shared base. It consequently closed air traffic out of the base and cut off its power supply, temporarily stopping US air operations against Islamic State extremists in Syria.
“I think the key lesson is that the benefits of storing nuclear weapons in Turkey are minimal but the risks have increased significantly over the past five years,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “I would say that the security situation in Turkey and in the base area no longer meet the safety requirements that the United States should have for storage of nuclear weapons. You only get so many warnings before something goes terribly wrong. It’s time to withdraw the weapons.”
There are thought to be a total of 180 B61 bombs in Europe, in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands as well as Turkey. The tactical weapons are legacies of the cold war and largely seen as militarily obsolete. However, in the absence of a Nato consensus on removing them, they remain in place as tokens of US commitment to Europe’s defence. Recently they have been earmarked for an expensive upgrade as the era of post-cold-war non-proliferation comes to a halt.
Ian Kearns, the director of the European Leadership Network thinktank, said: “If they are stationed at a place base that intelligence suggests is a target of terrorists attacks and prone to instability, it is no longer reasonable to keep them there.”
The coup and the involvement of Incirlik also raises wider questions about Turkey’s role in Nato.
“It says a lot about the ability of Turkey to operate in coalition operations if its army can’t be trusted,” said Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council thinktank. “To have rogue air force commanders flying around Turkey poses a lot of scenarios that Nato hasn’t planned for.”
Stein added: “The fundamental understanding of Turkey as of 48 hours ago was that it was a difficult ally to work with, with a risk of autocratic backslide, but it was stable. Now its a difficult ally, with the autocratic backslide maybe going into fast-forward. And it’s unstable.”