Turkey’s Approach towards Nuclear Armament*

06 July 2013
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When we look at Turkey’s nuclear strategy particularly in the field of military, we see that the issue of nuclear armament is not frequently discussed (maybe for right reasons).  However, outside the country, in other NATO members, this issue is often discussed.  What is at stake here is not the debate over how many nuclear weapons each state possesses but what kind of roles nuclear weapons play in the security strategies of countries.The debate on whether nuclear weapons are still needed in today’s world is being made openly before the public opinion. There has not occurred such a debate environment in Turkey yet. I am of the view that beginning such a debate will be of benefit if we indeed have the ideal of ‘open society’.


When we look at the history of nuclear weapons, we see that they had important functions from the perspective of NATO. In order to preserve the nuclear balance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, NATO had deployed on the one hand strategic weapons in the American continent and on the other tactical weapons in NATO countries in the European continent. The function of the tactical nuclear weapons in the field was to be an important asset to resort to stop any possible Soviet attack. For, the conventional balance between NATO and the Soviet Union was in favor of the latter. The Soviet Union was much more powerful in terms of the conventional balance in Europe. It was extremely difficult to resist the conventional weapons in a possible war since the balance was against NATO.  Therefore, tactic nuclear weapons held at that time the following function: if there were to be a nuclear attack and NATO forces cannot succeed in stopping it by the means of conventional weapons, then tactic nuclear weapons would be used to stall the Russian attack. This situation had completely changed after 1989. No longer had the tactic nuclear weapons held any function against a possible Russian attack in NATO planning. So much so that even those who make such military planning inside NATO state that they cannot foresee any military contingency in which such tactical nuclear weapons are used.

NATO’s tactic nuclear weapons are today deployed in five European countries: Turkey, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.  Of these five countries, there is now a great pressure in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany exerted by the society on the rulers in that these weapons should be sent back to the United States because they no longer have any meaning in terms of NATO’s strategy. Even the foreign Ministers of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany sent a letter to NATO’s Secretary General in which they stated that their countries would like to get rid of these weapons; and this situation caused a chasm inside NATO. A different situation took place for Turkey during this process while Italy mostly remained silent. Nuclear weapons in Turkey are deployed under NATO umbrella. This attracted the attention of the public opinion for the first time during the Cuban crisis.  In the Cuban Crisis, the Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey were pulled back in return for the withdrawal of the missiles deployed in Cuba by the Russians. However, these weapons were brought back to Turkey in the end of 1970s as being tactic weapons loaded on aircraft (B-61), rather than in the shape of missiles.  These weapons were dispersed across the country at that time, but brought together only in Incirlik after 1989.  As of today, however uncertain they are about their exact numbers, experts are saying that there are approximately 60-90 tactic nuclear warheads in Incirlik.   

At this juncture, such a question comes to mind: What is the function of these weapons from Turkey’s perspective? In case these weapons were to be withdrawn from the western European countries, they would remain only in two countries, namely Italy and Turkey.  This situation might rather cause Turkey being at the point of target. Questions as for the place of these weapons in Turkey’s national security strategy, the conditions under which these weapons would be used and the nature of threats against which Turkey would like to keep these weapons in the country would confront us urgently.


As of today we need to group answers to such questions under three main categories:

First, even Turkey does not anticipate the use of such weapons in Turkish soils under any military contingency. However, the presence of these weapons in Turkish territory demonstrates the United States’ commitment to Turkey’s security as well as Turkey’s alliance with NATO. The authorities in Ankara do not approve of the withdrawal of these weapons at this stage on the ground that this might weaken Turkey’s security feeling.  

The second concerns the Iranian question: the demand that these weapons be withdrawn from Turkey before reaching any settlement on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is something that would not be perceived positively by some concerned with Iran. In this context, Turkey has adopted the view that NATO’s tactic nuclear weapons should not be withdrawn for this would be perceived as a message, at least by the time the Iranian questions gets resolved.  

Third, Russia’s position on the nuclear armament is of significance. If such weapons were to be withdrawn, it is expected that Russia would also decrease the number of its nuclear weapons.

 When these three arguments are combined, Turkey’s attitude, on the contrary of three western European countries (Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands) turns out to be in favor of having these weapons deployed in Turkey. Besides, Foreign Ministry officials add that: “If any decision concerning the withdrawal of tactic nuclear weapons were to be taken, this needs to be done through securing a consensus within NATO.” By saying this Turkey in fact means that neither Belgium, nor the Netherlands nor Germany is competent to take such a decision alone. Such a decision needs to be taken through the consent of all NATO members. As of today, It appears that Turkey has postponed the decision concerning the withdrawal of weapons to a future date.  

 All these issues have been reflected on NATO’s Strategic Concept declared in the Lisbon summit. NATO continues to define itself as an organization that possess nuclear weapons and remain as a nuclear umbrella.

This debate in Europe has not ended yet. The main reason why this debate has not ended and will likely continue is the ongoing economic crisis in Europe.  European countries do not foresee any military scenario concerning the tactical nuclear weapons deployed in their territories. However, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have some costs to pay due to the fact that they have nuclear missions/responsibilities within NATO. These costs are much less in terms of Turkey because the support that Turkey provides NATO concerning nuclear weapons is all about the protection of bombs deployed in Incirlik.


The Capacity of Using Nuclear Weapons

In order to perform nuclear missions, countries need to have fleets of aircraft, called ‘dual capable aircraft’, which can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons. The aircrafts that have this capacity do not exist in Turkey. In fact, Turkish Air Forces does not have any nuclear mission in NATO’s planning. Conversely, NATO members Germany and the Netherland posses aircrafts that have nuclear capability, but these aircraft are technologically becoming out-of-date. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands would have to decide to renew these aircrafts in near future. However, they think that the both military and economic reasons lie new aircrafts they will buy do not need to have nuclear capability in the background of this thought.

If the new planes to be purchased were not to have nuclear capability, then the tactical bombs in the related countries would not have any meaning (because all these bombs/warheads can only be used by loading them on planes). The debate within NATO on this issue has not been finalized yet, only postponed.

When we look at the consequences of the postponement of this debate for Turkey, we face the following picture. Despite the fact that Turkey gained some time by the emergence of any reconciliation within NATO, I hold the view that there is not going to be reconciliation in future. The severity of the economic crisis in Europe leads the European government to pare down their defense budgets. This pressure will resurface again when the decisions on the renewal of fleet of warplanes are taken in future.  

Where is Turkey in the Nuclear ‘Game’?

In an environment in which Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands got out of the nuclear game, would Turkey decide to be the only country or one of the two countries in Europe besides Italy in which nuclear weapons are deployed? This would have both positive and negative consequences. To begin with the positive consequences: That Turkey becomes the only country in Europe possessing the tactic nuclear weapons will become a factor increasing Turkey’s value within NATO. As American and Turkish authorities underlined, this would strengthen the security bond between the two countries and elevate Turkey to a more important position within NATO. When we look at the negative consequences for Turkey where nuclear weapons are deployed, Turkey would become a focal point in case of any war scenario. Besides, when this was reflected on the public opinion, it would naturally be asked ‘why is Turkey the only country possessing these weapons while other countries are shipping their weapons back?’

Looking from the political angle, there would be some consequences of Turkey maintaining this position. Ankara has not taken any decision on the nuclear weapons in Turkey yet. In fact, such a decision cannot be taken in a rush; that is why it has been postponed.  However, this debate within NATO will resurface at a future date and Turkey would have to take a decision. As of today, there are some options in front of Turkey. Even though it does not need to act in a short term as Germany and Belgium, Turkey would have to renew its fleet of warplanes. An important indication of which decision Turkey will take concerns the F-35 Consortium in which Turkey is involved. Whether or not the F-35s, which will replace the F-16s, would have nuclear capability will be an important indication of Turkey’s policy on tactic nuclear weapons in future. In case F-35s have nuclear capability, this would be an indication of Turkey’s resolve to maintain the nuclear weapons in the country. If the F-35s do not have the nuclear capabilities, this would suggest that these weapons will be sent back from Turkey.  


Today, the strategic use of tactical nuclear weapons can be substituted by other weapons. Whether it is the strategic missiles deployed in the United States or the nuclear assets in submarines, these could to a great extent perform the functions of tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Today, the significance of these tactic nuclear weapons are of more political than military in nature.


I think the main reason why Turkey prevaricates on the issue of tactical nuclear weapons is that these weapons deployed in Turkey strengthen the security bonds between Turkey and America. The second reason, concerning the long term, is the Iranian question and how this will evolve.  Authorities in Ankara will not likely take steps in the way of nuclear disarmament, if Iran progresses on nuclear armament in future (This is one of the questions I frequently come across). Even if Iran owned nuclear weapons, Turkey would not choose the way of producing its own nuclear weapons. All in all, Turkey is a member of NATO, under its conventional and nuclear umbrella and has a security relationship with the United States. When we combine all these factors together, it is unlikely that Turkey would choose the option of having military nuclear weapons by contravening international law. However, there is a grey area here. That is: Today countries like Japan, which can be called as threshold states, are able to easily produce nuclear weapons even by using a screwdriver. Turkey will at one point become a country that first tries to learn the nuclear technology within this grey area and then develop this technology further, if the Iranian issue remains non-resolved and the nuclear tension increases in the region. However, this does not mean that Turkey would choose the way of nuclear armament.


Turkey is still far behind in the game on nuclear technology. In Turkey there are two nuclear research reactors for civilian purposes/use, one in Küçükçekmece and the other in Istanbul Technical University. However, today the option of Turkey having nuclear central has come to the fore more conspicuously. There are agreements with the Russians for the central in Akkuyu and the Japanese and French for central in Sinop. According to the statements of the government, Turkey wants to build the third central on its own. By learning the nuclear technology in these two centrals in Akkuyu and Sinop, Turkey will try to develop its own skills in the fields that require more sensitive/sophisticated nuclear technology (such as nuclear fuel, enrichment, nuclear waste). This is a right conferred on states by the international law, there is no reservation/ambiguity/conflict on this issue.


Should Turkey want to develop more sensitive and sophisticated nuclear technologies on its own (ranging from uranium enrichment to developing plutonium for cleaning nuclear waste), she should manage this process in a transparent manner and in accordance with international commitments.  


* This text is compiled by the speech delivered by Sinan Ulgen in the seminar titled ‘Turkey’s Approach towards Nuclear Armament’ which was organized in the Wise Men Strategic Research Center on 14 May 2013.

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