In 2012 the Obama Administration initiated the Life Extension Program (LEP) for the B61 tactical nuclear bombs that will extend its life by 20 to 30 years at the estimated cost of $8 billion. The first complete B61-12 (a brand new guided modification of the bomb recently tested in Nevada to replace the existing B61-3, -4, -7, and -10) is scheduled for 2020. The US Air Force plans to equip all F-35s in Europe with nuclear capability by 2024. Besides the US, the nuclear-capable F-35A will be supplied to the Turkish Air Force.
Currently around 200 B61 bombs are deployed in underground vaults inside around 90 protective aircraft shelters at six bases in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). About half of the munitions are earmarked for delivery by the national aircraft of these non-nuclear states, although they all are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 that envisions certain obligations.
For instance, Article I of the NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons from NWS (nuclear weapons states) to other states: «Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices».
Article II requires NNWS (non-nuclear weapons states) not to receive nuclear weapons: «Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transfer or whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices».
The upgrade contradicts the Obama administration’s pledge that LEPs «will not…provide for new military capabilities». It also undercuts the U.S. goal to seek «bold reductions in US and Russian tactical weapons in Europe».
Tactical nuclear weapons are no status quo weapons. Their battlefield purpose increases the chance of a nuclear escalation, which is why the superpowers removed most of them from Central Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The upgrade makes Russia take retaliatory measures increasing the possibility of Europe plunging in the quagmire of dangerous arms race.
The extension and modernization of the U.S. nuclear deployment in Europe competes with resources needed for more important conventional forces and operations, especially in view of the volatile situation in the Middle East and the successes of the Islamic State that continues to gain ground despite the efforts of the US-led coalition to counter it.
Turkey sets much store by being part of the alliance’s nuclear sharing effort formally justified by the need to counter the Russian tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) arsenal. This vision clearly ignores the NATO’s conventional military superiority. It also turns a blind eye to the fact that the US, UK and French nuclear arsenals provide more than enough deterrence against any threat.
So far Turkey has avoided acknowledging the presence of US TNWs on its soil. While never stated outright, the Turkish government believes that the public would likely not look too fondly on the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory. Moreover, Turkish leaders are generally averse to admitting that the country’s security plans rely heavily on the US security commitment. The Turkish media, which generally ignores this issue, should be asking more questions about the role US TNWs play in Turkey’s defense planning. According to common logic, Turkey should also take steps to explain the divergence in its approach to the implementation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and its quiet support for nuclear weapons on its territory.
It’s worth to note that in 2014 German Die Welt published a report based on estimates by the German intelligence service claiming that Turkey adopted a military program under the disguise of civilian nuclear energy effort.
Stationing duel-capable aircraft and nuclear munitions on national territory always has implications. Building and maintaining hardened aircraft shelters, B61 vaults and associated infrastructure would consume scarce defense resources that could be put to better use. The move to modernize the tactical weapons is doomed to be considered as provocative making the host country a target for possible pre-emptive or retaliatory attack. Besides the very fact of TNWs deployment to Turkey is a violation of the country’s international obligations as mentioned above.
It’s not without reason that Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved basing two dual-capable systems in Crimea: the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile and TU-22M3 Backfire bomber as part of contingency planning.
This May Russia’s envoy to NATO Alexander Grushko has censured the US for retaining tactical nuclear arms in Europe, saying the weapons must be removed as there is no objective reason for their deployment. «The US must pull out these nuclear bombs to its territory. It would be a serious contribution to strategic stability and security in Europe», he emphasized.
Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor at Istanbul's Okan University and one of Turkey's leading nonproliferation experts, argues that withdrawing the bombs under its watch could allow Ankara to make an important statement in terms of ridding the region of nuclear weapons:
«Logic suggests that Turkey should drawdown the U.S. nuclear weapons that are deployed on its territory. However, Turkish governments have so far been cool to this idea and have taken no concrete steps that would suggest otherwise. The U.S. nuclear weapons will most likely be sent back sooner than most people might expect under the current circumstances…»
«It is, however, in Turkey’s responsibility to take a decision in this respect before developments in other political and military forums dictate such a policy. By taking a decision to drawdown these weapons, Turkey may set a very valuable and meaningful precedent for the countries in its neighborhood. Turkey’s profile, which is increasing in the Middle Eastern public domain as well as among the political and military authorities may help enhance its image in the region that was not, however, a very positive one until recently stemming from history».
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Basing TNWs is comparable to a time bomb which may one day explode. The continued possession of these weapons is creating an arms race which fosters the need to engage in war. Nobody with foreign TNWs on its territory has ever enhanced its security. That was the reason behind the massive protests in Europe in the 1980s. Turkey became more secure when US Jupiter ballistic missiles were withdrawn from national territory after the Cuban crisis. There is hardly any meaningful rationale for having B-61s on Turkish soil.