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The Pros And Cons Of Flying U.S. Nuclear Weapons Out Of Turkey


The president of Turkey is due to visit the White House next week; no shortage of thorny issues for him and President Trump to discuss - the U.S. military pullback from the Turkey-Syria border, the fighting that ensued when Turkey sent its troops across that border, the dispute over whether to sell U.S. F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, the list goes on. And then there's this - what to do about the U.S. nuclear weapons inside Turkey. That's right - 50 or so of them. Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador, now a William Perry fellow and nuclear expert at Stanford University, joins me now.

Hi, ambassador.

STEVEN PIFER: Hi. Happy to be here.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. Describe this current situation. Where exactly are these weapons? Who's guarding them?

PIFER: Today there are, according to the Federation of American Scientists, about 150 American nuclear weapons in five countries in Europe, and 50 of those are at the Incirlik Air Force base in Turkey. It's in southwestern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

KELLY: And so they are guarded - what? - by NATO, by Turkish forces?

PIFER: No. The weapons themselves are actually guarded by American personnel. There's a special American munitions unit there. And then, of course, the facility overall is guarded by the Turks.

KELLY: And why does the U.S. have nuclear weapons there? What's the history here?

PIFER: This goes back, actually, to the 1950s - is that the United States has maintained nuclear weapons in Europe both for deterrence purposes but also to assure NATO allies of the American commitment to their defense. The Federation of American Scientists says they're located in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. But the relationship we have with Turkey now is a lot more difficult than with those other four countries.

KELLY: So much so that you argue that the U.S. should be thinking about how to get these weapons out. Make the case for why they should no longer be in Turkey.

PIFER: Well, first of all, let me say that with 100 American nuclear weapons based in four NATO countries, those should suffice to serve both the purposes of deterrence and also the purposes of assuring allies. But given the way that the relationship with Turkey has gone over the last several years, Turkey's opted, instead of buying an American air defense missile, to buy something from Russia, and that's made it difficult for us to consider selling them the F-35 fighter plane.

You saw the Turkish move militarily into Syria in a way that really took no account of American interests, and there's this sort of volatility between President Trump, who has several times tweeted that he is prepared to devastate the Turkish economy, and then the Turkish president, Erdogan. And it just seems to me that this would be a better time to bring those weapons out. It's something that we don't need, and it's time for them to come home.

KELLY: Couldn't one make the argument that maybe it's better to leave them be in the service of not further upsetting the Turks, further destabilizing a relationship that, as you note, that is already shaky?

PIFER: My argument then would be there ought to be better ways to improve this relationship. The presence of American nuclear weapons elsewhere in Europe allows us to extend the same nuclear deterrent umbrella over Turkey. They just physically don't have to be at Incirlik.

KELLY: What about the argument that the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons maybe deters Turkey from trying to get its own nukes?

PIFER: I would argue that the extended American nuclear deterrent covers Turkey as a member of NATO, but it doesn't require that nuclear weapons be physically present in Turkey.

KELLY: But setting aside requirements, you will have seen - President Erdogan in September said, maybe it's time for Turkey to think about getting its own nuclear bombs. This is on his mind.

PIFER: And that actually seems to me an additional reason why we've got to pull our nuclear weapons out of the air force base there in Turkey.

KELLY: Would you need to get other NATO members on board? Would they need to sign off?

PIFER: There would probably have to be consultations within NATO, but I'm not sure this would be a hugely controversial issue. What most NATO countries would like in terms of an American nuclear presence is having some nuclear weapons in Europe basically to demonstrate - particularly, in this case, now to the Russians - that there is that American security commitment. I would argue that American nuclear weapons on the territory of four NATO members should suffice.

KELLY: Ambassador Pifer, thank you.

PIFER: Thank you.

KELLY: Steven Pifer of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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