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On Erdogan's Ambitions: A Short History Of Nuclear Weapons In Turkey

Warplane at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey
Warplane at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey
Sedat Ergin

ISTANBUL — One of the more prestigious duties for the pilots of the Turkish Air Forces during the Cold War years was the "nuclear watch." The four main air bases in Turkey had been housing U.S. nuclear warheads since the beginning of the 1960's. The nuclear class planes piloted by Turks were assigned to drop the warheads on certain Warsaw Pact countries in case NATO would decide to do so.

The main jet bases of Eskişehir, Balıkesir, Ankara Mürted (Akıncı) and Malatya Erhaç had a nuclear capacity fleet (first the F-100s, then the F-104s and then the F-4s) assigned to it. The nuclear watch required that, around the clock, four pilots from each fleet be ready to immediately take off with nuclear weapons if necessary.

I wanted to offer some brief reminders of the history of nuclear weapons in Turkey since the 1960s and their status today as we witness the discussion raised by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has voiced his desire for Turkey to have nuclear weapons of its own.

Turkey played a key role in NATO's nuclear deterrence for many years.

Back through the Cold War years, U.S. officers were on duty too. Their job was to enter the nuclear codes to be sent by the U.S. President in the event of a nuclear mission. The planes would have nuclear capacity only after these codes were sent by the White House. A small U.S. military unit was present at each base, responsible for the security of the warehouses where the nuclear weapons were stored.

There were also nuclear warheads at the U.S. Incirlik Air Base in Adana, alongside these four Turkish bases. Incirlik had a different status; U.S. warplanes with American pilots would be flying the nuclear warheads in case of an event.

The U.S. Incirlik Air Base in Adana — Photo: U.S. Air Force

So, yes: Turkey played a key role in NATO's nuclear deterrence for many years. Turkey was the most important front on the south wing of the alliance to deploy nuclear weapons by planes towards the Soviet Union and other countries of the Warsaw Pact.

Thankfully, the feared nuclear war never happened. The Turkish pilots never had to take off on a nuclear mission. Following the end of the Cold War, in the early 1990s, there was no more need for the Turkish bases to house nuclear weapons, which were removed and the nuclear watches abandoned.

The exception to this change to the doctrine was the decision to keep the nuclear warheads at the Incirlik Base, where the U.S. has continued to maintain the ability to use nuclear weapons from there in the event of a conflict — to this day. This arrangement is, naturally, based on an agreement with Turkey which houses the warheads within its borders.

The nuclear weapons, which were removed and the nuclear watches abandoned.

How would the system work if it comes to deploy the warheads today? The Turkish authorities have always stated that the use of the nuclear capacity of Incirlik is based on a two distinct types of systems. There are certain procedures that the Turkish side must agree to, such as taking the weapons out of storage, loading them onto planes and having the planes take off. Therefore any nuclear action to come from Incirlik would require both the codes from the U.S. President and the approval of the host, Turkey.

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This Happened— December 11: Edward VIII Abdicates

Updated Dec. 11, 2023 at 12:10 p.m.

After the death of his father, George V, on January 20, 1936, Edward VIII became the King of England at 42 years old, but shockingly announced his decision less than a year later to abdicate the throne on this day in history.

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