The United States has nuclear bombs stored in Turkey at Incirlik Air Base. Will Turkey try to grab them? How will the drama play out?

The US has a large arsenal of nuclear gravity bombs – relatively small 700-pound nuclear weapons with fearsome power. There are different types but the most important are its B-61 series bombs. There are 540 B-61 bombs in service today, with another 415 on inactive status that can be upgraded if needed.  These are known as “dial-a-blast” bombs, since the users can set the size of the nuclear blast needed for a mission – anywhere from 0.3 to 340 kilotons. (The Hiroshima atomic bomb was about 15 kilotons.)  The latest MOD bomb is capable of a fixed blast of 50 kilotons.

The latest operational version is the B-61 MOD 11, which has been developed into a bunker-busting nuclear gravity bomb that can be dropped by a nuclear bomber like the B-1 or B-2, or from a combat fighter aircraft such as the F-15E or the F-16. It isn’t completely clear what model of B-61 nukes are in Turkey, nor is the number certain, but the generally accepted count of B-61 bombs stored at Incirlik Airbase is 50. Another 40 B-61s were supposed to be committed to the Turkish air force, but according to reports since the 1990s, the Turks stopped training pilots for a nuclear mission and the 40 Turkey-designated bombs were withdrawn.

The F-15s and F-16s that could deliver the bombs are special-version aircraft and not standard flightline models. They are not stationed on Turkish territory.

The B-61s at Incirlik are kept at heavily guarded storage sites. They cannot be used by any US aircraft stationed at Incirlik, and they would either need Turkish government approval to be used or they would need to be moved elsewhere, also requiring Ankara’s approval. In short, the nuclear weapons at Incirlik are frozen in place unless an agreement is reached to remove them.

The B-61 is generally considered a tactical nuclear weapon, although the different variants suggest different missions, some of them strategic. For example, the B-61 MOD 11 bunker-buster was designed to attack Russia’s deep underground “continuity of government” complex at Kosvinsky Kamen or Kosvinsky Rock, Russia’s analog of America’s Cheyenne Mountain where NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and other facilities are located. Kosvinsky Kamen, in the Ural mountains, was supposed to be able to resist a direct nuclear attack, like Cheyenne Mountain. The MOD 11 bomb was designed to be able to destroy the complex.

Today, penetrating a sophisticated enemy’s airspace with piloted aircraft against high-value targets appears challenging, if not impossible. Russia, the main concern of NATO (and thus for the B-61 nuclear gravity bombs) today has sophisticated layered air defenses including the S-400, and Russia is well along on an even more sophisticated evolution of the S-400 to the S-500 Prometey (Prometheus).  The most important feature of Russia’s S-400 and S-500 systems is long-range interceptor defense missiles that can hit a target 482 km away. Penetration into Russia against targets such as Kosvinsky Kamen or Russian ICBM sites with conventional aircraft lacking very long standoff capability seems unlikely.

That explains one of the reasons why the US is building a B-61 variant called the MOD 12, which is designed to fit into the F-22 or F-35 stealth fighter bombers. Theoretically, these aircraft might be able to evade Russian air defenses, although that may be a declining value since the Russians and Chinese are working hard on anti-stealth radars and VHF detection systems that along with greatly improved electro-optic sensors, could soon identify and target stealth aircraft.  In any case, there are no MOD 12 variants yet in service, and the program is encountering serious delays.

Most nuclear weapons experts think that the B-61 series bombs are obsolete and all should be retired. But given the rise of other dangerous actors such as Iran, or even Pakistan, with nuclear weapons, having such an arsenal might make sense. Incirlik is well-positioned to deal with either of these threats, if and when it could be required to do so to stop an impending use of nuclear weapons by an unstable Pakistan or a rogue play by Iran. Unfortunately, Turkey is quite unlikely under any foreseeable circumstance to allow Incirlik to be used against Pakistan or Iran, much like how Turkey blocked the use of Incirlik in 2003 against Iraq.

Will Turkey try and grab the US nuclear bombs? Here are some of the possibilities:

(1) Turkey does nothing.  From Erdogan’s point of view, there may be more negatives than positives in grabbing the US nuclear bombs at Incirlik. Those 50 bombs are there as part of a NATO cooperative program, and while Turkey has walked back from that agreement to some extent, any action by Turkey taken to sequester or seize the US bombs would virtually require NATO to demand their immediate return and could result in a suspension of Turkey from NATO.

It would also raise serious concerns in the EU and would harm Turkey’s trade and access to weapons and spare parts from NATO countries. While Turkey could eventually shift to other sources (Russia, China), that transition would take years and Turkey’s military will be substantially weakened in the interim. Since the bombs are not really usable because Turkey does not have the nuclear codes to activate them, and any tampering might set off a small non-nuclear explosion destroying the bomb or bombs, the only gain for Turkey might be political. But the price would be very high and Turkey would never be trusted again. Turkey has no credible argument to make against the bombs on its territory.

(2) Turkey could order the US to remove the bombs. The US would have to accept Turkey’s request and take them out. There would not be much fallout in NATO because US nukes have already been removed from Greece and the UK, at their request. While the US-Turkey relationship is greatly stressed over the Kurdish situation and other matters (including Fethullah Gülen, who is blamed for the 2016 coup attempt and is living in the United States), the political impact on removing the bombs would be minimal.

(3) Turkish army seizes the bombs. Perhaps the greatest worry about nuclear weapons in Turkey is that the Turkish army will move in and seize them. That might also include ejecting the US air force from Incirlik Air Base. The other NATO components at the airbase might be permitted to stay, but if the US was kicked out, the others would probably leave as well.

A seizure could be promoted under a number of different banners: the weapons are not safe enough, the US might use them without Turkish permission, the weapons are a regional threat or they might be otherwise grabbed by the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party). An action like a seizure, if it happened, would most definitely provoke an angry US response with unpredictable future consequences. There is also a risk that fighting could break out on the base between US and Turkish troops.

Could the Turkish army use the Incirlik-based weapons? Unless the Turkish army had the computer codes for the weapons, the answer is that the weapons cannot be used. These US weapons include what are called Permissive Action Links (PAL), meaning encrypted locks that make detonating a nuclear device impossible unless the PAL system can be defeated. Over time, PAL has become increasingly sophisticated and it depends on what is built into the weapons that are in Turkey (models vary in the degree of sophistication) and on a control box set up that also is needed for unlocking the PAL blocks.  It isn’t known if the US has already removed the control boxes, but this should have been done as a security precaution. But even if the boxes are at Incirlik, they won’t function without authorization codes coming from the United States.

In the short run, the B-61s at Incirlik are not a present danger. But the bombs are a future danger, since in time the codes can be figured out or the bombs taken apart and the fissile material used to make homemade nuclear weapons.

Dr Stephen Bryen has 40 years of leadership in government and industry. He has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy undersecretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the president of Delta Tech Inc, as the president of Finmeccanica North America, and as a commissioner of the US China Security Review Commission.