American nukes at risk of being seized by enemy, think tank says
An estimated 50 American-owned tactical nuclear weapons - gravity bombs that can be dropped via airplane - are stored at the international air base at Incirlik, Turkey. The weapons remained at the base during the July 15 coup and through the immediate aftermath, when Erdogan cut the base's electrical power, and did not allow American aircraft to land or take off.
"Whether the US could have maintained control of the weapons in the event of a protracted civil conflict in Turkey is an unanswerable question," the report states.
Incirlik and its nukes are located only 70 miles from Turkey's border with Syria, the report states.
Both the instability in Turkey and the base's proximity to a nation in chaos present a worrisome scenario, the report's coauthor, Laicie Heeley, told AMI Newswire. Heeley wrote the report with Stimson Center co-founder Barry Blechman.
"It's a huge concern that the Turkish base commander was escorted off the property" following the attempted coup, Heeley said. "You want to know that the host country of the nukes will safeguard the weapons."
In recent times, Turkey has not inspired confidence in that regard, the defense analyst said. "Turkey has not shown that these nukes are in a particularly air tight environment," Heeley said.
The weapons are well protected, though, one analyst said.
"They're going to be defended by American military forces, so ISIS can't walk in and take them," said GeoStrategic Analysis president Peter Huessy, who teaches nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy. "All of America's military power would be brought to use to protect them."
Even if captured, Huessy said, the weapons could not be used without enabler codes. "The nukes at Incirlik are not vulnerable to capture and use in that respect."
The Stimson Center report was made within the overall context of examining the B61 program, involving the type of nuclear bomb stored at Incirlik. "We've been looking at the B61 for some time," Heely said. "It's an egregious example of waste."
The weapon currently is the focus of upgrades designed to make it last longer and be used by expanded types of aircraft. The B61's service life extension program (SLEP) will, among other things, provide "tail kits" to improve the accuracy of existing bombs. The SLEP is projected to cost about $8 billion, but actually will cost more than $10 billion, Stimson reports.
Some potential pitfalls already have been overcome, though, thanks to new management approaches by pertinent agencies, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found. In a report issued Feb. 4, the GAO credited the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the U.S. Air Force with using a number of methods to monitor progress and milestones.
Positive progress also was noted by the head of Air Force Global Strike Command. The seven year old command is tasked with running the land and air-based elements of the United States' nuclear "triad," consisting of strategic bomber aircraft, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
"The design and production processes are on schedule and within budget to meet the planned fiscal year 2020 first production unit date for the B61-12 tail kit assembly," Gen. Robin Rand told lawmakers during February testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Costs notwithstanding, concerns remain about how the B61s in Turkey would be used, should the president authorize a strike.
"There are no B61 delivery vehicles at Incirlik," Heeley told AMI Newswire. "Another NATO ally or the U.S. would have to fly a bomber into Incirlik, pick up the weapons and deliver them to whoever we drop them on."
Such a process would telegraph to the enemy that a strike was forthcoming, Heeley said, and would subvert the tactical edge.
The bombs as they now stand present no security, she said. "Given that there is no delivery vehicle it would be ill advised for Turkey to feel that these nukes are a linchpin to their defense."
"If you take weapons out of Turkey you would be putting a great big hole in the European deterrent, and that would be very destabilizing," Huessy of GeoStrategic said.
The NNSA deferred all B61-specific questions; a spokeswoman referred AMI Newswire to the Pentagon, which would not confirm that the bombs were at Incirlik.
"We do not discuss the location of strategic assets," said Defense Department spokesman Lt. Commander Patrick L. Evans. "The Department of Defense has taken appropriate steps to maintain the safety and security of our personnel, their families, and our facilities, and we will continue to do so."