For decades, Turkey’s defense prowess has rested on continuous technological innovation and maintaining a well-calibrated web of relations in NATO and the neighboring regions.
Now, as the country faces an array of security threats, from domestic PKK terror to the outcome of Iran’s anger over Turkish agreement to house NATO facilities, instability in the Caucuses, and political turmoil in Iraq and Syria, the defense policymakers in Ankara are formulating their objectives to spearheading long-term plans, in a bid to lifting the country’s self-defense industry into a higher league.
A new five-year Defense Strategy, which was announced by the Under-Secretariat for Defense Industry (SSM) later last month, finalizes completion dates for key projects including Turkish-made tanks, aircraft, satellites, destroyers, and helicopters.
The plan envisages the country’s defense industry “entering the top 10 worldwide within five years”.
President Abdullah Gul, speaking before a group of ranking officers at the War Academy in Istanbul on April 5, revealed a new vision for the country’s Defense Strategy, saying Turkey must act as a “virtuous power” in the world and “keep moving forward this way”.
As part of the defense strategy, the military should focus on the inter-operational capacity of the Land, Sea, and Air Forces, increase combat troops, and develop the defense sector with particular emphasis on local procurement, Gul said.
“A number of serious reforms are made all over the world, which aims to provide the most efficient and optimal structure for the armed forces within the available economic possibilities and, according to the threat conditions”, he argued, evincing his pleasure that the Turkish General Staff carries out the necessary studies.
In the meantime, speculations around the new Defense Strategy have caused a debate among military analysts, as the new details of the plan are being leaked to the media.
The main question to the new Turkish military strategy is how it will keep the balance between lifting the defense industry and economic needs.
Some media reports claim that the AKP government gave a green light to build ballistic missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers within the next two years.
Ozcan Yeniceri, an MP from the Nationalist Movement Party, who is also an analyst on national security issues at the 21st Century Turkey Institute think-tank, welcomes such news, arguing that the country “needs to urgently get ready to defend itself, following the Iranian leaders’ recent strike to Turkey should Ankara act on its commitment to support NATO’s missile defense project by placing radars on its territory”.Besides, he said in an interview, “the military buildup grows rapidly in Iran, Israel, even in Azerbaijan”
“We have to have our own long-range missiles”, Yeniceri insists. “This might be very obvious in our case”.
However, some high-ranking retired military officers, such as retired Major General Alaettin Parmaksiz, and retired General Kursat Atilgan are wary of new Defense Strategy and military buildup plans.
“Displaying a flag on the open seas is one thing, but showing a power something else. We’re not the USA. Does our economy let us do any of these?” Parmaksiz, also an advisor of the 21st Century Turkey Institute, questions.
“When we look at the NATO allies, he says, Turkey is the only country which spends less money per capita for its defense challenges. But national income in our country also remains very low”.
“Greece’s Defense Budget in general is a bit over 60 percent of Turkey’s Defense budget. But when you take a look at per capita spending, then Greece’’s Defense budget is 3 times more than Turkey’s. Britain and Germany have 6 times more spending that Turkey”, he argues. “That means you must have a limit when spending your money for the weapons. If you go over that limit you can push and of course buy some weapons, but you’ll remain right there as there’s no enough technology and resources to use it”.
Turkey spent $17.5 billion on military expenditure in 2010, equivalent to 2.4% of GDP and ranked 15 worldwide. Procurement expenditure rose 10% in 2011 to $4 billion. The Defense Ministry budget has been fixed at TL18.2 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, marking a 7.4 percent increase over 2011. It will also make up 1.3 percent of the GDP for 2012.
Atilgan adds he hopes there are no significant strategic changes in Turkish Defense Industry policy.
For Parmaksiz, Turkish Air Force needs its own missiles to protect the country’s interests.
“But, establishing these kinds of systems needs very essential researches, as well as, well-prepared cadre. This is a long way to go”, he said in an interview.
Efsun Kizmaz, author of the book “Turkish Defense Industry and Under-secretariat for Defense Industries”, who is conducting research on the Turkish defense industry at the University of Nottingham, is also suspicious of Ankara’s capability to reach the level of producing Long-Range Missiles by itself.
In the meanwhile, she believes that “these acquisitions or ‘production’ of missiles are not for deployment against any state just to have image that Turkey has that capability.
“Turkey does not want to risk its defense for the assistance from NATO, in case new regional tensions erupt”, she said in an interview.
She also mentioned that the government will establish an air cluster gathering all defense companies with related to aerial sectors in 2020 in Ankara. “Those defense industrialization aims in fact promising for developing an indigenous sector”, she says.
Kizmaz underscores that domestic defense industrialization has also become one of the major foreign policy tools for Ankara’s new foreign policy agenda, as Turkey aims to be a leader in its region.
Since the aerospace sector has been the locomotive of defense industry production, she says, Turkey devoted its attention to that sector to develop an indigenous weapons capability. “This situation is clearly logical when the US devotes much of its sources to the aerial sector and then other forces. As a result of this, the beginning of Turkey’s defense industrialization attempts is clearly in this sector. However, as mentioned earlier, in the naval sector, there are serious developments in that sector also”.
Despite some areas of improvement, she also underscores that, Turkey has a long way to go before it enters the first tier of defense producers.
“There is still significant lack over technology development,” she points out. “As the Turkish Armed Forces have always been in favor of acquisition of latest technology, it is clear that despite those developments, Turkey continues to devote much of its resources to imports,” she says.
For Alexander Jackson, Eurasian military analyst at the London-based Menas Associates, Turkey’s new Defense Strategy is ambitious, specifically the transition to a blue-water navy.
“The navy is unclear about its area of operations for such a strategy—would this be the Mediterranean? The Black Sea?” he asks.
However, he adds, Turkey has a number of potentially hostile neighbors so it is logical that the navy is given substantial resources.
The main challenge for an extensive naval program, he says, is to ensure it is threat-oriented: warships and their associated systems are extremely costly in time and money, and it makes no sense to develop expensive warships if they are not justified by Turkey’s current security environment and local threats.
Regarding technology transfer for ballistic missiles, Jackson says, foreign firms will probably be quite concerned about the implications.
In the meantime, Jackson adds, it is surprising that Turkey is looking to develop a ballistic missile program, as “it is more in line with the policies pursued by states such as Iran and North Korea”.
“The Turkish Air Force is large, highly sophisticated, well-funded, benefits from NATO interoperability, and is stocked with advanced combat aircraft. Turkey also benefits from the US nuclear umbrella thanks to the US nuclear missiles stored at Incirlik. At an operational level, there is almost no reason to spend taxpayers’ money on grand ballistic missile program with limited use, when the Turkish air force can deliver ample firepower against any conceivable target”, he said in an interview.
Ruhi Acikgoz, AKP Member of the Parliamentary National Defense Committee, agrees with this point.
However, he says that it’s understandable that Turkey devoted its attention to that sector to develop indigenous weapons capability. “But I must clearly mention here that we don’t see any threat from any country”, he said in an interview.
“When it comes to Iran”, he added, Turkey remains on its positions that all the countries have an equal right to a peaceful nuclear energy program. “Of course, it should still be proved that Iran has or intends to build nuclear weapons”.
Overall, both Jackson and Kizmaz believe that growing defense industry will not only strengthen Turkey’s own defense capabilities and reduce its reliance on other arms suppliers – it will also act as a bridge to connect Turkey with its neighbors and improve its standing as a regional political and military power.