This past summer, Turkey experienced a large-scale, though poorly organized, military coup. The causes and consequences of this are of immense importance not just because they impact a NATO member who controls the vitally important Bosporus Strait, but also because the subsequent repression that has followed is extremely alarming, and it threatens Turkish democracy. However, there is one other issue that has been both overlooked and overly exaggerated by a vast number of commentators and pundits: American nuclear weapons housed at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
Fortunately, the American nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base were never at risk. This is because all facilities that store nuclear weapons are highly secured, and it is virtually impossible for nefarious forces to access them. Weapons are housed in a separate, fenced-off area, guarded by well-trained and highly qualified personnel. Inside the fencing, there are vaults sitting under aircraft shelters, and inside these vaults are the nuclear weapons. Thus, it would be exceedingly difficult for outside forces to gain control of American nuclear systems. This is particularly true given the $160 million that the U.S. and its NATO allies recently invested in modernizing and upgrading nuclear security systems (1). Yet all of this security might not have even been necessary during the coup, as history demonstrates that coup plotters rarely seem to target nuclear weapons (2). Instead, they tend to focus on eliminating the sitting government’s senior leadership, closing down transportation networks, and seizing communications networks because these are key to disrupting the government and controlling the narrative (3). Wasting precious resources and personnel on seizing nuclear sites is, therefore, a sub-optimal strategy.
Despite the plethora of evidence suggesting American nuclear assets in Turkey were secure, strange rumors began to emerge that the U.S. government – spooked by the coup – rebased its nuclear weapons in Romania. Originally reported by an obscure website, these uncorroborated speculations were quickly spread by fringe media outlets. However, they have been denied by Romanian officials, and American officials have called the claims preposterous. It also makes no sense from a technical standpoint, as Romania lacks the facilities necessary to house U.S. nuclear weapons (4). In short, there is absolutely no evidence that U.S. nuclear weapons have been moved to Romania.
These concerns and bizarre conspiracy theories about nukes in Romania do raise an important point, though. Why does the United States house nuclear weapons in foreign countries? The policy of storing nuclear weapons in foreign countries dates back to the Cold War. During the first few years of the decades long struggle between East and West, the United States lacked the ability to launch weapons capable of striking the Soviet Union from the U.S. homeland. Missile technology was still maturing, and thus the U.S. was forced to base nuclear weapons in Europe to hold Soviet facilities at risk. Eventually, the U.S. was able to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the U.S.S.R. from the U.S. However, the U.S. continued to deploy nuclear weapons to Western Europe in order to deter a large-scale Soviet invasion. Faced with overwhelming Soviet superiority in conventional forces, NATO was forced to rely on forward deployed tactical nuclear weapons as their asymmetric response. This strategy was officially formalized during the Kennedy administration as the “flexible response” doctrine (5).
Decades later, the U.S. continues to maintain a small number of nuclear weapons in Europe through NATO’s “nuclear sharing” policy. Officially, this is done to maintain deterrence in Europe. However, the relevance of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe is highly questionable. Despite their official mission statement, American nuclear weapons in Europe are objectively little more than vestiges of the Cold War supported only by self-serving bureaucracies looking to justify a greater share of the budget. Their mission of deterring Russian aggression is largely superfluous, as the likelihood of a large-scale Soviet-style invasion is exceedingly small, and the kind of irregular warfare currently used by Russia is far too limited to justify a nuclear response (6). There is also no reason that nukes couldn’t be redeployed to Europe were a major crisis to break out. Of course, there is a risk that the elimination of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe might spook allies, encouraging them to potentially acquire nuclear weapons of their own. However, this seems like an unlikely scenario for two reasons. First, conventional forces play a far greater role than nuclear forces in signaling America’s commitment to allies’ defense (7). Second, the U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons forward deployed to Asia years ago, and neither Japan nor South Korea responded by seeking to acquire nuclear weapons themselves (8). The presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe is likely not a threat to peace – there are too few to frighten Russia, and they are too well guarded to be stolen by terrorists or rogue military elements. However, there is also no real strategic reason for the U.S. to continue to base nuclear weapons in Europe, as they are nothing more than an expensive anachronism.
The coup in Turkey generated all kinds of discussion about a range of issues. It also led to the promulgation of some seriously comical conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, beneath all of this paranoia and confusion lies an important and serious issue: the basing of U.S. nuclear weapons abroad. Sure, there are probably no meaningful risks generated by the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey, but there are also no meaningful strategic advantages to be gained. The United States must seriously evaluate its current nuclear strategy because continuing to do things simply because it’s the way they have been done is not strategy, it’s intellectual laziness.
(1) Lewis, Jeffrey. “America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore.” Foreign Policy. July 18, 2016. Web. September 27, 2016.
(2) Tertrais, Bruno. “A “Nuclear Coup”? France, the Algerian War and the April 1961 Nuclear Test.” Working Paper: Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique. October 2, 2011. Web. September 27, 2016.
(3) Luttwak, Edward N. Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook, Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Print.
(4) De Luce, Dan. “No, the U.S. Is Not Moving Its Nukes From Turkey to Romania.” Foreign Policy. August 19, 2016. Web. September 27, 2016.
(5) Sagan, Scott Douglas. Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Print. pp. 37.
(6) Kofman, Michael. “FIXING NATO DETERRENCE IN THE EAST OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE NATO’S CRUSHING DEFEAT BY RUSSIA.” War on the Rocks. May 12, 2016. Web. September 27, 2016.
(7) Lanoszka, Alexander. “Better to dismay allies now than to infuriate them later.” The Washington Post. April 6, 2014. Web. September 28, 2016.
(8) Krepon, Michael. “Alliances and No First Use.” Arms Control Wonk. July 5, 2016. Web.
Image: © Petitfrere | Dreamstime.com - Nuclear Protest Photo
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.