B61 nuclear bombs in Turkey
B61 nuclear bombs in storage
If everything goes to plan, Turkey will receive the United States’ newest nuclear weapon in 2019. Turkey currently hosts between 60 and 70 B61 gravity bombs at Incirlik air force base. During the Cold War, Turkish aircraft were on full nuclear alert status – meaning that Turkish aircraft were loaded with nuclear weapons and ready to take to the air in minutes, should NATO give the order. Now Turkish F-16 are only nuclear certified and would have to fly to Incirlik and pick up the bombs.
(An interesting side note – During Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, the Americans apparently got so nervous that they removed the warheads from Greece’s alert fighter aircraft and its squadron of nuclear armed Nike air defense missiles. In Turkey, the United States also opted to remove the weapons from Turkish alert fighters. These concerns, along with many others, led to the use of Permissive Action Links (PALs) on American nuclear weapons in Europe.)
The B61 is a family of five nuclear weapons (The B61-3, 4, 7, 10, and 11 – dubbed mods). The United States only deploys the B61-3 and 4 in Europe. The B61-3 has a dial-a-yield ranging from .3 to 170 kt, while the B61-4′s yield ranges from .3 – 50 kt. These weapons, because they are deployed in Europe and carried by fighter bombers, are dubbed to be strategic. (The range of the delivery vehicle matters for classification purposes)
The new weapon, dubbed the B61-12, will cannibalize parts from all of the B61 mods and consolidate them into a new bomb. The new bomb will use the B61-4 explosive package, meaning that the future B61-12′s maximum yield will be 50 kt. Critically, the Department of Defense has mandated that the new bomb be able to perform all of the mission requirements assigned to the old mods. Therefore, it must be able to be used on the battle field (.3 kt yield), for bunkers (B61-11), and for strategic missions (Thus, designed for delivery by the B2 bomber, which is classified as a strategic delivery vehicle)requiring a larger yield (B61-7). However, the United States has pledged not to build new nuclear weapons, nor to augment the capabilities of its current stockpile whilst undertaking a program to modernize and extend the life of its current stockpile. (For the record – I believe that the B61-12, especially when paired with the F-35 augments the bombs current capabilities).
Enter the guided tail kit. The new B61-12, in order to perform all of the previously allotted missions, will be outfitted with a guided tail kit – thus making the future bomb America’s first “smart” nuclear weapon. The bomb is being designed for delivery by the F-35, the B-2, and the B-52. Turkey is a partner on the international F-35 program and has indicated, on multiple occasions, that it intends to purchase 100 aircraft. The tail kit will allow mission planners to rely on the weapons accuracy, rather than a larger yield, to hold deeply buried targets at risk. NATO signed off on these changes in 2010 and the U.S. Department of Defense and National Nuclear Security Administration are busily trying to get this bomb out on time.
I have a number of criticisms about the LEP program, but because this is a Turkey centric blog, I’ll simply invite you to look at Hans Kristensen’s excellent post on the subject. In any case, Turkey, is on pace to receive the B61-12 in or around 2019. To help plan for any delays in the delivery of the F-35, the Pentagon is also modifying Turkey’s current fleet of F-16s to carry the bomb. Thus, we are looking at a nuclear weapons filled future here in Turkey
In response to North Korea’s bellicose threats, the United States has been parading a bevy of nuclear dual capable aircraft near the Korean peninsula. Both the B-52 and the B-2 have a nuclear role and would, in the event of a nuclear conflict, likely use air launched nuclear cruise missiles against targets in North Korea. The F-22, which is on “static display” in South Korea, would, according to the aviationist, “probably escort the big bombers during the opening stages of an eventual campaign (after the rain of cruise missiles that would wipe out most of North Korea’s air defenses…), their role could not be limited to providing air superiority (to be easily and quickly achieved considered the status of the geriatric North Korean Air Force and its obsolete Migs): as demonstrated in last year’s Exercise Chimichanga,the F-22 has the ability to play a dual role in the same mission: HVAAE (High Value Air Asset Escort) and air-to-surface.”
While the actual threat of conflict on the Korean peninsula is low, the American show of force sheds lights on the lengths Washington will go to demonstrate its commitment to use nuclear weapons in defense of an ally covered by its nuclear umbrella. Washington’s actions, as has been noted by many others, is a show force meant to demonstrate its commitment to extended deterrence. In other words, Washington is signaling its readiness to push the button. (It is also trying to deter an ROK nuclear weapons program, but I am not really going to talk about that – I will leave that for better informed Korean experts.)
Anyways, the signaling is important for the Turkish leadership in Ankara. Turkey, as regular readers of the blog are well aware, is home to ~65 American nuclear weapons. [From an EDAM issue brief I wrote about Turkey and Tactical Nuclear Weapons] According to Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, 50 bombs are slated for delivery by U.S. aircraft, but do to basing restrictions American dual capable aircraft (DCA) are not stationed permanently in Turkey. If the order were given for the release of NATO nuclear weapons, American aircraft would first have to be flown to Incirlik from another European base and armed before finally flying on to their targets. The other bombs are reserved for delivery by Turkish dual capable F-16s. However, there are conflicting reports about the status of Turkey’s nuclear fighter-bombers. According to General Ergin Celasin (ret.), the former Commander of the Turkish Air Force, “The Turkish air force’s role in NATO’s nuclear contingency plans came to an end with the withdrawal of nuclear weapons in the 1990s from the Air Force units that were deployed in several air bases in Turkey.”
However, Norris and Kristensen cite Pentagon sources who say that Turkey’s current fleet of nuclear capable F-16s are receiving a “stop gap” modification to carry the B-61-12. Reports indicate that Turkey’s nuclear capable combat aircraft no longer train for nuclear missions. In the past, the air force’s dual capable aircraft trained for nuclear missions and were certified to carry out nuclear strikes. Turkish aircraft reportedly now only train as non-nuclear escort aircraft for NATO’s nuclear fighter wings. However, NATO has made clear that it does not foresee any scenario that would require the rapid use of nuclear weapons, which raises a number of unanswered questions about Turkey’s current nuclear posture. In any future scenario that might call for the use of nuclear weapons, the return of American DCAs and the re-certification of Turkish DCAs would likely be an important signal to a potential adversary.* [snip]
In any case, the Alliance, should the need arise, has ample time to move American aircraft into Turkey. The move, perhaps combined with a very public crash course for Turkish pilots to drop the Bomb, would be a very powerful signal to a potential adversary. Or, in other words, extended deterrence.
Hence, I do not see a real difference in Turkey’s post-Cold War thinking about nuclear weapons, even though the threat of a nuclear attack has diminished tremendously since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In short, Turkey continues to value nuclear weapons because of the widespread belief that they are necessary to deter regional foes like Iran and Syria. (It is also worth nothing, that both of these countries are not covered by a US negative security assurance.)
Moreover, I suspect that there is a small group in the Turkish Armed Forces that are looking at the American show of force in Korea with satisfaction. Ankara, for a number of very good reasons, is perpetually wary of the American security commitment. Turkey, therefore, sees the forward deployment of nuclear weapons as an important symbol of Alliance solidarity and as a symbol of the US commitment to come to Turkish defense. This belief, however, is predicated on the notion that the bombs will actually be used (debatable actually), should the need arise.
The American show of force, therefore, should not solely be interpreted in Turkey as the US commitment to ROK security. In fact, the American moves are also aimed at the leadership in Ankara. And I can guarantee that they are paying attention.
As always, if you have questions, comments, or complaints tweet @aaronstein1