Today’s Zaman reported on Monday (11 November) that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is restructuring itself to wage a more effective military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). According to the report:
[Chief of the General Staff Necdet] Özel seeks to modernize the military in terms of technology and economy, according to military sources. The chain of command will be more dynamic and functional, according to the military chief’s plans. Military commanders responsible for anti-terror operations will be forced to coordinate the operations onsite, rather than from the General Staff headquarters, and they will be granted broader authority during the coordination of military operations. For instance, they will not be obliged to communicate with the General Staff for any action they are planning to take during the operations. The existing principle of granting the permission of the General Staff in operation leads the military to lose time and eventually failure in operations.
In addition, the General Staff plans to gradually decrease the number of military staff. Yet, the decrease will not cause a loss of power for the military. Turkey has the second biggest armed forces within NATO after the US, with about 800,000 personnel. With its current structure, the TSK gives the impression that it is lagging behind, while the armies of other NATO member countries have completed their transformation into smaller but more mobile forces, able to efficiently thwart today’s threats.
Under the overhaul, the General Staff also hopes to allocate a greater budget for modernization and weapons development projects. In this way, the TSK will have greater chance to deal with projects to produce unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), national tanks, submarines, helicopters, frigates and warplanes.
This statement is filled with references to domestic military programs that are already ongoing. Ankara has announced a national plan to improve the local defense industry and the AKP included the issue in their last electoral platform. These plans include a national program to build a main battle tank, an armed and unarmed drone, and a fighter trainer aircraft. These programs, however, are supplemented by purchases from the United States and other military supplier countries. While the AKP is committed to the modernization plan, it is unlikely that Ankara will be militarily self sufficient any time soon.
Despite the front page headline, the TSK’s efforts to modernize are not that new. Turkey, like the rest of its NATO allies, began making moves to modernize its armed forces in the mid-1990s. The decision was driven by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the increased focus on the threats posed by non-state actors. Turkey’s modernization, however, has moved quite slowly. The TSK’s modernization programs are plagued by differences over conscription and, as the article reveals, budget constraints. It appears as if much of the TSK’s budget is used to house, feed, and equip Turkey’s large army. Faced with the prospect of continued clashes with the PKK, the TSK appears to have made the decision to cut the number of soldiers. This could (and I emphasize “could”) signal some movement to end conscription in the near future or to allow conscientious objection. (This would probably have to do with the Constitutional process so stay tuned on that one)
However, Turkey’s efforts to procure advanced arms, particularly UAVs (drones), could be hampered by the country’s political problems with Israel. Up until 2010, Israel had been Turkey’s primary supplier of drone technology. However, the Israeli killing of 9 Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara halted military-to-military cooperation and froze a number of supply contracts. The Turkish government has since leveraged the current tiff with Israel for political gain. Thus, the idea of a rapprochment is unlikely, given the AKP’s decision to rely almost exclusively on populist/nationalist rhetoric and projects to maintain popularity/support for the looming 2014 Presidential election.
Therefore, one has to ask where Turkey is going to get its future drone fleet from. By all accounts, the local efforts to produce a Turkish drone have been uneven, and the evidence suggests that the locally produced ANKA is not being used in combat. It appears that the TSK is still reliant on the Israeli Heron for its border surveillance and for its fight against the PKK. Washington remains reluctant to sell Turkey armed drones, suggesting that Turkey will have to look elsewhere for its UAV purchases in the future. This raises a number of possibilities:
1) Turkey turns to China or Russia for drone technology. While possible, I dont think that this scenario is very likely. Turkey has shown a consistent preference for American or Israeli arms and I dont see the TSK breaking precedent for its future UAV purchases. However, if Ankara gets desperate – and either Russian or Chinese suppliers offer complete technology transfer – Turkey could opt to change suppliers.
2) Ankara continues to lobby Washington for both the unarmed and armed predator drone. If I were in Las Vegas or Northern Cyprus and could bet my savings on something, this would be it. Ankara is sure to bring up the drone issue with the United States in the future. Washington has, thus far, been reluctant to provide Turkey with armed drones. If I could bet on the possibility of an armed drone sale, I would not be comfortable risking my life savings, though I would be willing to bet a lot that Ankara and Washington don’t conclude an armed drone deal.
3) Israel and Turkey keep up the facade of a political fight, but quietly restore military-to-military ties. This is the most intriguing scenario of the three. Israel and Turkey had a mutually beneficial relationship pre-Mavi Marmara. Israel had found a long term partner for its drones and Turkey was happy to use the technology to fight the PKK. Neither side won when relations were severed. However, there are some signs that cooler heads are prevailing and the “realist” wing in the TSK is looking to mend fences.
Tangential issues, like the Elta (a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries) decision to resume the production of the airborne warning and control systems for three AWACs planes Turkey bought in 2002 could signal a move towards re-establishing military contracts. As I have pointed out in this previous blog post, Israel was a critical supplier of advanced military equipment to Turkey. While Israeli defense firms were surely affected by the Turkish boycott, Ankara was also impacted by the freeze.
With no end to the PKK issue in sight, and Ankara’s recent re-issuing and clarification of its military modernization plans, it appears that the stage is set for the re-establishment of Turkish-Israeli defense ties. Nothing is ever certain, but the conditions are there for some sort of movement on this issue. If the U.S. remains unwilling to sell Turkey drones (likely – but not certain) look for Ankara to quietly (and I mean very quietly) engage with Israeli defense firms for more advanced arms.
*These ties, however, will quickly be derailed if Israel invades Gaza. Turkey will use the Israeli action to chastise the Jewish state for its harsh response and prod the international community to support the Palestinians. However, this issue would only last as long as the Turkish leadership chose to make it an issue.