Amid the recent self-congratulatory celebrations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 70th anniversary, there was no mention one of its strangest policies: the nuclear sharing program that keeps American nuclear bombs in five NATO countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey) and trains host air forces to use them. Thus at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 100 miles from the Syrian border, the United States stores some 20 to 80 B61 nuclear weapons for delivery by Turkish or American aircraft. There is not much comfort in knowing that these weapons are under direct American control in heavily guarded bunkers and are designed to be unusable without the proper codes. It is time to bring them home.
American-Turkish relations are not good and are likely to turn worse. Kurds populate parts of Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq and have been our close ally in the struggle with the Islamic State, but are regarded by the Turks as secessionists and terrorists. The United States has promised not to abandon the Kurds as it has in the past, but that promise puts the United States’ hopes to stabilize the region on a collision path with Turkey.
Complicating the relations are Turkey’s attempts to acquire Russian military technology, most notably the S-400 air defense system, while remaining part of United States’ F-35 stealth fighter program. Turkey is an industrial partner in the F-35 program and is scheduled to purchase 100 of the aircraft. The first of Turkey’s F-35s are ready for delivery. But Turkey is also scheduled to receive soon the first components of the Russian S-400 system it has purchased, which American military officials have said is incompatible with Turkish possession of the F-35; The fear is that details of the fighter’s stealth features and performance will be revealed to the Russians who will help maintain the S-400.
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Nuclear sharing began in the 1960s as a way to assure European members of NATO of America’s commitment to their defense, and to ward off any temptation to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. The presence of American tactical nuclear systems like the B61 bombs would tie American forces to the fate of their hosts. The sharing of the weapons’ delivery would give these countries a direct role in the nuclear enterprise without requiring them to actually build weapons.
Decades have passed, as has the Cold War, and with it, the Soviet forces in the Warsaw Pact countries, the original targets of the weapons. NATO nuclear sharing, though, persists. The weapons and the assigned aircraft are aging. The United States is currently updating the bombs and has designated the F-35 as the replacement aircraft for the F-16, the delivery aircraft for the NATO partners (except for Germany and Italy, which use the Tornado). Some are having second thoughts about hosting the weapons or replacing the aircraft. The Parliament in the Netherlands has expressed doubts, as have members of the governing coalition in Germany. Nuclear weapons aren’t the temptation they once were for Europeans. Turkey, which is the bridge to the Middle East, is silent on the subject.
Storing nuclear weapons close to trouble is a bad idea. Giving Turkey a shared finger on the nuclear trigger is rapidly losing its charm especially as Turkey flirts with Russia and has growing grievances with the United States. Let’s end NATO’s nuclear-sharing program, beginning with the nuclear weapons at Incirlik.