US troops preparing to cross the Redline in Iraq

Pentagon chief says US troops leaving Syria for western Iraq

By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press

Posted 7 hours, 8 minutes ago

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says that under current plans all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group to prevent its resurgence.

Esper, who arrived in the Afghan capital on Sunday, did not rule out the idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he told reporters traveling with him that those details will be worked out over time.

His comments were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they leave Syria and what the counter-IS fight could look like. Esper, who flew overnight to Afghanistan, said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift the more than 700 troops leaving Syria into western Iraq.

The developments made clear that one of President Donald Trump’s rationales for withdrawing troops from Syria was not going to come to pass any time soon. “It’s time to bring our soldiers back home,” Trump said Wednesday. But they are not coming home.

As Esper left Washington on Saturday, U.S. troops were continuing to pull out of northern Syria after Turkey’s invasion into the border region. Reports of sporadic clashes continued between Turkish-backed fighters and the U.S.-allied Syria Kurdish forces despite a five-day cease-fire agreement hammered out Thursday between U.S. and Turkish leaders.

Turkey’s defense ministry says one soldier has been killed amid sporadic clashes with Kurdish fighters.

Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists.

The pullout largely abandons America’s Kurdish allies who have fought IS alongside U.S. troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 U.S. troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.

Esper said the troops going into Iraq will have two missions.

“One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” he said. “Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now.”

The U.S. currently has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries. The U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after IS began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014. The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after years of what some Iraqis consider U.S. occupation during the war that began in 2003.

Esper said he will talk with other allies at a NATO meeting in the coming week to discuss the way ahead for the counter-IS mission.

Asked if U.S. special operations forces will conduct unilateral military operations into Syria to go after IS, Esper said that is an option that will be discussed with allies over time.

He said one of his top concerns is what the next phase of the counter-IS missions looks like, “but we have to work through those details. He said that if U.S. forces do go in, they would be protected by American aircraft.

While he acknowledged reports of intermittent fighting despite the cease-fire agreement, he said that overall it “generally seems to be holding. We see a stability of the lines, if you will, on the ground.”

He also said that, so far, the Syrian Democratic Forces that partnered with the U.S. to fight IS have maintained control of the prisons in Syria where they are still present. The Turks, he said, have indicated they have control of the IS prisons in their areas.

“I can’t assess whether that’s true or not without having people on the ground,” said Esper.

He added that the U.S. withdrawal will be deliberate and safe, and it will take “weeks not days.”

According to a U.S. official, about a couple hundred troops have left Syria so far. The U.S. forces have been largely consolidated in one location in the west and a few locations in the east.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations, said the U.S. military is not closely monitoring the effectiveness of the cease-fire, but is aware of sporadic fighting and violations of the agreement. The official said it will still take a couple of weeks to get forces out of Syria.

The Foolishness of Babylon the Great

FILE- In this Dec. 15, 2015, file photo, A U. S. Air Force F-15 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey. Frayed U.S. relations with Turkey are raising a sensitive question rarely discussed in public: Should the United States remove the nuclear bombs it keeps at a Turkish air base? There is no known evidence that the weapons are at direct risk, but President Donald Trump has threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it does not halt its invasion of Syria, and some American arms control experts say the bombs would be safer elsewhere. (Associated Press/AP)

Some worries about nuclear weapons at Turkey base

WASHINGTON — Frayed U.S. relations with Turkey over its incursion in Syria raise a sensitive question rarely discussed in public: Should the United States remove the nuclear bombs it has long stored at a Turkish air base?

It’s a tricky matter for several reasons, including the fact that by longstanding policy, the U.S. government does not publicly acknowledge locations of nuclear weapons overseas. Still, it is almost an open secret that the U.S. has as many as 50 B-61 bombs stored under heavy guard at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey.

President Donald Trump implicitly acknowledged the stockpile this week when asked by a reporter how confident he was of the bombs’ security.

“We’re confident,” he said.

Turkey, a NATO ally, has reportedly hosted American nuclear weapons for 60 years. The bombs could be dropped by U.S. planes in a nuclear war. The arrangement at Incirlik air base is part of NATO’s policy of linking Turkey and other member countries to the alliance’s aim of deterring war by having a relatively small number of nuclear weapons based in Europe. Removing them, therefore, would be a diplomatic complication.

There is no known evidence that the nuclear weapons at Incirlik are at direct risk, but relations between Washington and Ankara are at perhaps a historic low and the war in Syria has grown more complex and unpredictable. Incirlik is about 150 miles from Syria by road.

Thursday’s announced U.S. deal with Turkey to pause its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria may have slowed the deterioration of relations. But the overall direction has been decidedly and increasingly negative.

“The arc of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last Sunday, noting that Ankara defied repeated U.S. warnings not to purchase a Russian air defense system that the White House has likened to a portal for Russian spying. He added: “I mean, they are spinning out of the Western orbit, if you will.”

In July, the Pentagon kicked Turkey out of its F-35 fighter jet program because Turkey refused to halt its purchase of the Russian-made air defense system. This was a major blow to U.S.-Turkey relations and raised questions in Washington about whether Turkey was a reliable ally.

Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and senior Pentagon official, said Friday he believes the nuclear weapons are safe and secure. He sees risk in removing them.

“I’m not in favor of taking any actions that would potentially accelerate Turkey’s thinking about pursuing its own independent nuclear deterrent,” he said, noting that Erdogan as recently as September mentioned this possibility.

Some American arms control experts say the U.S. bombs at Incirlik would be safer in another NATO member country.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who has followed the issue for many years, said in an interview that a review of options for the U.S. bombs at Incirlik, near the city of Adana, is long overdue. He believes the Air Force, which is responsible for the bombs, has grown concerned about their security in recent years.

“The Air Force is concerned about not only the standard physical perimeters — whether they are good enough — but also about the manpower on the base, whether they have enough to hold back an attack from someone,” Kristensen said.

The conflict in northern Syria, which has only grown more complex and unpredictable with a U.S. troop withdrawal, has added a new layer of worry for American officials, he said.

“They’re afraid of the spillover” inside Turkey, he said.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on the matter.

“It is U.S. policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any general or specific location,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Pentagon spokesman. “The U.S. does not discuss the movement of nuclear weapons, the capability to store weapons at U.S. or foreign locations or planning for any of these activities.”

Even private experts who study the matter are not sure how many weapons are stored there, but Kristensen believes there are up to 50 B-61 bombs designed to be dropped by U.S. fighter aircraft. He says the U.S. has had nuclear weapons in Turkey continuously since 1959.

The bombs in Turkey are part of a network of roughly 150 U.S. air-delivered nuclear weapons based in Europe. Kristensen says the host countries, in addition to Turkey, are Belgium, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday he and Trump share “love and respect,” but he also let little doubt that he was offended by an Oct. 9 letter from Trump telling Erdogan, “Don’t be a fool!”

Erdogan told reporters Trump’s words were not compatible with “political and diplomatic courtesy” and would not be forgotten. He said he would “do what’s necessary” about the letter “when the time comes.” He did not elaborate.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Can the U.S. protect its nuclear weapons in Turkey?

Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrive for a news conference after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday. (Str/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrive for a news conference after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday. (Str/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

U.S. forces reportedly came under artillery fire from Turkish troops heading into northern Syria last week — another sign of the sudden plunge in U.S. relations with Turkey.

On Monday, President Trump imposed economic sanctions against Turkey and threatened to “swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy.” Vice President Pence announced a cease-fire agreement with Turkey on Thursday, but this does not appear to fully address the underlying problems in the bilateral relationship. Over the summer, the Pentagon kicked Turkey out of the F-35 joint strike fighter program, marking U.S. displeasure that Turkey was buying advanced Russian military technology.

Here’s the backstory — and the downside of removing this nuclear cache.

This deteriorating relationship is troubling because Turkey is a long-standing NATO ally. But even more worrisome are the nuclear weapons — about 50 B61 gravity bombs — that the United States stores at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, less than 100 miles from the Syrian border. On Wednesday, Trump appeared to confirm the existence of these weapons in a startling break with past practice, but over the weekend, U.S. officials reportedly were considering plans to withdraw them.

Why does the U.S. have nuclear weapons in Turkey, and what would be the risks of withdrawing them? Here’s what you need to know:

1. These weapons are relics of the Cold War.

The United States first deployed nuclear weapons on Turkish soil in 1959. President John F. Kennedy used them as bargaining chips to end the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, agreeing to withdraw nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. But Washington has continued to deploy shorter-range tactical nuclear forces since then.

Why does the United States keep nuclear weapons on foreign soil, and how does this strategy advance American interests? Our research reveals that three main strategic drivers behind these deployments.

First, these deployments were once a way of coping with technological limitations. In the early days of the Cold War, before intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear-armed submarines became the backbone of the U.S. arsenal, putting nuclear weapons in Europe expanded the U.S. ability to respond quickly to an enemy attack. Today, of course, most of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is carried by ballistic missiles — rather than long-range bombers — so most of the world is within range.

Second, nuclear deployments serve as a warning to potential attackers. U.S. leaders during the Cold War believed that putting nuclear weapons in Europe would discourage a Soviet invasion, because Soviet leaders would be worried that a limited conflict would quickly turn nuclear. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkish military commanders argued that U.S. nuclear deployments served as a deterrent to aggression by regional rivals such as Iran.

Third, nuclear deployments are also intended to reassure allies — including Turkey. Reassurance is not only about managing intra-alliance relations, however — it can also be an important nonproliferation tool. By mitigating the security concerns of allies, U.S. nuclear deployments could prevent them from launching their own nuclear programs.

2. Nuclear deployments in Turkey bring the United States few benefits.

U.S. nuclear forces in Europe may have served a function during the Cold War, but they are increasingly obsolete.

A recent study we conducted shows that the critical factor for preventing aggression against U.S. allies is a formal alliance relationship with the United States — not the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons. Indeed, our research found that global deployments of nuclear weapons made very little difference for deterrence even during the Cold War.

This makes sense, because the United States doesn’t need to forward-deploy its forces to place allies under its nuclear umbrella. American missiles and submarines give it the capability to hit any target in the world. What matters is the United States’ commitment to defend its partners with nuclear weapons if necessary — not where these nuclear forces are physically located.

U.S. nuclear forces in Turkey might, however, contribute to reassurance and nonproliferation. Political scientist Dan Reiter, for instance, has shown how countries with foreign nuclear weapons on their soil are less likely to explore their own nuclear options. Still, most U.S. allies — including Japan and South Korea after the early 1990s — have remained nonnuclear even without U.S. nuclear forces in place.

3. There are potential dangers to keeping nuclear weapons in Turkey. 

While the benefits of these deployments are modest, the risks are significant. Nuclear weapons on foreign soil could be vulnerable to theft or sabotage. When Greece and Turkey, two NATO allies, were on the brink of war in 1974 the United States had nuclear forces stationed in both countries. Worried about the safety and security of these weapons, Washington secretly removed its nuclear forces from Greece and disabled all of the weapons in Turkey.

The 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reignited concerns about U.S. nuclear weapons at Incirlik. As tensions escalate today, some analysts and U.S. officials continue to worryabout the safety and security of the B61s in Turkey.

4. Is there a downside to withdrawing the weapons?

Would pulling out the nuclear weapons now mean the end of the U.S.-Turkish alliance? This concern is legitimate, but recent research suggests that it is overstated. The United States has withdrawn nuclear forces from many allied countries: Britain, South Korea and others. In none of these cases did the withdrawals damage the overall alliance relationship, nor embolden adversaries.

There is also a security challenge with withdrawing the weapons in the short term. Removing them from their storage vaults during a period of intense hostility could invite an act of sabotage.

In the long term, the larger risk is that removing the weapons will prompt Turkey to try to acquire its own nuclear weapons. After all, Erdogan reportedly is exploring this option. But as relations with Turkey deteriorate, it is by no means certain that the presence of a few U.S. weapons will prevent this outcome. And there are other political and diplomatic tools for dissuading Turkey from venturing down the nuclear path if the United States pulls out its nuclear forces.

Matthew Fuhrmann (@mcfuhrmann) is professor of political science at Texas A&M University. 

Todd S. Sechser is the Pamela Feinour Edmonds and Franklin S. Edmonds Jr. Discovery Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and Senior Fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. 

Sechser and Fuhrmann are co-authors of Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy(Cambridge University Press, 2017).

A Nuclear Dilemma in Turkey

The US military stores nuclear bombs at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which raises grave security concerns. Image: Flickr Commons

Turkey could seize US nukes stored at air base

Ankara doesn’t have access codes for devices, but they could be cracked over time and the fissile material could be used to make homemade weapons

By STEPHEN BRYEN

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.

WHAT A TURKEY!

Trump appears to confirm open secret about US nuclear weapons in Turkey

Washington (CNN) — President Donald Trump appeared to confirm Wednesday that US nuclear weapons are being housed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, making him the first US official to publicly acknowledge what has been considered an open secret for years.

Most experts believe that the US maintains 50 Cold War-era B-61 “gravity” bombs in Turkey. The weapons are part of NATO’s deterrence strategy and decisions about them have to be made by a unanimous vote of all 28 member states.

While sitting alongside the Italian President in the Oval Office, Trump was asked if he is concerned about the safety of “as many as 50 nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base” given the ongoing Turkish incursion into Syria — a situation that has prompted bipartisan condemnation from members of Congress and suggestions that the weapons should be moved to another location.

“We’re confident, and we have a great — a great air base there, a very powerful air base. That air base alone can take anyplace. It’s a large, powerful air base,” Trump responded, apparently acknowledging that US nuclear weapons are being stored in Turkey.

“And, you know, Turkey — just so people remember — Turkey is a NATO member. We’re supposed to get along with our NATO members, and Turkey is a NATO member. Do people want us to start shooting at a NATO member? That would be a first. And that’s all involved having to do with NATO,” he added.

Yes, the Saudis Will Go Nuclear (Daniel 7)

Will the Saudis Go Nuclear?

Under what circumstances might Riyadh conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces?

SINCE THE TRUMP Trump administration’s May 2017 decision to terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, many have speculated that the Islamic Republic of Iran will soon resume its nuclear weapons program in response to renewed U.S. unilateral financial and economic sanctions. Even so, the current conventional wisdom is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—enjoying Washington’s fulsome political and military support for its regional strategic objectives—will have little interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.

But what if that assumption is wrong? Under what circumstances might Saudi Arabia, currently being led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces? In the following pages, I outline how such a scenario would unfold and detail how governments would likely respond to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.

IT HAS been a basic U.S. assumption since the mid-1960s that powerful geostrategic friends and allies can be dissuaded from acquiring nuclear weapons so long as they feel secure as the result of an explicit or implicit U.S. extended deterrent against their enemies. The credibility of that commitment depends on both U.S. military forces serving as an instrument of credible extended deterrence and the political, economic and military support to the state in question. Although there has been no formal alliance between them, Washington and Riyadh have maintained a robust strategic partnership since the end of World War II. This partnership is based upon U.S. and European dependence on the free flow of petroleum out the Persian Gulf region at non-inflationary prices, along with Saudi Arabia’s relative military inability to fully provide for its own national defense. Even though the Trump administration has taken an enhanced stance to shore up this partnership via substantial arms sales and a tough geostrategic posture toward Iran, MbS may still opt to pursue other options to enhance his country’s national posture. This could occur due to the financial squeeze on the Saudi economy, faltering internal reform, a sense of regional encirclement by Iran, and an unwillingness of the United States and Israel to take decisive military action against Tehran.

From Riyadh’s perspective, the regional geostrategic environment has deteriorated dramatically in recent years, with Tehran making strategic advances amidst the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This has generated some anxiety over the prospect of Tehran, or a Shia-dominated Baghdad, stirring up significant domestic unrest in Shia-majority Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Recently, it seemed that the Syrian Civil War was headed toward a near-total victory by the Assad regime, despite continued U.S. military and political support for the quasi-independent state of Rojava in eastern Syria. This past winter, U.S. president Donald Trump decided to pull out the approximately two thousand troops located in eastern Syria, thereby cementing the Assad regime’s victory. That decision was partially reversed: a smaller U.S. presence, along with a French and British contingent, still remains. This continued military assistance to the Syrian Kurds and their local Syrian Arab allies ensures the de facto partition of Syria approximately along the Euphrates River.

This prospect of a nearly complete Assad regime victory has greatly alarmed Riyadh’s ally of convenience, Israel. Jerusalem is now worried that Tehran will establish a quasi-state entity in southern Syria akin to the militant and militarily-competent Hezbollah that is now entrenched in Lebanon. Of great concern is the prospect that Tehran will succeed in deploying precision-guided rockets and mobile short-range ballistic missiles to menace Israel’s military facilities and critical civilian infrastructure. The possibility has greatly heightened the likelihood that Jerusalem will launch a massive air and ground campaign into southern Syria with or without the tacit acquiescence of Assad’s other major ally, the Russian Federation. Such a preventive intervention might spiral out of control and devolve into a full-scale regional war, with sustained Israeli air and missile strikes against strategic targets inside Iran.

Riyadh, in turn, might help Israel by opening an air corridor over northern Saudi Arabia to facilitate Israeli airstrikes. Tehran would likely then retaliate against Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council states that help Israel in this regard, striking back via strategic cyberattacks or by long-range precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles. A conflict of this scale would greatly destabilize the global oil and gas markets, prompting the United States, the European Union (EU), China, Japan, South Korea and India to try to end the conflict as soon as possible. Washington’s role in this conflict would likely be decisive in either encouraging further military escalation or peacefully resolving the conflict. Given the presence and prominence of various Iran hawks in the senior levels of the Trump administration, it is plausible that Washington views any regional war between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia as an opportunity to inflict severe damage on the regime in Tehran’s energy and military-industrial capacity—and thereby its capacity to govern domestically and project power in the Persian Gulf.

It is worth noting that this scenario is far from impossible: the prospect of direct military conflict between the United States and Iran has risen substantially over the past year, as Tehran has attempted to drive up the price of oil and natural gas through a series of semi-clandestine attacks on a number of petroleum tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The United States, in turn, has sent ground, air and naval reinforcements to the region to deter further Iranian military action and signal that it is prepared for outright retaliation for the same. This scenario nearly came to pass during this early summer, when President Trump seriously considered but rejected a “kinetic” military response to the Iranian shoot down of a U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk reconnaissance drone flying over the Gulf of Oman. Even more dramatic and destabilizing was the Iranian precision drone/cruise missile attack on key oil production facilities during the late summer that was followed by no immediate Saudi and/or U.S. military response. A future escalation towards outright war remains well within the realm of possibility.

To the disappointment of Riyadh, a decisive military showdown between Washington/Jerusalem and Tehran as described above may not occur. The prospect of a significant increase in the price of oil following a major armed clash in the region would likely stay the hand of the Trump administration. After all, given that the current state of the world economy is burdened with the prospect of an escalating U.S.-China trade war, a spike in oil and gas prices might very well trigger a dramatic global economic slowdown, if not an outright recession. Washington may instead conclude that financial and trade pressures on the EU, Japan and China to renew harsh economic sanctions against Iran is the most optimal course of action. Yet implementing this approach takes time and does little to curb Iran’s expanding influence in Yemen and Iraq. The realization that Washington cannot be fully relied upon to restrain Tehran’s advances, even with a friendly administration in the White House, might prove to be a tipping point for MbS and his allies in Riyadh—if the United States cannot deter Iran, then Saudi Arabia must find its own means to do so.

BEYOND INTERNATIONAL considerations, domestic factors may also push MbS and his allies to pursue a nuclear arsenal. Riyadh recognizes that the nation’s economy is dependent on oil and fears that the emergence of a “peak oil demand” situation within the next decade will leave the Kingdom without economic recourse. Thus, MbS has launched a major effort to move the Saudi economy away from being primarily an exporter of oil and gas to a producer of advanced, twenty-first-century technological, industrial and agricultural products. To help stimulate this economic transformation, MbS has also set out to modernize the Kingdom’s political and economic system of Saudi patronage and conservative religious rule. But while this agenda may have Saudi Arabia’s best interests in mind, it also overturns the country’s political culture and presents MbS and his allies with an unprecedented opportunity to consolidate power. Naturally, domestic opposition has risen up and is keen to criticize the prince when possible. The prince is staking his present and future reign on the implementation of his reform program, and that success will either placate or silence his critics over the long term.

Unfortunately for MbS, top-down reform efforts are fraught with risk, and the early results from his campaign are not promising. For example, the plan to sell shares of the country’s state-owned oil company (Saudi Aramco) on the global market to generate more than 100 billion dollars of income remains a complex and much delayed initial public offering. That delay is prompted in part by the vulnerability of Aramco’s key infrastructure to future precision missile attacks by Iran. In the near-term, Riyadh has opted to go into greater international debt by issuing a new round of bonds, using the assets of Saudi Aramco as collateral. On a related note, the Kingdom’s expensive economic transformation means that there is a need to more carefully manage the costs of the country’s military buildup, perhaps even making some budget cuts. Instead, Riyadh has seen fit to continue purchasing hundreds of advanced fighter bombers that are likely to remain on the flight line due to a lack of trained and competent Saudi pilots.

Why Are U.S. Nuclear Bombs Still in Turkey?

The best time to get atomic weapons out was several years ago. The second best time is now.

Ankit PandaOctober 15, 2019

The American relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has been fraught for half a decade, but never this bad. Last week, American troops were intentionally targeted by Turkish artillery units in Northern Syria as Erdoğan’s forces advanced and President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. into a unilateral withdrawal. The Pentagon sternly warned that Turkey’s troops would face “immediate defensive action” from American forces if such an encounter were to be repeated.

This was a doubly unprecedented targeting of the United States military. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey is a capital-A ally, treaty-bound to defend the collective security of all its 28 nation members, including the United States. Turkey is also part of a select group of five NATO members—along with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy—whose territory hosts American nuclear weapons, too.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, newly established U.S. nuclear missile batteries in Turkey were briefly famous, becoming a bargaining chip in the negotiations to avoid atomic war with the Soviet Union. Those missiles were removed in 1963, but 50 B61 nuclear gravity bombs currently reside in specialized underground vaults at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, some 20 miles from the Mediterranean coast. These air-dropped bombs are capable of delivering a range of nuclear yields, from 300 tons up to 170 kilotons, or roughly eleven times the yield of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945. (For a more concrete description of these weapons’ destructive force, watch this.) Turkish F-16 fighters used to be certified to carry and deliver these weapons, but Turkey no longer has the pilots for that task; now, the weapons at Incirlik are there for rotational U.S. aircraft to drop them, if it’s ever necessary.

In light of Turkey’s precipitous Syrian advance, it’s fair to ask whether the U.S. should reconsider its weapons posture at Incirlik—or, as arms-control researcher Jeffrey Lewis put it last week: “Seriously, it’s time to take our fucking nuclear weapons out of Turkey.” That thought apparently also occurred to U.S. officials at the State Department and Department of Energy; sources tell The New York Times that since Erdoğan’s onslaught against the Kurds began, those officials have been “reviewing plans” to get the bombs out of Incirlik. It should have happened much sooner—say, when a coup threatened to topple Erdoğan’s government in 2016, or in the aftermath, as he drifted from the U.S.’s orbit—but removing a nuclear arsenal from Turkish soil is a necessary step in reducing a global danger. Alliances are built on closely shared interests and values, and—presidential phone calls notwithstanding—the U.S. and Turkey no longer have any.

Technically, we didn’t know that those 50 or so warheads were still at Incirlik until the Times report confirmed it this week. It’s general American policy to neither confirm nor deny the specific location of nuclear weapons on vessels and storage sites overseas. That practice was a major part of what led to the late-1980s rupture in the U.S.-New Zealand alliance: Wellington’s Labour government grew uncomfortable with the likelihood of nuclear weapons passing through New Zealand waters, and the U.S. government wouldn’t certify that its vessels were explicitly nonnuclear.

What we do know is that B61 warheads in NATO nations are held for safe storage in special electronic vaults—known as a Weapons Storage and Security System, or WS3—in the floors of hardened bunkers. Deep inside Incirlik, these vaults are some of the last checks against nuclear theft or detonation by, say, a rogue Turkish government or allied militia. Some additional safety is provided by permissive action links—essentially, access entry codes—on the bombs themselves, but these delay rather than prevent unauthorized use. Given sufficient time and access to these weapons, a sophisticated adversary with the resources of a nation-state could likely figure out a way to use them—if not as designed, then in a way that would still release disastrous and deadly radiation. The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to physically remove the weapons.

When it comes to occasionally pulling its nuclear weapons out of allied countries, the United States has some well-known experience: It’s removed arms from the United Kingdom, Greece, and a German base under NATO auspices, with little logistical or political difficulty. Turkey’s case appears a bit more fraught: The Times, based on an interview with one unnamed U.S. official, suggested that the American nuclear bombs “were now essentially Erdoğan’s hostages.” That’s literally untrue, since the weapons remain in U.S. Air Force custody, but the underlying idea is that “to fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance.” But that statement seems inaccurate, too: This dysfunctional alliance can’t and won’t be saved by the physical presence of American bombs on Turkish soil. The weapons are a liability and serve no valid reassurance purpose—not to Turkey specifically, or to NATO more generally. The bombs can most certainly leave, and Turkey can remain as NATO’s intolerable black sheep—its status in the alliance being a problem for another day.

Where those weapons could go after being removed from Turkey is a different thorny question. Given deep-seated European skepticism of American intentions at the moment, accepting a nuclear deployment under a Trump president would kick off a political hurricane—one that each NATO member nation is eager to avoid. But as Turkey expert Aaron Stein notes, the U.S.’s oldest NATO-deployed B61s, including those at Incirlik, were slated for upgrades and maintenance, for which the weapons would rotate out to the United States, likely the Pantex nuclear assembly plant in West Texas. (The bombs are due to receive a new “tail kit assembly” as part of planned modernization to increase their “precision.”) This upgrade has been considerably delayed, but the bombs might need to come home sooner than planned.

That’s because waiting out the current U.S.-Turkish crisis seems… imprudent. President Trump was already beleaguered by Turkey controversies before the anti-Kurdish offensive began: His first national security adviser admitted in federal court that he was a paid Turkish agent. We also learned this week that Trump pressured Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state, to get a Turkish Erdoğan-connected gold dealer, represented by Rudy Giuliani, free of federal charges in connection with Iranian sanctions violations.

In an attempt to control the damage from the Turkish Syria offensive, Trump has now fallen back on bluster, threatening “to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper has likewise promised that in an upcoming visit to NATO, he will demand consequences for Turkey’s bloody incursion. The U.S. is already in an untenable position, screaming threats at a putative U.S. ally for doing something that Trump assented to in the first place, against virtually all advice from U.S. officials.

At least take nuclear explosives out of the equation. There’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube—or bringing back the U.S.-allied Kurds who’ve been slaughtered as a result of Turkish cruelty and presidential nihilism—but there are lingering risks that can be managed. Removing the U.S. atomic arsenal from Turkey won’t fix the world, but it could save the world from experiencing its stupidest disaster yet.

Helping the Saudi Nuclear Horn (Daniel 7)

Photo: U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told reporters in May, he has delivered a letter to Saudi officials demanding they agree to refrain from enriching uranium or separating plutonium in exchange for peaceful U.S. nuclear technology. Credit: energy.gov

By Shannon Bugos

The writer is a Research Assistant at the Arms Control Association, where she contributes research and analysis, reports for Arms Control Today.

WASHINGTON, DC (IDN-INPS) – Saudi Arabia intends to enrich uranium to fuel its planned nuclear power program, the country’s new energy minister said on September 9. The Saudi position could run afoul of a recently disclosed Trump administration policy to seek a Saudi commitment to refrain from such activities in exchange for U.S. nuclear technology.

“We are proceeding with it cautiously.… We are experimenting with two nuclear reactors,” said Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman at the 24th World Energy Conference in Abu Dhabi on September 9. Saudi officials have announced plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, April 2018.) Currently, companies from the United States, Russia, South Korea, China, and France are competing for a contract to build the first two nuclear power reactors, with a Saudi decision reportedly expected by the end of this year.

To receive U.S. nuclear materials or technology, Saudi Arabia would need first to sign a 123 agreement with the United States. Named after the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act requiring it, a 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear energy technology, equipment, and materials with other countries.

A 123 agreement can involve what is known as a “gold standard” commitment in which a country forgoes the enrichment of uranium or the reprocessing of plutonium, which are two pathways to making nuclear weapons. The State Department is leading negotiations for this agreement, and once complete, it will require congressional approval.

Those negotiations apparently include a U.S. demand for the gold standard. In September, Energy Secretary Rick Perry sent a letter to Saudi officials outlining the U.S. requirements that Saudi Arabia must adopt an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and commit to the gold standard.

“The terms of the 123 Agreement must also contain a commitment by the kingdom to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement,” said Perry’s letter, as reported by Bloomberg.

Energy Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette recently spoke in favor of a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia. “If there’s going to be any transfer of technology, you can’t do it without it,” he said. He did not, however, specifically mention whether the gold standard would be a part of such an agreement.

Negotiations on a 123 agreement have slowed over the past year as Riyadh has refused to relinquish the possibility of enriching uranium. (See ACT, December 2018.) Further complicating the talks were March 2018 remarks by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

Also muddying the situation is an ongoing investigation by the House Oversight and Reform Committee into allegations that top Trump administration officials, such as former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, pushed for U.S. companies to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia without a 123 agreement and in potential violation of ethics laws. (See ACT, March 2019.) The committee first revealed its investigation in February 2019 and released a second interim report on its investigation this past July.

Shortly after its first report in February, members in both houses of Congress introduced legislation requiring congressional oversight over any 123 agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Those bills also state that no 123 agreement with Riyadh should be approved until Saudi Arabia becomes transparent about the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a commentator for The Washington Post, in October 2018. The U.S. intelligence community determined last November that the crown prince ordered the killing of Khashoggi, but U.S. President Donald Trump has defended Riyadh.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who introduced the House bill alongside Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), told Arms Control Today that “Saudi Arabia’s government isn’t known for its transparency, but on the nuclear issue, the kingdom has been crystal clear: it wants to enrich uranium to have the capability to build nuclear weapons. In light of this, a failure to secure a 123 agreement with gold standard safeguards would be reckless and irresponsible. If you can’t trust a regime with a bone saw, you shouldn’t trust it with nuclear weapons.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 October 2019]

Photo: U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told reporters in May, he has delivered a letter to Saudi officials demanding they agree to refrain from enriching uranium or separating plutonium in exchange for peaceful U.S. nuclear technology. Credit: energy.gov

Babylon the Great’s Messed Up Nuclear Policy

AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

The US is rethinking the 50-plus nuclear weapons it keeps in Turkey

Tim FernholzOctober 13, 2019

A US Navy aircraft flies over Incirlik airbase in Turkey.

Turkish forces are pushing into northern Syria, replacing and sometimes even firing on the US troops retreating at Donald Trump’s orders.

The question of whether Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is really a US ally was put to US defense secretary Mark Esper on Fox television this morning. “No, I think Turkey, the arc of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible,” he said.

Which brings up a problem: The US is storing perhaps 50 air-dropped thermonuclear bombs at its Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey, less than 100 miles from the Syrian border where this conflict is taking place.

The nuclear stockpile dates back to the Cold War, when the US sought to keep a sufficient supply of atomic weapons deployed in Europe to deter potential Soviet aggression. Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy also host similar arsenals, and the US trains the participating nations in the use of the doomsday devices.

Today, these bombs remain in place largely because of inertia, and the hope that countries like Turkey will see the depot as sufficient reason not to develop nuclear weapons of their own. It doesn’t seem to be working: Last month, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he could “not accept” efforts to prevent Turkey from developing its own atomic bombs.

But instability in Turkey and the region, along with Ankara’s close relationship with Russia, have had American strategists talking about re-locating their weapons for years. (The US does not officially discuss the arsenal, but there is no indication that the stockpile has been removed.)

A 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan saw power to the base cut off for several days, raising questions about the safety of the stash. More recently, Turkey has purchased advanced air defense technology from Russia, which has raised hackles in the US defense community because Turkey was a partner in developing the US F-35 fighter-bomber. The US Air Force canceled the partnership over worries that Russia would be able to learn from Turkey how to better shoot down US aircraft.

Now, Russia and Turkey are coordinating military policy in northern Syria, with the US as a bystander. The move to exploit a civil conflict in Syria to gain a geopolitical advantage typify how strategists see a new era of great power competition playing out.

One reason to be worried is that the recent shift in US strategy launched by Trump appears to have caught the US military establishment by surprise. It’s not clear how prepared the US is to deal with the knock-on effects of the about-face, whether it is disappointed former allies like the Kurds (paywall) or ISIS fighters escaping from prison camps, much less the calculus of nuclear deterrence.

North Korea Prepares to Nuke Up

North Korea is threatening new nuclear weapons tests

North Korea is once again eyeing nuclear weapons development, as denuclearization talks with the United States appear to have reached an impasse.

In its latest threatening remarks following a reported submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test, North Korean officials called a European rebuke of their missile tests a “serious provocation,” according to the South Korean Yonhap News Agency.

“There is a limit to the patience of the DPRK, and there is no guarantee that all our patience would continue indefinitely,” a spokesperson for the North Korean foreign ministry said in a statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The North Korean spokesperson accused the U.S. of pressuring European countries to support a statement warning Pyongyang against its missile tests and urging North Korea to make efforts to build trust with officials in Washington.

The recent SLBM test raises the threat of North Korea’s ability to strike the U.S. and its allies. A submarine-borne ballistic missile could extend North Korea’s nuclear strike range, by carrying such a ballistic missile much closer to the U.S. mainland.

The missile test also comes on the heels of a round of denuclearization talks over the weekend in Stockholm, Sweden between U.S. officials and North Korean envoys, signaling little faith in the ongoing negotiations.

The North Korean side left the peace talks on Saturday, amid claims that negotiations had “broke down.”

North Korea’s top negotiator Kim Miyong Gil said the U.S. had not met North Korea’s expectations for talks and has not “discarded its old stance” towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Despite the claims of North Korean negotiators, U.S. officials signaled optimism on Saturday, vowing to return to Sweden for an additional round of talks in the next two weeks. North Korea has not yet appeared to accept the invitation to return to talks in Sweden.

Kim also reportedly said Pyongyang’s moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests are now dependent Washington.

In North Korea’s latest statements, the ministry spokesperson said the DPRK is considering leaving negotiations altogether, and accused the U.S. of coming to denuclearization talks with an “empty hand.”

“The UNSC … picks fault with the just measure belonging to our right to self-defense, while keeping mum about the test-fire of Minuteman 3 ICBM recently conducted by the U.S,” the North Korean criticism continued, appearing to reference a recent U.S. ballistic missile test in the South Pacific.