For over 50 years, the U.S. military has relied on Incirlik airbase in Turkey in large part because it was located on the territory of a stable and friendly state. As this reality changes, however, U.S. military planning must adapt accordingly.
There is a perception in Ankara that the United States needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the United States. Turkey has demonstrated a willingness to leverage its geostrategic role as a neighbor to war-torn Syria and host of U.S. assets at Incirlik to exert pressure on the United States. After the country’s failed coup in July, the Turkish government publicly blamed the United States and demanded the extradition a Pennsylvania-based preacher Ankara believes was the ring-leader.
More recently, Ankara promised to improve military cooperation with Russia, and complicated the fight against ISIS by combing U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish units and picking a fight with Baghdad over Mosul. Indeed, for some time, the Turkish government appeared to act without fear of censure, engaging on a broad crackdown on the press and freedom of speech under the belief—unfortunately validated by the U.S. government—that due to Turkey’s importance as a partner, it would not be criticized for its increasingly authoritarian bent. It is time to upend that calculus.
In a recent op-ed for Defense One, BPC Turkey Task Force Member and retired General Charles Wald called for Washington begin examining alternatives to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase. “As [Turkey] becomes less stable and less friendly to the United States,” he wrote, “the best way to ensure continued access to this large and well-located base is to prepare to do without it.”
The map above explores the possible alternatives to Incirlik. Incirlik currently houses many assets crucial to the fight against the Islamic State. There are 550 U.S. military personnel on base there, tied with A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft and KC-135 Stratotankers. Incirlik itself houses a dozen A-10s. 33 percent of air refueling operations are conducted out of the air base, as well as around 30 percent of all U.S. close-air support missions. UAVs operate out of the air base as well. However, many of the other airfields shown on the map could play a similar role with only an incremental increase in cost and inconvenience. The A-10s (as well as other aircraft) that the United States currently uses in its operations against the Islamic State can be refueled midflight, enabling them to reach Raqqa from Jordan or Cyprus. In the long-term, other bases further afield could also prove equally if not more suitable as Washington faces future crises across the Middle East.