WASHINGTON — A move by Turkey to close two of its military bases to NATO and U.S. troops would complicate its position in the military alliance — as well as put Washington in the awkward position of removing nuclear weapons it has pretended are not on Turkish soil.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday if legislation placing sanctions on Turkey — passed by the House and awaiting action by the Senate — becomes law, tossing U.S troops from the two locations would be under consideration.
“If it is necessary for us to take such a step, of course we have the authority,” he said then, according to Reuters.
The two facilities are the Incirlik Air Base, the pivotal strategic air facility for U.S. and NATO forces since 1954, and the base at Kurecik radar station in southeastern Turkey, established in 2012 for use by NATO as an early-warning radar against ballistic missile attacks.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Pentagon reporters on Monday that he first heard of the Turkish threat via the media. He said that the treat is something NATO members would have to discuss.
“If the Turks are serious about this, they’re a sovereign nation to being with so they have that inherent right to house or to not house NATO bases or foreign troops,” Esper said. “But again this becomes an alliance matter and their commitment to the alliance, if indeed they are serious about what they are saying.
Esper passed when asked if it is time for the U.S. to remove the nuclear weapons it has at Incirlik. “I make no comments with regard to where the U.S. may have weapons, so, I think the issue here is once again what is Turkey’s direction with regard to the NATO alliance and the actions they’re taking on any number of issues, whether S400 or holding up NATO plans for defense of Europe or other things,” Esper told reporters.
Pentagon officials have a policy of not confirming or denying the placing of nuclear weapons at specific locations. The Washington Examiner, quoting the Federation of American Scientists, said the U.S has about 50 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs at Incirlik, a bomb designed to be delivered and dropped by an F-15 or F-35. Each has a maximum yield of 170 kilotons, or 10 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
A report written for the Defense and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, accidentally released this summer, said there are about 150 U.S. nuclear weapons being stored in Europe at six locations: Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in The Netherlands, and Incirlik in Turkey.
The sanctions bill is awaiting a Senate vote. It passed the House overwhelmingly in a strong bipartisan vote as a response to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 anti-missile system and to Ankara’s invasion of northern Syria.
If passed by the Senate, President Trump will have to decide whether to sign or veto the bill. It passed the House with enough votes to override a veto.
Both houses also passed a non-binding resolution condemning what it called the genocide of Armenians by Turkey after World War One. That resolution, which does not go to Trump, also infuriated Erdogan.
One reason the Pentagon is concerned about the S-400 Russian system is the potential for its operators to steal the technology of the almost Stealth F-35. As a response to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system, Ankara was kicked out of the F-35 program.
F-35 fighters are among the jets the U.S. operates out of Incirlik.