Pull the Nukes from Turkey — and Then Think Bigger
Removing America’s nuclear weapons from Incirlik Air Base doesn’t have to drive a permanent wedge between Washington and Turkey.
As Congress considers how to respond to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Syria and Turkey’s subsequent attack on Kurdish forces in the region, a number of legislative options are on the table. In the House, Representatives Engel and McCaul have introduced a sanctions bill, as have Senators Risch and Graham in the Senate. Senator McConnell has introduced his own resolution to stop the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But one of the most significant actions the United States should take hasn’t made it into legislation: it must withdraw its nuclear weapons from Turkey.
At present, as many as fifty U.S. nuclear weapons sit under guard in an airbase in Turkey, just a 150-mile drive from the Syrian border. Meanwhile, tensions between Washington and Ankara continue to mount. Turkish forces recently attacked U.S. allies and troop positions in Syria, bracketing U.S. forces with artillery fire, apparently in an effort to pressure them to withdraw. This latest offense follows a steady rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, which threatens to do lasting harm to Ankara’s relationship with the rest of NATO. The rapid deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with the West raises serious questions about the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey. As the administration reviews this policy in the coming days, the smart solution is to remove these Cold War relics from Turkey once and for all.
Why are U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey in the first place? At the height of the Cold War, as the U.S. and USSR stood at the dawn of the Space Race, there were serious concerns that the Soviets would invade Eastern Europe. The United States deployed nuclear weapons in the late 1950s and early 1960s to check the potential advances of Soviet tanks. As the threat of a tank invasion receded at the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons were withdrawn from Europe. A small U.S. nuclear force remained in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands — and Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
Like all tech, military technology and weaponry have markedly improved since the 1960s. Advancements in missile technology, a robust nuclear trident, and more than 1,700 deployed nuclear weapons leave little room for doubt about the potency of U.S. nuclear deterrence. At present, U.S. conventional forces also remain unmatched in their technical sophistication and operational capabilities. U.S. and allied forces stand as a formidable check on Russian aggression toward Europe. The greater risk today is an antiquated nuclear force posture that leaves America’s nuclear weapons vulnerable.
Even before the recent U.S.-Turkish tensions, serious questions existed about the security of the weapons at Incirlik. In the failed Turkish coup attempt in 2016, power to the air base was cut. Turkish authorities eventually arrested the base commander for his role in the coup. Since that time, the U.S. has slimmed the number of personnel assigned to Turkey, from more than 2,300 at the end of 2016 to roughly 1,700 as of June 2019. But the weapons remained.
Some critics argued then, as they do now, that withdrawing nuclear weapons from Turkey would damage already-weak U.S.-Turkish relations. The fact of the matter is that the United States has a long history of assessing the geopolitical realities on the ground and re-positioning its nuclear forces accordingly. In 1991, the United States removed weapons from South Korea. In 2008, the final American nukes left Britain. Their removal was a response to changing strategic realities after the Cold War. Relations with South Korea and the U.K remained strong as ever.
Of course, Turkey’s recent behavior has already strained relations with the West; President Erdogan has indicated his desire to acquire nuclear weapons. If the removal of U.S. nuclear forces from Turkey sends a message about the state of U.S.-Turkish relations, it would serve as a well-deserved rebuke.
Removing nuclear weapons from Turkey is a smart next step, but the Trump administration should think bigger. The United States could save billions of dollars by removing its nuclear weapons from Europe and halting efforts to build new ones, according to a Stimson Center analysis. Those savings could help modernize conventional forces in the region and upgrade multi-domain capabilities and counter-terrorism efforts to better defend against modern threats.
President Trump recently expressed confidence in the security of America’s nuclear weapons in Turkey, even as the Air Force recently denied sending reinforcements. But having weapons of little utility in an increasingly volatile region does U.S. security interests no favors. Nor does giving Turkey leverage over U.S. forces and assets that they could potentially take hostage in the event of a real crisis. Removing these artifacts of the Cold War from Turkey is the only sure-fire way to ensure their security.
There is no good reason that U.S. nuclear weapons should continue to remain based in a tinderbox near the Syrian border. The Trump administration has a chance to make a move that reduces risk in the region and strengthens the credibility of U.S. diplomacy. With the fast-moving events in Turkey and Syria, there’s not a moment to waste.