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.
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.
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.
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.
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.