Growing US and NATO dissatisfaction with Turkey and its rising regional expansionism may soon drive the Americans out of the strategic Incirlik Air Base, a move that would have major implications for regional security and alliances.

The US currently operates at two important bases in Turkey that are ultimately controlled by Anakara but house US tactical nuclear weapons, namely the B61 gravity bomb. The main base is the Mediterranean Sea-facing Incirlik while the other is at Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast. 

US personnel operate at the bases under NATO orders. US personnel are not allowed to travel in or out of Turkey without approved NATO orders in hand and a written order for them to report to either of the bases. 

To visit other NATO countries or to purchase a cellphone subscription, a US passport is also needed. Housing for US personnel is only on the base and US personnel are not permitted to engage with the local economy, as areas outside the base are considered unsafe by the US government.

There are three main reasons the US and NATO support and operate from Incirlik. In 1949, planning for the base gained significant momentum after the Soviet Union (USSR) tested its first atomic weapon in August 1949, thereby ending the American atomic monopoly. 

Concerned that the Russian atomic threat would rapidly grow, the US urged NATO to station nuclear bombers at Incirlik, putting the southern USSR in range but far enough away to make it difficult for the Soviets to hit the base. Incirlik became operational in 1954.

The US now stores 50 or more B61 gravity nuclear bombs at Incirlik that feature a “dial a blast” feature, with each bomb potentially set anywhere between 10 to 340 kiloton yields.

B61 nuclear bombs in storage at an undisclosed facility. Image: Wikimedia

By comparison, the Hiroshima blast was about 16 kilotons, although the effective blast was closer to 11 kilotons. The B61 has gone through a number of modifications, although it is not certain which version of the weapon is currently stored at Incirlik.

Most probably, Incirlik is storing the Mod 7 version.

Security at the strategic base has recently been under scrutiny, according to reports. Incirlik is controlled by Turkey and the NATO mission is permitted there in line with Turkey’s NATO membership. 

Aside from Turkish military personnel, there are currently US and British airmen, civilians and contractors based at the facility.

During a 2016 aborted coup attempt in Turkey, electrical power to the base was shut down by the Turkish government and counterterrorism operations, including in Syria, that were being staged from the base were suspended for several days.

The second reason for the US presence at Incirlik is to carry out NATO-approved and currently ongoing counterterrorism operations.

The third reason concerns NATO’s obliged role in the defense of Turkey, just as NATO plays a role in other NATO countries. That was crucial support for Turkey while the civil war in neighboring Syria was at destabilizing heights.

The problem now is diverging bilateral relations between certain NATO members – especially the US and Germany – and Turkey’s willingness to buy advanced Russian weapons, most notably the S-400 air defense system.

The US has threatened to penalize the deal under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017, under which a nation procuring a major sensitive defense article from Russia faces major sanctions. 

Specifically, the US has said that its F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that could be used to learn about its fighter’s advanced capabilities. As of 2020, four S-400 batteries consisting of 36 fire units and at least 192 missiles have been delivered to Turkey.

F-15E multi-role fighters arrive at the Incirlik Air Base on November 13, 2015. Photo: AFP/Incirlik Air Base/Anadolu Agency

Turkey is also known to be in talks with Russia about acquiring top of the line Russian jet fighters, reportedly either the Su-35 or the Su-57. That procurement will become likely if the US decision to freeze the sale of F-35s to Anakara is continued. 

The US Congress will likely not approve F-35 sales to Turkey so long as it keeps the Russian-made S-400 system, continues its aggressive operations against the Kurds, and pushes claim to petroleum rights in territorial waters that belong to Cyprus and Greece.

In 2017, Germany pulled out of Incirlik and repositioned its Tornado jets to Jordan after a series of spats between the two sides that started with the aborted coup d’etat in July 2016. 

One point of contention was that some 400 or more Turkish officials and their families linked to attempted putsch escaped to Germany. Then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Erdogan demanded that they be handed over but Germany refused. 

A war of words ensued, the Turks turned down a proposed visit from German MPs to the Incirlik base, and after some attempts at compromise, the Germans balked and left the facility. 

The US has been steadily reducing the number of personnel it keeps at Incirlik, now down from a high of 5,000 to 1,465 with Department of Defense (DOD) civilians and contractors adding another 365. 

A Predator drone at the Incirlik Air Base on December 15, 2015. The weapons were used in the battle against ISIS. Photo: AFP/Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency

However, there is a point where reducing personnel exposes the stored nuclear bombs to significant risk. It is not known whether the bombs’ fissile cores are stored at Incirlik or whether they have been removed. No public announcement has ever been made and little information has ever been made public about the security of the bombs. 

If the US leaves Incirlik, it will need to remove all nuclear materials, including the bombs and the equipment installed there to support them. The US does not currently keep any nuclear-capable aircraft at Incirlik. 

Previously, the Turkish Air Force operated special F-16s that were capable of carrying the B61 nuclear bombs. However, Turkish forces no longer support this mission.

Technically, the US still has a defense and economic cooperation agreement with Turkey dating back to 1980, the height of the old Cold War, that provides for US forces to operate in Turkey under the auspices of NATO. 

Should the US leave Turkey, it would be up to NATO to consider whether its presence at Incirlik is still feasible, an unlikely prospect considering NATO always operates on unanimity.  

The writing, though, is on the wall at Capitol Hill. US Senator Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee for Europe, was recently quoted saying: “We don’t know what’s going to happen to Incirlik … but we have to plan for the worst.”