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Why the US has nukes in Turkey — and why it's so hard to remove them
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on The Conversation.
As the Syrian crisis pits Turkish troops against former U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, Pentagon officials have been reviewing plans to remove 50 nuclear bombs stored at a U.S air base in Turkey.
A congressional directive to the Pentagon to quickly assess alternative homes for U.S. “ personnel and assets" currently stationed at Incirlik Air Base is part of a broader bipartisan bill, still being debated, that proposes sanctions against Turkey. President Donald Trump has been forced to issue public reassurances that the weapons are secure.
During the Cold War, the U.S. stationed B61 nuclear bombs in Turkey, among other NATO countries. Formally, the U.S. controlled the weapons during peacetime, but the host countries' forces trained and equipped planes so they could drop the bombs with U.S. support in the case of war. The idea was to deter Soviet ground forces and reassure U.S. allies by making clear that the U.S. would be willing to risk nuclear war to block a Soviet invasion of a country hosting the bombs.
In addition, in the years before the U.S. developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, they presented a way for NATO to demonstrate it could act quickly to respond to a Soviet attack.
A B-61 nuclear bomb at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona(Flickr/Kelly Michals)
The 50 bombs still at Incirlik Air Base, in southern Turkey – and others in
Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands – are the last nuclear remnants of that Cold War strategy. The U.S. began pulling nuclear bombs out of NATO countries after the Cold War ended, and since 2000 has removed 40 bombs from Turkey.
Two decades ago, the Turkish Air Force stopped equipping its planes to drop B-61s. Now the bombs at Incirlik could only be used if U.S. pilots first flew nuclear-weapon-capable planes there to load them up. The bombs were left in Turkey even after a 2016 coup attempt raised serious concerns about their safety. After that event, the U.S. Defense and Energy departments began planning how to remove them – but didn't actually bring them back to the U.S.
How secure are they?
The bombs themselves also require 12-digit codes to activate them, However, those protections are only strong enough to delay unauthorized use, rather than actually prevent it. If those barriers were overcome, U.S forces could disable the weapons by destroying electrical components or detonating their chemical high explosive without causing a nuclear release. In the worst case, they could blow up the weapons or the facilities at Incirlik.
Still the U.S. procedures are not designed to prevent skilled attacks or sabotage, especially from an ally. With enough time, Turkey could make use of the nuclear material – if not to detonate in an actual nuclear explosion, then to “ release disastrous and deadly radiation."
What's wrong with removing them?
Taking the weapons out of Turkey carries some physical risks. The bombs aren't terribly heavy – roughly 700 pounds each – but moving nuclear material requires significant security. In addition, the Turkish government would have to help – or at least not stand in the way – of landing transport planes or sending cargo convoys by land or sea.
The greater risks are likely to be political. Those concerns have discouraged previous U.S. administrations from removing the bombs, even though Turkey's defense community isn't particularly interested in using them.
One U.S. concern is that Turkey could perceive the move as a push away from NATO. That could lead to Turkey seeking closer ties with Russia.
In addition, pulling the nuclear weapons out of Turkey could prompt requests to remove other bombs from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, where they are publicly unpopular.
A new worry just arose, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently mused whether perhaps Turkey should leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop its own nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials have long feared that pulling the American nuclear bombs out could encourage Ergodan to try to turn that bluster into reality.
Unintentionally, Trump's efforts to provide reassurance may have made this challenge more difficult. The presence of B-61s in the five countries is an open secret, confirmed by independent observers. But it has nonetheless been NATO policy not to acknowledge the deployments, giving local politicians and the U.S. a shield from parliamentary and public oversight.
By publicly confirming that the weapons were in Turkey, Trump has raised the political stakes should he try to remove them, and made it more difficult for the United States and Turkey to strike a quiet deal to that effect.
Miles A. Pomper is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury College. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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The drills, known as the Combined Flying Training Event, would have simulated air combat scenarios and involved an undisclosed number of warplanes from both the United States and South Korea.
An opening ceremony will be held Monday on Hawaii island for a military exercise with China that will involve about 100 People's Liberation Army soldiers training alongside U.S. Army counterparts.
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Those American standards "are even more important today," Davidson said, "as malicious actors like the Communist Party of China seek to redefine the international order through corruption, malign cyber activities, intellectual property theft, restriction of individual liberties, military coercion and the direct attempts to override other nations' sovereignty."
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Trump, who has met Kim three times since 2018 over ending the North's missile and nuclear programs, addressed Kim directly, referring to the one-party state's ruler as "Mr. Chairman".
In his tweet, Trump told Kim, "You should act quickly, get the deal done," and hinted at a further meeting, signing off "See you soon!"
It is impossible to tune out news about the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump now that the hearings have become public. And this means that cable news networks and Congress are happier than pigs in manure: this story will dominate the news for the foreseeable future unless Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get back together.
But the wall-to-wall coverage of impeachment mania has also created a news desert. To those of you who would rather emigrate to North Korea than watch one more lawmaker grandstand for the cameras, I humbly offer you an oasis of news that has absolutely nothing to do with Washington intrigue.
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A Reuters reporter in Crimea, which Russian annexed from Ukraine in 2014, earlier on Sunday saw coastguard boats pulling the three vessels through the Kerch Strait toward the Black Sea where they could potentially be handed over to Ukraine.