Last month’s failed military coup in Turkey raised new discussions about long-standing US deployments of tactical nuclear weapons in the Incirlik Air Base, and continues to spark concern about the security of such arms. Today, a report by the Stimson Center termed the arms to be “at risk” of seizure.
The report cautioned that it is “unanswerable” if the US could have kept control of the weapons if the coup had turned into a protracted civil conflict, at opposed to being resolved in less than half a day, adding that the “significant safeguards” the US has in place can’t add up to total certainty.
Report co-author Laicie Heeley concluded that keeping the US nuclear weapons just 70 miles from the Syrian border amounts to “a roll of the dice,” warning they are a liability to NATO in Europe with no potential utility on the European battlefield.
That’s been a repeated knock on the deployment, with retired Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger noting late last month that the tactical nuclear weapons “no longer have any military usefulness.” The low-yield weapons were designed in the 1960s, and very few remain in service anymore, with what’s left mostly just scattered around bases in Europe as a throwback to the Cold War.
Tactical nuclear weapons were designed for use on contested battlefields, with low enough yields that they could be deployed in relatively close proximity to allied troops without killing them. The weapons have been roundly criticized both for the long-term radiation damage they could do to targets and for the substantial risk that “going nuclear” would quickly escalate a conflict into a full exchange of strategic nuclear weapons and the deaths of untold millions.
This lack of utility has led nuclear powers to dramatically scale back their tactical arsenals, though as with the rest of the nuclear arsenals on the planet, there is considerable momentum behind keeping such costly weapons funded and “modernized.” Keeping the US arms in Europe and Turkey, for no good reason and at substantial risk, seems aimed primarily at retaining the illusion that such arms matter as anything but a sinkhole for billions in funding to fall into.