War Stories

Why Does the U.S. Have Nukes in Turkey, Anyway?

The tangled Cold War history has made the crisis in Turkey much more dangerous.

A plane sits near a hangar at an air base in Turkey.
Incirlik Air Base, in the outskirts of the city of Adana, Turkey, is home to 50 B61 nuclear bombs.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Senior officials are reportedly discussing whether and how to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which raises two questions: Why did we put nukes in Turkey in the first place, and why—almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War—are they still there?

The weapons—50 of them, all B61 nuclear bombs, which can be dropped from F-16 and Tornado jet fighters—are among the Cold War’s hoariest relics. (Another 130 of these bombs are stored at NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.)

At the start of the Cold War, the United States and its NATO allies lacked sufficient troops and armor to stave off a Soviet invasion of Western Europe—a prospect that many generals and intelligence analysts at the time considered possible, if not imminent. So they relied instead on the threat of nuclear weapons, both to deter the Soviets from invading and to defeat them on the battlefield if necessary.

This trend began before the Soviet Union had any of its own nuclear bombers or missiles to speak of. Official U.S. war plans, approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Dwight Eisenhower, stated that, if so much as a single Soviet tank division crossed into allied territory, the United States would respond with nukes. 

At first, very few airplanes or missiles had the range to hit Soviet targets from the United States, so the generals saturated Western Europe with “tactical nuclear weapons”—short-range atomic bombs, missiles, artillery shells, even land mines.

By 1960, the Air Force and Navy had built enough long-range bombers and missiles to launch a devastating nuclear blow from U.S. air bases and missile sites. The first multiservice nuclear war plan, developed by the Strategic Air Command, called for dropping or launching 3,423 bombs and warheads—which would explode with the force of 7,847 megatons—at 1,043 targets in the Soviet Union, its allies in Eastern Europe, and China, killing at least 275 million people who happened to live under communism (not to mention the millions more, in the free world, killed by radioactive fallout).

Again, this would be in response to a Soviet or Chinese conventional invasion of allied territory. The U.S. nuclear war plan was—and would remain, for decades to come—a first-strike­ plan.

Then the Soviets started building their own long-range nuclear arsenal. In response, some U.S. officials and strategic thinkers recommended getting rid of the nuclear weapons scattered across Western Europe: First, they were no longer necessary (we could deter a Soviet invasion with weapons based in the U.S.); second, they were vulnerable to Soviet short-range missiles—their very presence could provoke a Soviet preemptive strike.

However, a counterargument arose. Some European military officers and politicians began to wonder whether the United States really would nuke Russia in response to a conventional Soviet invasion of Western Europe, knowing that Russia could retaliate by nuking the United States. French President Charles de Gaulle posed the question this way: Would an American president risk New York to defend Paris?

And so, in the 1960s, Presidents John F. Kennedy and especially Lyndon B. Johnson were persuaded to keep tactical nukes in Western Europe, as a way of assuring the NATO allies that we would use nukes if the Soviets invaded. Meanwhile, they might also keep the allies from building their own nuclear weapons. (The ever-doubtful French built a small nuclear arsenal of their own anyway.)

Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense for Kennedy and Johnson, tried to counter Soviet troops and tanks head on, by building up NATO’s conventional defenses, but the Vietnam War diverted manpower and munitions from Western Europe. So, as the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies built up their conventional forces in Eastern Europe, NATO pressured Washington for more nukes.

By the mid-1970s, at their peak, the United States had 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe—including almost 500 in Turkey.

Turkey was a special case even then. In 1962, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev settled the Cuban missile crisis through a secret trade (which remained secret for the next quarter-century): Khrushchev would pull the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida—and six months later, Kennedy would pull the U.S. missiles out of Turkey, near the southern border of the USSR. The U.S. missiles—15 of them, known as Jupiters—had just been deployed earlier that year. (Eisenhower had agreed to put them there in 1959.) By the time they were dismantled, one of the first Polaris submarines—carrying 16 nuclear missiles—was stationed in the Mediterranean; Kennedy convinced the Turks that the Polaris subs, which could roam beneath the ocean’s surface, undetected, were a far more secure deterrent than the land-based Jupiters.

However, over the next decade, as tactical nukes dotted the European landscape, the Turks eventually got their share of them. And as NATO air bases hosted planes capable of carrying nuclear bombs, the Incirlik base in Southern Turkey got some of those, too.

Concerns were raised about that base in 1974, after Turkey invaded Cyprus, flaring tensions with Greece. In response, the United States removed its nuclear weapons from Greece and put tighter locks on those in Turkey. No alarms were stirred about the security of the other nuclear bases in Europe.

In 1987, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned all U.S. and Soviet missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers—resulting in the dismantlement of about 2,000 Soviet missiles facing Europe and 572 American missiles with the ability to strike the USSR from bases in Western Europe.

In 1991, with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the formal end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush unilaterally dismantled nearly all tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and South Korea—inviting Boris Yeltsin, the president of the new Russian Federation, to respond in kind (which he did, for a while). By this time, U.S. conventional defenses had greatly improved, and many military commanders viewed the tactical nukes as more of a hindrance to security than a help.

However, Bush retained the small arsenal of U.S. nuclear bombs—numbering about 180—at the handful of NATO air bases, including Incirlik. In fact, the bombs were “modernized.” The old B61 bombs had the explosive power of 1 megaton; the new ones have “dial-a-yield” options, ranging from 340 kilotons down to a fraction of a kiloton. (A kiloton has the blast power of 1,000 tons of TNT; a megaton has the blast power of 1 million tons.)

In 2010, President Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, intent on “reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy,” as he put it in a high-profile speech. His NATO ambassador, Ivo Daalder, proposed cutting the number of B61s by half. No one any longer believed that these bombs had any military purpose, so the move would serve as a token of Obama’s sincerity—and perhaps inspire other nuclear powers to follow suit. However, Obama’s top security advisers quashed the idea. U.S. and Russian diplomats were negotiating an update to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was about to expire, and Hillary Clinton—Obama’s former political opponent who was now his secretary of state—argued that unilateral cuts would diminish her bargaining leverage. She and others also feared that the move would upset NATO allies, who were still reeling from George W. Bush’s eight-year reign. The fact that the bombs had little, if any, military utility bolstered the case that they were needed to cement trans-Atlantic political ties. Daalder’s proposal was rejected at an interagency meeting of the National Security Council, with little discussion.

Now, almost 10 years later, some regret the casual dismissal, as tensions with Turkey are cresting, to the point where some are talking about expelling it from NATO.

A few years ago, a U.S. security team tested the locks on the bombs at Incirlik and deemed them satisfactory. But the Turks own the base, and if they kicked the Americans out, it’s not impossible that they could break the locks and declare the bombs to be theirs.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared this week that he wants to build his own nuclear arsenal. He is not the first Turkish leader to mull such ambitions, but as his sense of power and independence has grown—fueled by a blossoming alliance with Russia and a new bout of muscle-flexing in northern Syria, stemming from Trump’s abandonment of the area—the prospect of a Turkish bomb looms as a real possibility. At this point, if the U.S. took away the 50 B61s at Incirlik, one could imagine Erdogan rushing to build or buy his own bomb, almost out of spite. John Pike, director of the research firm GlobalSecurity.org, also notes that if Saudi Arabia or Iran were to go nuclear in the coming years, Turkey would certainly follow suit in short order.

For a while, nuclear weapons really did seem to be losing their potency as totems of strength. Now they’re coming back, and the big powers—which once kept a lid on smaller countries’ nuclear dreams, through the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other diplomatic stratagems—have lost the leverage and the inclination to do much about it. Trump is the prime culprit here, with his scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal, his inattention to the approaching expiration of the U.S.-Russian New START treaty, and his blundering back-and-forth with Erdogan, kowtowing to the Turkish leader’s expansionism in one breath, then threatening him with sanctions and war in the next.

The nuclear weapons should have been removed from Turkey long ago. Now, whether they’re taken out or kept in, they are going to play some kind of role in the escalating tensions.