The Idiocy of Our Nuclear Policy

An inert Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile is seen in a training launch tube at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in 2014. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Joseph Cirincione is a nuclear weapons policy expert and president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

No president should have the absolute authority to launch nuclear weapons

Impeachment has a way of bringing out a president’s worst instincts — and the world could end up paying the price.

As impeachment hearings intensified, an increasingly erratic president appeared to finally snap. “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone,” he told visiting lawmakers, “and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.”

It was 1974, and the president was Richard Nixon. He was right. U.S. policy, then and now, gives the president absolute authority to launch nuclear weapons whenever they want, for whatever reason. No consensus is required. No one else need approve.

Indeed, no other official even need know. The president, on their own, can simply summon the “nuclear football,” open binders of attack options and relay orders to the National Military Command Center. The orders would be sent down to missile control officers — where intercontinental ballistic missiles are primed on “hair-trigger” alert — and 30 minutes later you’d have nuclear explosions over the targets, just as Nixon claimed.

Nixon had already shown the perils of this system. Late in 1973, he ordered U.S. nuclear forces worldwide to Defcon 3, the highest alert status since the Cuban Missile Crisis. He justified this move by claiming the Soviets were planning an intervention in the closing days of the Yom Kippur War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states.

There was no intervention. But the missiles might still have flown; it all depended on the whims of one increasingly unpredictable man with his finger hovering over the nuclear button.

Nixon alerted us to the danger: Our nuclear command and control system is insane. Now, the age of Trump — perhaps our most volatile president yet — reminds us that we have yet to address the problem.

Nixon’s erratic orders were part of a worrying pattern. As the Watergate investigation continued into 1974, the extent of Nixon’s drinking and paranoia become clear. Fearing the worst, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger told the White House military staff that if Nixon gave them any orders, they were to check first with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

This was an unambiguously illegal circumvention of the president’s authority. But everyone should be grateful Schlesinger acted.

Who would be Schlesinger now? Who would stop the current president from, as Nixon threatened, picking up his phone and launching a nuclear holocaust? Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who has been at his post for less than five months? National security adviser Robert O’Brien, appointed just two months ago? Acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire, who only assumed his position in mid-August?

Most likely, none of them. Trump has gutted the national security process and its leadership. Schlesinger and Kissinger — disagree as you might with their politics — were formidable professionals. There are no such guards left standing in this administration.

It is possible that someone in the chain of command might mutiny rather than carry out a launch order. If they did, Trump, like Nixon during his “Saturday Night Massacre,” could fire people until he found someone willing to carry out his order. If Trump’s command came in a time of crisis — perhaps when tensions with Iran or North Korea boiled over into military conflict — there would likely be no hesitation.

Procedures adopted in the fearful days of the Cold War — including the first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, the sole authority of the president to fire these weapons and keeping our missiles ready to launch in minutes — combine now to present an unacceptable risk of nuclear disaster.

Little can be done now to reduce these risks. If we do escape catastrophe, it should be the first order of business in a new administration to declare new nuclear guidance and adjust nuclear alert postures accordingly.

Legislators, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), have already introduced bills to prevent presidents from acting solely on their own to launch nuclear weapons and to make it official policy that America will never initiate a nuclear war. These provide a sound basis for a new president to revamp nuclear doctrine and to prevent, as President John F. Kennedy said, that slender thread holding the nuclear sword of Damocles from being cut by “accident or miscalculation or madness.” We must prepare to do all we can to ensure that no one individual — sane or insane — can ever start a nuclear war on their own.

This column was produced in collaboration with The WorldPost, a publication of the Berggruen Institute.

Babylon the Great’s Cost For War

A crew chief overlooks the vast mountain ranges of Southeastern Afghanistan while a CH-47 Chinook assigned to the 1st Armored Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade is in flight during an advise and assistance mission Oct. 9, 2019. (Army photo by Master Sgt. Alejandro Licea)

Post-9/11 Wars Have Cost American Taxpayers $6.4 trillion, Study Finds

14 Nov 2019

Stars and Stripes | By Corey Dickstein

WASHINGTON — American taxpayers have spent $6.4 trillion in nearly two decades of post-9/11 wars, which have killed some 800,000 people worldwide, the Cost of Wars Project announced Wednesday.

The numbers reflect the toll of American combat and other military operations across 80 nations since al-Qaida operatives attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington in 2001, launching the United States into its longest-ever wars aimed at stamping out terrorism worldwide.

The annual spending estimates released Wednesday show a general decline in war costs in 2019 as U.S. troops face less combat in major war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Still, the estimated price tag for those wars increased by $500 billion since November 2018, and it has doubled since the Cost of Wars Project — a product of Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs and Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee Center — first looked at cumulative wartime costs in 2011.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised the workers involved in the project — 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners and physicians.

“The budget of the Pentagon is difficult to weed through is an understatement,” Reed said. “My hope is that this report will continue to inform, educate and serve as a resource as we consider these wars going forward … to give us a better sense of the costs of wars not in a snapshot, but the long-term costs. This should be for us [in Congress] a guide to our policies, our procedures and actions going forward.”

The actual monetary and human costs of these wars is difficult to discern, said Neta Crawford, the report’s author and a Boston University political science professor, who blasted the lack of budget transparency of federal institutions including the Pentagon and departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security.

In recent years, Crawford asserted those institutions have made accessing information on how they spend taxpayer dollars more difficult, including where money is being spent overseas because items that were once reported are now “disappearing from the budget.”

She argued Wednesday that without proper accounting, the American public cannot shape informed opinions on the courses of these wars, which are generally viewed as “winding down” but continue to cost thousands of lives in 2019.

The Pentagon’s share of the spending includes the nearly $2 trillion since 2001 in overseas contingency operations funds, the wartime spending coffers used to fund most operations in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The Defense Department has added more than $900 billion to its base budgets since those operations began, which it likely would not have needed in peacetime, Crawford said.

But the project’s cost estimates consider not only Pentagon wartime spending, but also about $1 trillion in spending on homeland anti-terrorism measures, $131 billion for State Department wartime spending, $437 billion for veterans care through fiscal 2020 and $925 billion of interest payments that the United States will pay on money borrowed to fund those operations. It also includes a projected price tag of more than $1 trillion in future spending on medical care through fiscal 2059 for the men and women who have fought these wars, which is anticipated to grow further, even if the wars were to end in the next year.

“That’s a very rough estimate,” Crawford said. “I think it’s low balling, honestly.”

The costs of America’s post-9/11 wars include not only money but the loss of lives, which the report estimated to have exceeded 800,000 people. That tally includes combatants and noncombatants in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The report outlines the toll on Americans. Since operations were launched in Afghanistan in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, 7,014 U.S. service members have died in American wars, 22 Pentagon civilians have been killed, and 7,950 U.S. contractors have died.

Other deaths include more than 12,000 deaths among U.S. allied troops, 173,000 deaths in the ranks of national military and police forces, nearly 300,000 enemy fighters killed and more than 310,000 civilian deaths.

Those tallies remain largely incomplete, Crawford said, estimating civilian deaths in war zones where Americans have operated could be twice those reported, but were impossible to verify.

She urged better transparency from the Pentagon — and other federal institutions — on budget decisions and ongoing operations in the wars.

“There’s a lot of blood and treasure spent, but we’re not sure if [the wars] are successful,” Crawford said, highlighting recent Pentagon estimates of number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan that show similar strength as it held in 2001 and estimates of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria that show the group might still boast 35,000 to 100,000 fighters following its loss of territory earlier this year.

“So how successful is the strategy and how successful could it be?” she asked. “… We can’t assess in some instances what those answers are.”

America is Such a Turkey

Incirlik Air Base, in the outskirts of the city of Adana, Turkey, is home to 50 B61 nuclear bombs.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

Fred KaplanOct 22, 20195:21 PM

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, 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.

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


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.


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.

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.

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.