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Attempted Military Coup in Turkey Puts American Nukes at Risk

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The attempted coup in Turkey this past Friday resulted in unexpected national security concerns for the United States. The purportedly spontaneous uprising called into question the security of American hydrogen bombs currently stored in a Turkish airbase.

Located in southeast Turkey, the Incirlik Airbase includes NATO’s largest nuclear weapons storage facility. The American embassy in Ankara issued an  "Emergency Message for US Citizens,"on Saturday morning, cautioning that “local authorities are denying movements on and off of” Incirlik and that power had been cut. US Air Force planes stationed at the base were prohibited from taking off, and the airbase had to rely on backup generators for power. The threat level reached FPCON Delta, the highest alert, usually declared after a terrorist attack or if an attack is deemed imminent. 

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The base commander, General Bekir Ercan Van, along with nine other Turkish officers, was detained at Incirlik on Sunday for allegedly supporting the coup. American airbase flights have resumed, but power has not been restored.

Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, claims that the Turkish airbase contains about fifty B-61 hydrogen bombs, more than a quarter of all the nuclear weapons in the NATO stockpile. What separates the B-61 from other weapons is its ability to adjust nuclear yield. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, for example, had the impact of roughly fifteen kilotons of TNT. The adjustable yield of the bombs held at Incirlik can range 0.3 to 170 kilotons, making for a more versatile weapon.

Built by the US Army Corps of Engineers following World War II, Incirlik became a critical American base in the Cold War era, particularly after Turkey joined NATO in 1952. 

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Its chief attribute was logistical, being a one hour flight from the borders of the former Soviet Union. Incirlik housed bombers, U-2 spy planes, tankers, fighters and nuclear weapons. Nuclear firepower was central to NATO’s strategy, to counter the threat of similar Soviet weapons. The source of the policy of nuclear deterrence in modern times, it was thought that the threat of nuclear retaliation would keep the Soviets from entering NATO territory. 

Because of stockpile reductions under the administrations of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, the US now has about 180 nuclear weapons deployed with NATO, all of them B-61s. Along with the Turkish base at  Incirlik, US weapons are also stored at bases in the Netherlands, Belgium,  Italy and Germany. The value of these bombs today is considered more symbolic than actual. Missiles that carry nuclear warheads travel more reliably, more accurately, and much faster than other weapons. 

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An ever-increasing contingent of the world’s population, both official and civilian, including German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who strongly opposes nuclear weapons such as the B-61, consider the bombs to be "absolutely senseless," serving only to invite attention from terrorists.

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