Turkey’s nuclear future

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complains that Turkey cannot have nuclear weapons of its own, some U.S. officials are concerned that keeping U.S. nuclear missiles at the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey could prove dangerous.

A senior U.S. official told The New York Times that American B-61 nuclear bombs at Incirlik were being held hostage by Erdoğan since the United States cannot take them out of Turkey without bringing a de-facto end to the strategic alliance between the two countries.

On the other hand, keeping them there would “perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago.”

The B-61s have complex security codes that are needed to arm the bombs before they can be detonated.

Military Joseph Trevithick recently noted that “handlers can also render them inert using a different command disable code.”

However, he added, “That’s not to say that there aren’t risks, including that someone could fashion the weapons into some form of a dirty bomb, as well as the general security nightmare that would result from any loose nuclear weapons, not to mention the national embarrassment.”

These renewed concerns over the Incirlik bombs came shortly after Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria this month, which resulted in Turkish artillery fire hitting U.S. troop positions in that region.

Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, believes that these bombs “are Erdoğan’s ace-in-the-hole to keep the Americans in line with his policies.”

“American policymakers are loath to remove the nuclear weapons from Turkey because they believe that this move will be seen by the world as yet another sign that the United States is withdrawing from the world and ceding space in global affairs to Russia and China,” Heras told Ahval.

Erdoğan, he said, knows that many in the U.S. foreign policy elite, “who grew up in the profession during the Cold War when Turkey was NATO’s ‘eastern flank’”, would only support removing those weapons “as a measure of last resort, and even then they would be kicking and screaming to stop it from happening.”

On two occasions in September, Erdoğan said it was unacceptable that Turkey could not have nuclear weapons.

“Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But [they tell us] we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept,” he said.

“There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them,” he went on to falsely claim.

Later at the UN General Assembly, the Turkish president insisted that the possession of such technology “should either be forbidden for all, or permissible for everyone.”

Erdoğan did not specify whether or not Turkey had any plans to acquire such weapons, which is unlikely.

Turkey is not presently pursuing a nuclear weapons programme and also lacks the basic infrastructure to build one even if it decides to do so.

The only nuclear-related technology being developed in Turkey today is the Akkuyu nuclear power plant on its Mediterranean coast. Russia won the contract to build the facility in 2010 and construction work began in April 2018.

Erdoğan hopes the $20 billion project will be completed by the 2023 centennial. But it will likely take longer since Rosatom, the Russian manufacturer, has had trouble finding Turkish partners to take a 49 percent stake in the project.

Also, the plant is being built in an area prone to earthquakes. This, along with reportedly recurring cracks in the concrete foundation of the site, has led to concerns and questions about its safety.

Even if Akkuyu is completed soon and Turkey procures all the technical knowhow to build reactors of its own, neither of which is likely, it still would not have the means to make nuclear weapons.

“Developing nuclear power is one thing,” Dr. Ali Bakeer, a political analyst and consultant, told Ahval. “Developing nuclear weapons is quite another.” 

He said that while “Moscow is helping Ankara in the Akkuyu project it has no interest in a nuclear-capable Turkey and certainly will not help a NATO member to develop nuclear weapons or the means to do so.”

“This just does not add up.”

Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also saw no way the Akkuyu project could help Turkey even begin to develop nuclear weapons.

“Akkuyu is a bizarre reactor project,” Stein told Ahval.

“Russia is going to build it, own it, and operate it,” he said. “Rosatom has also included a fuel supply contract and will reprocess spent fuel from the plant and then return the vitrified waste to Turkey for permanent storage.”

Consequently, this arrangement makes Akkuyu “one of the most proliferation-resistant agreements on the planet” because “Russia is essentially operating a national reactor inside Turkey because of how Ankara has set up the financing arrangements.”

Turkish students studying nuclear engineering in Russian universities are not taught about critical technology in this field, according to Moscow-based Russian-Turkish affairs analyst Kerim Has.

This underscores Russia’s unwillingness to help Turkey become self-sufficient in the development of nuclear technology.

Turkey does have an arsenal of conventional tactical ballistic missiles, most notably the J-600T Yıldırım it developed with Chinese assistance and the Bora-1, which saw its combat debut against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan in May.

Neither of these missiles is currently capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to a target.

“With the exceptions of some of the F-16s it possesses, that have been modified to be able to carry the US B-61s, Turkey does not have the means to deliver nuclear warheads,” Bakeer said.

“Its missile programme is not designed to produce missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.”

While Erdoğan said Turkey was being denied the right to develop nuclear weapons he chose to ignore the fact that Ankara has signed both the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

This essentially means that Turkey has already pledged to the rest of the world that it will not seek the development of a nuclear arsenal.

“If Turkey is planning to acquire nuclear weapons, it will be hard to do so without being noticed,” Bakeer said. “More importantly, lacking the rational motives, it will find it almost impossible to sell its case.”

“However, the moment Iran and/or Saudi Arabia possess nuclear weapons then Ankara’s calculations might completely change.”

Stein also believes that if Turkey did pursue such a capability it would certainly face sanctions. But he does not believe this outcome is at all likely.

“Ankara has shown no willingness to even pay for a reactor, let alone absorb the cost of a clandestine weapons programme,” he said. “If Ankara wanted the bomb, and I’m sceptical, Turkey would need to basically build-up nuclear infrastructure from scratch.”

“Is this possible? Sure. Is it likely? I really don’t think so.”

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.