Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.
Incirlik Air Base was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1951 and 1954. It became operational in 1955. The base is located on the outskirts of the Turkish city of Adana and covers an area of more than 3,000 acres. Approximately 2,000 U.S. military personnel are currently stationed there.
The base is used primarily by the U.S. Air Force and the Turkish Air Force. It has been used in the past by various NATO members, including the Royal Air Force and Spanish military forces, as well as the Saudi Royal Air Force.
Incirlik was originally designed as a site for the staging and recovery of medium- and long-range bombers tasked with attacking targets in the Soviet Union.
The base was also used to stage reconnaissance flights over the USSR, including U-2 flights, until they were discontinued following the shooting down of the plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. Incirlik has also hosted a variety of signal intelligence detachments tasked with capturing and analyzing Soviet and now Russian communications traffic.
The base has been a logistical hub and support facility in a range of Middle East conflicts, from the 1958 Lebanon crisis to the Gulf War; to policing the no-fly zone and subsequent invasion of Iraq; the war in Afghanistan; and most recently in the air war against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. Aircraft based in Incirlik can reach every current Mideast hot spot.
U.S.-Turkish relations regarding Incirlik have been through rocky periods. In 1975, in response to the imposition of an arms embargo against Turkey, by the U.S. Congress, for using U.S.-supplied equipment during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, Ankara suspended all non-NATO activities from Incirlik and Izmir air bases and expelled the U.S. from all other Turkish bases. The U.S. was allowed to resume operations after the embargo was lifted.
Turkey initially seemed reluctant to allow the U.S. the use of Incirlik for military operations against the Islamic State, but eventually gave its consent, provided that the flights were "against the Islamic state and [did] not include air support for allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria."
During the 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara discontinued electrical power to the base and put a no-fly order against U.S. military aircraft in the area, including operations against the Islamic State. The Turkish government claimed that dissident generals were using the base and were being secretly aided by the US.
On July 31, 2016, encouraged by the Erdogan government, a mob of thousands of Turks stormed the gates of the base, threatening to seize the facility from the United States.
Since then, U.S.-Turkish relations have become increasingly strained, especially after the Turkish decision to purchase an S-400 air defense system from Russia; Turkey's expulsion by the U.S. from participation in the F-35 development program; and their invasion of the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria.
One of the particularly delicate issues between Washington and Ankara is the presence of approximately 50 B61 nuclear bombs at the base. This is the primary thermonuclear gravity bomb in the American arsenal. Historically, the U.S. would neither confirm nor deny the existence of nuclear weapons held overseas. Recently, however, the Trump administration confirmed the existence of the devices at Incirlik.
During the Cold War, the U.S. maintained stockpiles of nuclear bombs at four Turkish air bases (Ankara Murted, Malatya Erhac, Skisehir and Balekesir). Turkish Air Forces were tasked with delivering those bombs to targets in the Soviet Union. The weapons were guarded by a contingent of U.S. troops.
The U.S. also maintained a stockpile at Incirlik. The weapons are stored in a reinforced underground bunker and guarded by US troops. The provision of the U.S.-Turkish agreement governing the placement of those weapons required both governments to agree to their deployment.
The bombs are thermonuclear gravity bombs with an adjustable FUFO (full fusing option) that permits a low to intermediate yield ranging from .3 to 340 kilotons.
The approximately 700- to 1,200-pound bombs, depending on the variant, were designed to be delivered by a wide range of U.S. and NATO military aircraft, provided they had been modified to carry the weapons. That includes both interceptors, fighter bombers and strategic bombers. The latest version of the B61, the Mod 12 upgrade, will be deployable on the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning. The bombs at Incirlik have not yet been upgraded. Currently, there are no planes, either Turkish or American, stationed in Turkey that can carry these bombs.
The weapons were classed as tactical or theater weapons and were originally intended to be used against concentrations of Soviet infantry and armor in the event of a Soviet invasion of Turkey.
The nuclear weapons were removed from the four other Turkish bases following the end of the Cold War. The nuclear bombs at Incirlik, however, remain.
The U.S. has approximately 150 to 180 B61 weapons at six NATO bases: Klein's Borger in Belgium, Büchel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in the Netherlands and Incirlik.
Notwithstanding the improvements envisioned by the Mod 12 upgrade, including the improved accuracy and standoff capabilities, it's hard to see under what battlefield conditions such weapons would or could be used.
Turkey signed the nuclear-nonproliferation treaty in 1980. The country has an active civilian nuclear program and has been cooperating with Russia's Rosatom and several Japanese companies in expanding its civilian program.
To date, Turkey has not embarked on a nuclear weapons development program. On several occasions in the past, Turkish officials have expressed interest in developing or obtaining such weapons. The most recent occasion was on Sept. 4, 2019, when Erdogan declared that it was "unacceptable for nuclear armed states to forbid Ankara from obtaining its own nuclear weapons." This has been a common refrain from Erdogan over the last decade.
Turkey has significant deposits of uranium, existing nuclear reactors designated for civilian research, and is in the process of building a nuclear power station with assistance from Russia's Rosatom.
The Turkish reactor, the first of four, is believed to be similar to the Iranian reactor, also built with Russian assistance, at Bushehr. Turkey also has the capability to process the spent fuel from the reactors to extract plutonium for use in nuclear warheads.
Turkey has also had longstanding links with Pakistan's nuclear development program and with the architect of that program, Abdul Khan. Western intelligence sources believe that Turkish companies, likely with the knowledge of the Turkish government, facilitated Khan's clandestine program by importing or constructing components used to manufacture centrifuges to enrich uranium.
Nonetheless, it would take years for Turkey to develop an atomic weapon, and it is highly unlikely that it could do so in secret.
According to a number of U.S. government sources, Erdogan has privately warned the U.S. against removing the nuclear devices from Incirlik, and threatened to develop his own weapons if the U.S. bombs are removed. In the words of one source, "Erdogan considers possession 9/10ths of the law. The weapons are on Turkish soil. As far as Erdogan is concerned, they are already Turkish."
What should the U.S. do about the 50-odd B61 nuclear bombs in Incirlik? There are three options.
The first is to simply remove the bombs. Incirlik is a Turkish base that is shared with the U.S. It is highly unlikely, however, that the bombs could be removed without the knowledge of Turkish authorities.
Removing the bombs would likely precipitate a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations. Of course, given the current state of Turkish foreign policy under the Erdogan government, a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations is coming anyway. The only question is when.
The U.S. could load the bombs out on two or three transport planes and fly them out of Incirlik. It is probable that the Turkish government would issue a no-fly order once it got wind of the operation. It's unlikely, however, that there would be much more that Ankara would dare do to prevent it or stop the planes once they had taken off.
Removal of the bombs is not unprecedented. The U.S. has been reducing its nuclear arsenal in Europe since the end of the Cold War. The Pentagon has already withdrawn tactical nuclear weapons from Greece, Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Lakenheath Air Base in the United Kingdom.
A withdrawal of the nuclear bombs in Incirlik as part of a general removal of all the B61 bombs elsewhere in Europe might be more politically acceptable to Ankara and be less embarrassing to the Erdogan government.
During the Turkish coup attempt in 2016, the Obama administration considered flying the bombs out of Incirlik but ultimately opted to leave them in place.
A related option is that the B61 bombs at Incirlik are slated for an upgrade in the form of a new tail kit at some point in the future in order to give them Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) levels of accuracy and to make them compatible with the F-22 and F-35. The upgrade would occur at manufacturer Pantax's plant northeast of Amarillo, Texas. Conceivably, the Pentagon could use the upgrade as a pretext to remove the bombs from Incirlik and then not return them.
The second option would be to disable the bombs so they would be unusable. Like all nuclear devices, the B61 features a command disable mechanism. The mechanism fries the internal circuitry of the device and destroys critical components without triggering a detonation.
Disabling the bomb renders it useless. Bombs that have been disabled have to be returned to Pantax for repair. It is not inconceivable, however, that should the Turkish government obtain the disabled bombs, it could, with external aid, be able to repair the devices and make them usable again.
There is precedent for disabling the bombs. In 1974, when Greece and Turkey almost went to war over Cyprus, the U.S. withdrew all its nuclear weapons in Greece and rendered the weapons in Turkey inoperable.
In addition, like all U.S. nuclear weapons, the bombs require that a 12-digit code be entered in order to arm the bomb. In theory, the code is to be supplied by the White House. It has long been reported, however, that historically the arming code consisted of a series of zeroes, though the Air Force has disputed this point. It's not known whether the arming code has been changed.
The third option is simply to do nothing and leave them there. But given the increasing dysfunctionality of U.S.-Turkish relations, doing nothing simply defers the issue and will likely make it more complicated to resolve in the future.
Removing the bombs will likely trigger renewed Turkish rhetoric about the desirability of obtaining atomic weapons. Turkish plans to do so, even if they never come to fruition, will have a direct impact on Iran's nuclear weapons program and on the U.S. and Europe's attempts to curb it. It may also trigger other countries in the region, especially Greece, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to consider starting their own development programs.
Additionally, removing the nuclear bombs will likely trigger Turkish demands for the U.S. to relinquish Incirlik and may move Ankara closer to Moscow. On the other hand, all these developments may, given the current trajectory of Turkish foreign policy under Erdogan, happen anyway. Removing those weapons simply eliminates one of the tools that Erdogan has used to blackmail the U.S. and his NATO allies.
It's time to bring those weapons home and take them out of the influence of an increasingly unreliable and often hostile ally.
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