There has been some sloppy talk about Turkey holding US nukes “hostage.” It’s not quite that bad, but the situation definitely sucks.

This is not a new problem, either. When Turkey had their near-coup, there was a frisson of terror among the Washington elite, because of the potential for a situation just exactly like the current one. In other words, the US government ought to have already figured out that this is a problem and done something about it, if they could. The question, to me, is “could they?” and what’s been happening; is this normal incompetence or incompetence of the “we just lost control of 50 hydrogen bombs” variety?

The US B-61 bomb is [wik] a basic implosion two-stage fusion weapon that can be configured to yield up to 340 kilotons. It’s a city-killer, or a huge area denial weapon, depending on whose lies you believe. First we have to explain how the US has cheated on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty: those are US bombs, they just happen to be at a Turkish airport and they just happen to be compatible with Turkish F-16s for delivery. That’s the same proliferation trick that almost brought us a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis – the Soviets decided to position ballistic missiles in Cuba because they would be about the same distance from Cuba to Washington as the US’ ballistic missiles (Atlas Gs) that were emplaced in Turkey. [I spent a while looking for the old launch pads of those monsters: stderr] Not content with it, the US dismantled those missiles and replaced them with much more deniable weapons and proliferated Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles to the Brits. Technically, you could say that a bunch of US multi-independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) nukes are “held hostage” on British submarines, too.

Anyhow, there is a little patch of ground at Incirlik airforce base that is the US: [fas]

A few years ago I made a phone call to a guy I know who commanded one of the “special munitions trucks” during the first gulf war  (yes, the US deployed nukes to Saudi Arabia) and tried to learn a bit about how such weapons are handled. He said he can’t even confirm or deny knowing anything about it, until after 2030. But I do know a few things from other less authoritative sources: the nukes are separately guarded and the soldiers that guard them know what they are. Because nobody would fly a bunch of marines out to stand guard with loaded weapons over a truck full of tinned sardines; a truck parked in a revetment far from everyone else – even other friendly troops.

FAS says:

Incirlik Air Base is the largest nuclear weapons storage site in Europe with 25 underground vaults installed inside as many protective aircraft shelters (PAS) in 1998. Each vault can hold up to four bombs for a maximum total base capacity of 100 bombs. There were 90 B61 nuclear bombs in 2000, or 3-4 bombs per vault. This included 40 bombs earmarked for deliver by Turkish F-16 jets at Balikesir Air Base and Akinci Air Base. There are currently an estimated 50 bombs at the base, or an average of 2-3 bombs in each of the 21 vaults inside the new security perimeter.

The new security perimeter under construction surrounds the so-called “NATO area” with 21 aircraft shelters (the remaining four vaults might be in shelters inside the Cold War alert area that is no longer used for nuclear operations). The security perimeter is a 4,200-meter (2,600-mile) double-fenced with lighting, cameras, intrusion detection, and a vehicle patrol-road running between the two fences. There are five or six access points including three for aircraft. Construction is done by Kuanta Construction for the Aselsan Cooperation under a contract with the Turkish Ministry of Defense.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a former friend who was a CIA intelligence officer once told me that he talked to one of the Soviets who was stationed in Cuba (this was while the Soviets were saying “no boots on the ground!”) and apparently they were under some very strict orders involving shooting anyone who came within a certain distance of the warheads, regardless of what side they appeared to be on. That is, almost certainly, the same orders as the US contingent that is camped out somewhere down at Incirlik. Picture, if you will, a smallish number of very touchy combat-experienced US marines, with orders to kill anyone who tries to get into the revetment who is not their relief. That’s where the scenario gets more ugly: we don’t know what the Turks might do.

Turkish military disarming other Turkish military, 2016

In 2016 this is what the situation sounded like: [ny]

On Saturday morning, the American Embassy in Ankara issued an “Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens,” warning that power had been cut to Incirlik and that “local authorities are denying movements on to and off of” the base. Incirlik was forced to rely on backup generators; U.S. Air Force planes stationed there were prohibited from taking off or landing; and the security-threat level was raised to FPCON Delta, the highest state of alert, declared when a terrorist attack has occurred or may be imminent. On Sunday, the base commander, General Bekir Ercan Van, and nine other Turkish officers at Incirlik were detained for allegedly supporting the coup. As of this writing, American flights have resumed at the base, but the power is still cut off.

The assumption has been the Turkey is a friendly power and will always remain that way. Given that there was a near coup in 2016, in which thousands of the Turkish military were disarmed by other parts of the Turkish military, it seems to be a particularly sketchy assumption. Turkish F-16s took off from Incirlik and flew threateningly around during the coup, which is interesting because those are the very same NATO F-16s that have bomb-rails that are compatible for delivering the B-61s. We can be quite sure that there were no B-61s on those planes but we have to assume that the US contingent guarding those bombs was experiencing a “very high pucker factor.” It’s not as though the Turks are wimps – that’s a Leopard II main battle tank, and the bomb guarding contingent probably could not stand up to something like that, even though they would be literally standing in the middle of a massive nuclear arsenal. Any US leader with a brain would have figured out, in 2016, that leaving those nukes at Incirlik was a dumb idea. It was always a dumb idea – Incirlik is something like 60 miles as the F-16 flies from the Syrian border, where all the Turkish military is, right now. The likelihood of an ISIS (or Kurdish!) attack on the US stockpile at Incirlik was close to zero, but that’s not close enough for my taste. I will note that the Federation Of American Scientists (FAS) and I agree about that; they have been pointing out for years that those nukes are not well-controlled. [fas]

Here’s one thing the US did to help secure those warheads: they ordered the families of the guard contingent to get back to the US. [reuters] That allows us to make an estimate on the size of the contingent guarding the nukes: 100 family members in that part of Turkey were not sent home because of “alternate security arrangements” but that puts the contingent at about 100. Enough to put up a nasty fight for a while, while someone runs around and disables the weapons. Beau Geste’s Fort Zinderneuf with nukes and no Segeant LeJaune! Happy happy joy joy, the B-61 has a Permissive Action Link (PAL) control system that interlocks the weapons’ timing system for its explosive lens to a cryptographic device that controls the lens explosion sequence. PALs, I have been told by a cryptographer who worked on them, are very cool. There’s some information on PALs here: [glenn] Any similarity to the CRM-114 Discriminator in Doctor Strangelove is purely a coincidence of Stanley Kubrick’s genius. Anyhow, the good news is that the Turks can’t just grab those nukes and strap them onto an F-16 and fly them over to Syria; they won’t work properly. They’d just scatter plutonium and other traces of nasty over a comparatively small area.

Permissive Action Link (PAL) controller

None of this should avoid the point that the US has been utterly stupid and irresponsible with a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, and has been ineffective at dealing with the problem because dealing with the problem would require admitting that someone fucked up and the assholes in Washington would rather see a lot of people die than have to admit that and figure out whose fuckup it was. In fact it’s all so thoroughly classified that it’s probably nearly impossible to figure that out.

Meanwhile, there’s a chance that if Turkey gets really grumpy at the US, they could effectively put the US contingent under siege. What if their supplies in/out were cut off? What is the likelihood that if the US requested to land a couple of C-17 heavy transports, that they would be cleared to land and take off again? The Turks know that if any kind of heavy transportation capable of moving 50 tons of nukes shows up, that it means the nukes are leaving. I doubt the Turks would be highly approving if a bunch of US special forces with antitank weapons showed up and said they were there to play ping-pong with the marine contingent guarding the revetments, that they’d be allowed into the base, either.

So, is Turkey holding a bunch of US nukes “hostage”? Hardly. We gave them to them, after all – sort of – we’re just apparently a bit short-sighted and haven’t really thought things through. Building Turkey into the F-35 program was probably not such a bright idea, either. [The leaks of the F-35 CAD data were traced to a Turkish defense contractor] Turkey is being dropped out of the F-35 program by 2020, which is sort of irrelevant since “give us back all the things you learned while building the repair facility for F-35 engines” doesn’t work that well. [dt] It’s a fascinating problem, really – at what point can you sort of take your nukes and go home? By the way, this would make a really fun plot for a movie, doubtless starring Bruce Willis, in which ex-mining engineer Studdy McStudface oversees a tunnel-digging operation from a secret base in Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria, 60 miles underground to Incirlik base to recover the nukes, but the Turks figure it out and start a war and we all hold our breath for the dramatic ending in which president Trump calls Erdogan “poo poo head” and Erdogan sends the tanks in to seize the US nukes.

What I’m getting at is that the whole situation sounds like the plot of a shitty movie. Because, aside from being reality, that’s what it is.

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50 B-61s could completely devastate England and Scotland, or Germany. If each bomb is a city-killer, 50 of them is a nation-killer.

Assuming the PALs work correctly, the US could just pop a cruise missile into the nuke collection and leave the Turks with a nasty radiological dispersion disaster. “Thanks, buhbye!” except the Turks have a hundred or so Americans that are sort of but not quite hostages.

This whole situation is a consequence of the US’ deliberate cheating on the non-proliferation treaty. That’s worth remembering. We are not the “good guys” we’re handing out nukes like they’re baubles for friendly dictator. At least Great Britain is super politically stable, thank god!

Did I mention that PALs are cool? The way nukes with PALs are assembled, there is a “physics package” that includes the explosive lenses for implosion, the fusion secondary, and the primary fission plutonium bomb that creates the x-ray pressure shockwave that causes the fusion. The physics package is a big stainless steel welded container with a couple of interface plugs that connect to the firing controller. I haven’t been able to get a solid answer as to whether the power supply for the bridge-wire detonators that fire the lenses is inside the physics package, or external. I believe it is internal. So the firing controller with the PAL is “firewalled” from the physics package because everything that makes the bomb go is inside this welded stainless can. That’s why when you see movies where a terrorist gets a nuke and rewires it, you can laugh: the terrorist does not know the nanosecond-precise firing sequence of the explosive lenses. Nobody does except that bomb’s PAL. You need a lot of power to make bridge-wire detonators explode (read up on krytrons and thyristors and you’ll probably wind up on a list somewhere) [oops] so where does the power come from? A little birdy told me that a lot of these devices are “exceedingly clever” and that was all I could get regarding more modern bombs like the B-61. However, I do know that the charging system for a nuclear artillery shell is a built-in offset weight that powers a generator from the angular momentum imparted to the shell when it’s fired from the gun. Now that is “exceedingly clever” – the only way to arm a nuclear artillery shell is with a 155mm howitzer. The bad news is that there’s no PAL in an artillery shell because they are too small and it’s hard to interface with something in the firing chamber of a howitzer.

Remember: nuclear bombs are dangerous. The US is way too cavalier with the damn things. Literally, Kim Jong Un is more rational and careful with his nuclear arsenal.


  1. says

    Isn’t Incirlik in Asia, not Europe?

    I was blockquoting FAS.

    My guess is that FAS has decided Turkey is part of Europe since it’s sort of part of the EU. That’s probably a bit of an “oh oops” situation, too. What will they call it, “Texit”?

    There’s a meta-story here about international trust. Apparently the idea that building England or Turkey into the European economic sphere was going to civilize them, or something. But yesterday’s secular democracy is today’s newly-minted dictatorship. It’s a cautionary tale about the wisdom of proliferating nuclear weapons.

  2. komarov says

    Assuming the PALs work correctly, the US could just pop a cruise missile into the nuke collection and leave the Turks with a nasty radiological dispersion disaster.

    You’ve written often enough that botched timing in a nuke should result in melty, radioactive goo. Instead of having that guard contingent running around deactivating bombs, as you put it, they could just half-detonate them. That should actually work as a nuclear deterrent. Don’t come near our nukes or we’ll irradiate your precious airbase for a few centuries. Anyone else would hopefully just be put off by the prospect of being irradiated along with the airbase they’re trying to break in to.

    except the Turks have a hundred or so Americans that are sort of but not quite hostages.

    This calls for more outsourcing. Apparently the Kurds were very good but, of course, reflexively stiffed by Trump when it came to the “pro quo”. Better find some other keen but oppressed minority desperate enough to trust the US.

    As for the precious American hostages: Hard luck. Sadly you don’t learn the most important rule for military service until after you’ve joined: Never volunteer for anything!
    Fortunately it’s not as if the Turkish government has ever stooped so low as to make up charges against foreign nationals and then detain them until some favour could be extracted for their release. Not at all.

    At least Great Britain is super politically stable, thank god!

    No joke. The tories are clearly indestructable. British politics is all nays and that includes no confidence votes.

    Literally, Kim Jong Un is more rational and careful with his nuclear arsenal.

    If only because he can’t afford as many spares and has to keep them in his own country, which is too small to put a comfortable distance between himself and his arsenal. (Am I being unfair? Yes, I am. Does he strike me as the health-and-safety conscious type? No, he does not.)

    Re: “4,200-meter (2,600-mile)”

    I’d like to think this is because the metric system and its adherents are inherently more trustworthy.

  3. says

    The Wikipedia article on PALs claims American versions use a small radioisotope generator as a power source.


    The question I had is what powers the detonators in the physics package. It used to be that was a big secret. But now, someone appears to have posted technically accurate information in wikipedia (!) – that’s pretty cool. A few things that need to be explained: normal explosive detonators are not precise enough in timing – they can vary by milliseconds. So a nuke uses what’s called a bridge wire detonator – last time I checked, a piece of silver wire that is hit with such a massive instantaneous charge that it explodes with enough force to trigger the high explosive of the lenses. Which is a MASSIVE charge. The explosive of the lenses is very stable stuff – polyurethane stiffened hexanitro, I believe – it has to be stable, solid, and machinable to ridiculously fine tolerances without any bubbles in it or cracks. There are stories that George Kistiakowski, the fellow in the Manhattan Project who made the explosive lenses, nearly lost his mind from frustration. But finally he called the physicists together and showed them a small ball of iron. “What is that?” It was a 24lb’er cannonball (about the size of the core of the bomb) that he had used high explosive to compact into a much smaller ball, without any of the metal squirting off in some random direction. When the US or Israel try to blame some other country for having nuclear ambitions it’s almost always explosive lenses or centrifuges that are the technologies under contention. (That is why the photo of Kim Jong Un inspecting a high end CNC machine was so provocative, back in the day. Nothing screams “I have nuclear ambitions” like buying a CNC machine that can mill polyurethane to absurdly fine tolerances.

    Anyhow: the explosive is very stable, and the bridge wire detonator has to get hit with a huge surge of power with very precise timing. Enter the krytron – a high energy relay that operates with sub-nanosecond accuracy. Doc Edgerton invented the first generation of these (the thyristor) when he was inventing strobe photography. So, there’s a signal that says “trigger the bomb” and all the thyristors slam to “ON” and the silver wires get a whopping huge load of power and explode and that ignites the lenses, which make an inward-moving shockwave that perfectly compresses the core to the point where it’s critical mass. (Critical mass is a function of the density of the uranium, or the quantity: the implosion bomb works by making it more dense with the explosion, whereas the first bomb tested worked by mashing two large chunks of uranium together by firing them at eachother with a sort of onboard cannon)

    So, the question was “where does all that power come from, in that wee little bomb?” and the answer appears to be a “MC4246A thermal battery” according to Wikipedia. As you can imagine, these are not items normally stocked at Radio Shack. I did a bit of searching around and found a vendor’s reference paper. :) [asb] which describes it as follows:

    A thermal battery is an exceptionally reliable source of specific energy. It is a non-rechargeable, single use battery that is completely inert before being activated.It can be stored without requiring maintenance for 15 years and then brought into use at any time, requiring only several tenths of a second before it is ready for use. Activation is effected internally either by mechanical or electrical ignition. Certain batteries can also be activated automatically, for example through an accelerating effect or a sudden increase in temperature. It can function under severe climatic and mechanical environments. Its intrinsic qualities mean that it is impervious to high stresses, sudden shocks and sharp pressure drops.

    Thermal batteries can supply the highest level of specific powers available on the market. It is also possible to provide several output voltages from a single battery. Thermal batteries are generally created to order and are designed to satisfy the most demanding requirements of clients who have at the outset their own parameters: power requirements, service life, size, weight, design and other requirements.

    At the heart of the energy: how does it work: The thermal battery is composed of a series of cells each one having an anode, electrolyte, cathode and a heating pellet. The electrolyte, which functions as a separator between the anode and the cathode, remains solid and non-conductive until activation. The battery remains completely inert while being stored. In each battery, the necessary number of cells is connected in series or parallel, or a combination of both, in order to produce the required voltage level(s).

    At the moment of activation the pyrotechnic material (heat source) is ignited and releases energy into the cells. The temperature increases, the electrolyte melts and ion exchange takes place: the power in the cell is thus liberated. The electrical current is transmitted through the terminals to external cabling to provide the energy required to the load.A thermal battery provides its power not by converting thermal energy to electrical energy, but from a reactive electrochemical couple. Discharge is either terminated by exhaustion of the cell materials or by solidification of the electrolyte upon cooling.

    That sounds just right: it’s got to be fast and perfectly predictable power – and lots of it.

    Now it gets cooler: it turns out that the PAL/bomb controller has a “disable” option that will render the bomb inert. How does that work? It fires the thermal battery which generates enough heat to melt everything in the physics package into a radioactive hell-soup of hexanitro high explosive with a molten plutonium blob in the middle. It’s like the worst ice cream sundae except for the elephant’s foot at Chernobyl.

    So: the power source for igniting the explosive lens is inside the physics package, and it’s a badass motherfucker one-shot battery.

  4. says

    So here are the interior components of a B-61.

    The parts scattered around the floor are the components that normally would be inside the physics package, mostly (the controller and PAL interface are in the upper right). I believe the white plastic things are two different things: the explosive lenses and the doped styrofoam that gets exploded by X-ray pressure when the primary goes off, and creates a shockwave that “squeezes” the fusibles. The a-bomb part is the polished metal thing with the hemispheric bottom.

    I am betting that the longish complicated multi-cellular thing in the upper center right is the thermal battery. That’s a mighty big battery!

  5. says

    The bomb “squirt” I have referred to several times is what happens if the high explosive lenses catch fire or detonate for some other reason. Suppose someone drops a conventional bomb on a hydrogen bomb. Naturally, this is a disaster scenario because it’s going to be a horrible mess no matter how you slice it. But it shouldn’t explode the primary because the explosive lenses are not fired simultaneously. Suppose the bomb sets off the explosive lenses in sympathetic detonation – the shockwave going through the explosive lenses will be left-to-right or top-to-bottom or whatever, not symmetrical and simultaneous to cause an implosion.

    In bad hollywood movies where someone gets an H-bomb and is rewiring it to explode, or they threaten to shoot it with a bazooka or something, they’re only going to create an asymmetrical explosion if they manage to set of the explosive lens. In which case, the plutonium core is going to go … somewhere but it’s not going to compress around the initiator and cause fission.

    By the way, the reason that the US government is terrified of “radiological dispersion bombs” is because the US Airforce accidentally made one at Thule Air Force Base when a B-52 crashed in 1962. [wik]

    The resulting explosion and fire destroyed many of the components that had scattered widely in a 1-mile (1.6 km) by 3-mile (4.8 km) area. Parts of the bomb bay were found 2 miles (3.2 km) north of the impact area, indicating the aircraft started to break up before impact.. The ice was disrupted at the point of impact, temporarily exposing an area of seawater approximately 160 feet (50 m) in diameter; ice floes in the area were scattered, upturned and displaced. South of the impact area, a 400-foot (120 m) by 2,200-foot (670 m) blackened patch was visible where fuel from the aircraft had burned—this area was highly contaminated with JP-4 aviation fuel and radioactive elements that included plutonium, uranium, americium and tritium. Plutonium levels as high as 380 mg/m2 were registered in the area.

    A base camp (named “Camp Hunziker” after Richard Overton Hunziker, the USAF general in charge of the operation) was created at the crash site; it included a heliport, igloos, generators and communications facilities. A “zero line” delineating the 1-mile (1.6 km) by 3-mile (4.8 km) area in which alpha particle contamination could be measured was established by 25 January, four days after the crash. The line was subsequently used to control decontamination of personnel and vehicles. An ice road was constructed to Thule from the site. This was followed by a second, more direct road so that the ice on the first road was not fatigued by overuse. The camp later included a large prefabricated building, two ski-mounted buildings, several huts, a decontamination trailer and a latrine. These facilities allowed for 24-hour operations at the crash site.

    The USAF worked with Danish nuclear scientists to consider the clean-up options. The spilled fuel in the blackened area was heavily contaminated, raising concerns that when the ice melted in the summer, the radioactive fuel would float on the sea and subsequently contaminate the shore. The Danes thus insisted on the removal of the blackened area to avoid this possibility.

    The Danes also requested that the nuclear material not be left in Greenland after the cleanup operation was complete, therefore requiring General Hunziker to remove the contaminated ice and wreckage to the United States for disposal.[45][46] USAF personnel used graders to collect the contaminated snow and ice, which was loaded into wooden boxes at the crash site. The boxes were moved to a holding area near Thule Air Base known as the “Tank Farm”. There, contaminated material was loaded into steel tanks prior to being loaded onto ships. Debris from the weapons was sent to the Pantex plant in Texas for evaluation. and the tanks were shipped to Savannah River in South Carolina. According to General Hunziker, 93 percent of the contaminated material was removed from the accident site.

    South Carolina. Oh, fuck ’em. Should have sent it to Mississippi.

    And Camp Hunziker sounds like a great place to send John Bolton and Rudi Giuliani to go find something useful to do. We need a place like that, so that sociopaths like Steve Mnuchin can find productive work.

  6. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Also, thank you for posting the stuff that you do Marcus. I’ve learned a lot. Well, I already knew US foreign policy was awful. Now I just know more details how its awfulness.

  7. says

    Also, thank you for posting the stuff that you do Marcus. I’ve learned a lot. Well, I already knew US foreign policy was awful. Now I just know more details how its awfulness.

    Thanks. I get pretty glum about this stuff, sometimes.
    It’s bad when writing about nuclear weapons is cheerful compared to the politics of the day.

    You have very fascinating friends Marcus

    Some of them are outliers, that’s for sure!
    After 9/11 I saw some “disturbances in the force” that led me to believe the intelligence community had switched to look inward. I mean, when all the people you’d expect would be recruited to build something like PRISM suddenly got really quiet and dropped off the radar screen, that was interesting. I burned a lot of friendships when the NSA went into overdrive, because I expected some of my former friends to turn whistleblower but instead they jumped for the opportunity to be “project leader” or whatever and get a nice fat promotion. A large chunk of the security community sold their souls around that time – including a number I already did not talk to, who switched to writing offensive tools. Well, they’re millionaires now. There are some scary, sociopathic dudes out there taking the intelligence community’s money. They’re nobody’s friends.

  8. Nelson Cunnington says

    @9: A little late to the party, but if we’re looking at the same thing, that “the longish complicated multi-cellular thing in the upper center right” is, I believe, the parachute for the B61, used to retard the bomb to give the carrier aircraft time to get away before detonation, or even to allow the bomb to settle on the ground for a laydown detonation. See here:

    I think the thermal batteries are more likely to be contained in the coppery-looking ring just in front of the physics package casing, centre-left, together with the tritium gas reservoir and other stuff, and are probably not nearly as impressive. Recall that the SADM, for example, is a nuke of only 50 lb weight, and would presumably need no less juice for its krytons than a B61 or a W78, say.

    I think the latest iteration of the B61, the B61-12, has redesigned the tail somewhat for a possible ground-penetrating deployment, but it probably retains a parachute for flexibility.

  9. Nelson Cunnington says

    Me @14: I take that bit about the B61-12 back: the Mod 12 doesn’t have a parachute. I guess the pilots are just meant to get the hell out after dropping it.

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