The Pentagon cited long-standing policy Wednesday in declining to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at the U.S. Incirlik airbase in Turkey, where security upgrades are underway and dependents were recently evacuated following ISIS threats.
The response came after Russia charged that the U.S. was modernizing nuclear weapons stationed at Incirlik and at bases in several European countries.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said at a briefing the U.S. has long deployed nuclear weapons overseas but "we neither confirm nor deny their presence at any specific location."
Davis also pointed to a 2010 nuclear posture review calling for a life-extension program and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including those forward deployed.
"We are proceeding with full-scope nuclear weapon life extension programs to ensure reliability and enhance surety, safety, security, and use control, including for those weapons that are forward deployed," Davis said.
The Russian charges came initially from Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, who told German's ZDF television that the U.S. was modernizing B61 nuclear bombs stored "not just in Germany, but also in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey."
"The Americans are modernizing their aerial bombs, and the NATO European members are modernizing their aircraft that carry these weapons," Zakharova said.
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned that Russia would move to counter the U.S. actions, possibly by placing Iskander ballistic missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
"This may upset the strategic balance in Europe. Hence, Russia will naturally have to take counter-moves, counter-measures for restoring this strategic balance and parity," Peskov said at a news conference.
The Russian charges came amid rising tensions between Moscow and Washington over the recent Russian military buildup in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Pentagon has confirmed that Russia has sent warplanes, tanks, troops, surface-to-air missile systems and other equipment to the al-Assad airbase near Latakia in northeastern Syria.
The Russian moves followed Turkey's recent approval for the U.S. to use Incirlik for airstrikes into Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
The ISIS English-language online magazine, Dabiq, said that Turkey was now "a member of the crusader NATO alliance" and threatened imminent attacks against Turkey and Americans in Turkey.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon offered voluntary evacuations to dependents at the Incirlik airbase. "This decision was made out of an abundance of caution following the commencement of military operations out of Incirlik Air base," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said at a briefing.
The U.S. is believed to station approximately 50 nuclear weapons at Incirlik, according to Hanks Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
"There is no official confirmation of this anywhere," Kristensen said, but he cited satellite imagery and numerous instances of officials referring indirectly to the presence of nuclear weapons in testimony and in budget requests.
In a recent report, Kristensen said that Incirlik posed significant security challenges "because the base is located only 68 miles from war-torn Syria and because of an ongoing armed conflict within Turkey between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish militants. The wisdom of deploying NATO's largest nuclear weapons stockpile in such a volatile region seems questionable."
Commercial satellite images showed work underway at Incirlik and at the U.S. Aviano Air Base in Italy which Kristen said was "intended to increase the physical protection of nuclear weapons stored at the two U.S. Air Force Bases."
Kristensen cited a March 2014 Pentagon budget request showing that since 2000 the U.S. had invested more than $80 million "in infrastructure improvements required to store nuclear weapons within secure facilities in storage sites in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey."
Kristensen also cited the April 204 congressional testimony of Andrew Weber, then the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, in which he said that "NATO common funding has paid for over $300 million, approximately 75 percent of the B61 (nuclear bomb) storage security infrastructure and upgrades" in Turkey and Europe.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com