Most of my regular correspondents will probably have seen the report that Erdogan had Incirlik Air Base raided on Sunday, 17 July, and the base commander there, General Bekir Ercan Van, was arrested for complicity in the coup.
For those who may not be clear on this, Incirlik is a Turkish air base, which the U.S. is allowed to use, along with other NATO allies and coalition partners. It’s not a U.S. Air Force base. Other reporting has confirmed on Monday that U.S. and coalition flight operations have resumed out of Incirlik (this reportedly happened right after General Van was arrested). But commercial power to the base remains cut off. U.S. forces are operating on their own back-up generators.
This will be fine as long as the fuel doesn’t run out. It doesn’t seem like a real good sign that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has yet to speak directly to his Turkish counterpart, according to the Department of Defense. But the situation looks stable for now.
What alert observers immediately pointed out, however, is that Incirlik Air Base houses some 50 tactical nuclear weapons belonging to the U.S. Air Force. And it is by no means foolish to worry about what this coup situation means about the nukes.
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As it happens, though, that’s not mainly because of an emerging, tactical vulnerability for the nukes. No such vulnerability is negligible, and we should of course be concerned. But the proximate issue is the underlying strategic issue for NATO.
Those nukes, you see, are not just random weapons the U.S. Air Force happens to keep in Turkey for some outdated reason. They are kept in Turkey as part of a longstanding NATO policy of “nuclear sharing.” The policy is more than 50 years old, and the current, active participants in nuclear sharing are Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Turkey. (Heritage had a good write-up on nuclear sharing in 2014.)
The point of nuclear sharing is to put the nukes in question in the service of NATO, and enable the host nations to deliver the weapons, as part of NATO defensive operations. (Turkey would deliver the bombs using F-16 strike-fighters.) The nukes in Turkey are there under a NATO umbrella. They’re about Turkey’s forward-defensive position in NATO. They’re about NATO policy.
The U.S. retains operational and tactical control of the bombs (B-61 tactical nuclear weapons). Under the NATO agreement, they would not be used without the authorization of the United States, Turkey, and the NATO Council. And what all of that means is that they are an allied asset. They wouldn’t be used solely at the discretion of the United States.
The nukes are part of NATO’s deterrence posture. They’re a most solemn token of the importance of Turkey to the alliance, as well as the alliance to Turkey.
Which is why it would be the equivalent of a major earthquake for the NATO alliance if the U.S. were to simply spirit the nukes out of Turkey on the next cargo flight.
The Pentagon isn’t going to be explicit about its plan for the nukes at Incirlik. The latest reporting seems to indicate that there are no plans to move them. It would be surprising if we heard that there were such plans, given that the U.S. is officially silent on the topic of where the nuclear-sharing warheads are kept. Such plans would in any case be both sensitive and disruptive, especially if forced on NATO by instability in the member state.
NATO will have to take this under advisement right away as an alliance problem. That’s the only responsible course. If our national leaders are not doing that, they should all be impeached and removed from office immediately.
This situation is vulnerable and delicate – in the extreme – and is therefore a really bad situation to have Barack Obama in charge of. Frankly, the right thing to do is exercise U.S. leadership and get the nukes out of Turkey forthwith. The niceties of NATO consultation can (and should) be tended later. But no one in this scenario has reason to expect Obama to do the right thing – not NATO, and not the American people.
There’s reason to have still greater concern. That reason is that Erdogan has shown his hand now: he’s shown he is willing to break with the status quo and start heading down a heedlessly radical path. That means he is willing to do it across the board.
I know perfectly well that he is an Islamic extremist and plans to rebuild a caliphate; I assume you know that too, and don’t need me to lay out the case for you. Focusing on that aspect of the post-coup environment is undergrad-level discussion.
What the rest of us out here in the world need to understand is that Erdogan’s radicalism won’t be confined to Turkey. It’s not clear yet how fast he can move. But he will try to move as fast as his regional environment is changing, if he can manage to. And when it comes to the balance of strategic power, he has to take into account things like the reported nuclear weapons discussion between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (which may have already borne fruit), and the advances of Iran in securing a redoubt within which to nuclearize on whatever timeline Tehran chooses.
In 2014, German intelligence indicated that it looked like Erdogan’s regime itself intended to develop nuclear weapons. In pursuing nuclear cooperation with Russia, France, and Japan, the Turks declined to have all their nuclear fuel supplied and managed for them, as is usual with contracts for nuclear power plants. For this and other reasons, the Germans concluded that Erdogan wants to build a nuclear option for himself.
For Erdogan, with his neo-Ottoman vision of a caliphate, the changes accelerating around him look like both threats and opportunities. He sees the U.S. subordinating American policy to Russia in the Near East, for the first time since World War II, and recognizes that NATO isn’t the strong horse now. He sees Iran within weeks of being able to deploy the S-300 air defense system, and recognizes that, in short order, neither the U.S. nor Israel will be in a position to effectively attack the Iranian nuclear weapons program with limited air strikes.
For Erdogan, now is the time to get on the move. Might he go so far as to seize the nukes at Incirlik in the days ahead? We can note that arresting the base commander at Incirlik would enable Erdogan to put a close loyalist in that key job. A month ago, I would have doubted anything like that, seriously enough to simply say no. Wouldn’t happen. I don’t doubt it as much today.