Turkey’s Satellite Launch Vehicle: Turkish Opacity Leads to WMD Concerns

In 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II opted for cunning, rather than brute force, during his conquest of Constantinople. After failing to penetrate Byzantine defenses at the mouth of the Bosporus strait, the powerful Sultan ordered his men to roll his ships across Galata on greased logs and into the Golden Horn. This tactic, which had first been used the Kievan Rus, allowed for the Sultan’s ships to slip behind the Byzantine defenses. Constantinople fell shortly thereafter.

In modern day Republican Turkey, Ottoman nostalgia has seen a resurgence in recent years, due in large part to the success of the success of the popular television drama The Magnificent Century and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) renewed emphasis on Turkey’s imperial past. Yet, unlike their Ottoman ancestors, modern day military planners in Turkey have tended to focus heavily on defense, rather than offense.

However, more recently, this dynamic is changing. During the 1980s, for example, Ankara had a front row seat to the war of cities. Moreover, unlike their other NATO allies, Turkey is in range of shorter range scud missiles. Thus, the revelations about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s, and then the release of information about Iran’s undeclared nuclear experiments between 1985 and 2003, underscored Turkey’s vulnerability to ballistic missile attack.

Thus, at the beginning of the 1990s, Turkish security planners had a tremendous incentive to pursue technologies to help defend against ballistic missile and WMD threats. Ankara, like the United States, began to seek out capabilities capable of attacking missile systems, both before launch and while in flight, as well other systems, like land-attack cruise missiles, to attack supporting infrastructure. Turkey, beginning in the mid-1990s, began to actively seek out ballistic missile defense, cruise missiles, remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs, or more commonly known as drones), and ballistic missiles to help implement its new policy. While Turkey’s military doctrine remains opaque, anyone who follows the issue closely has surely realized that pre-emption and prevention are now part of Ankara’s WMD policy.

Thus, in order to understand Ankara’s current missile plans, it is critical that one puts it in its proper context. For example, in 2011, Ankara announced plans to develop a 2,500 km missile. However, I have seen references to both a 2,500 km range cruise missile and a 2,500 km ballistic missile. To be honest, I am still not sure which one Turkey intends to develop. Perhaps, it could be both.

Despite the confusion about whether Turkey’s long range missile engine will breath air or not, there now appear to be plans to develop a satellite launch vehicle (SLV). Reports indicate that Turkey will invest $100 million to develop a SLV launch center, and, in the future, Turkey hopes to launch its own satellites (Ankara has already launched one earth observation satellite, the Gokturk-2). Turkey has an ambitious plan to launch 17 satellites before the 2023 centennial. The satellites are intended to deepen Turkish ISR capabilities, provide launch warning for regional ballistic missiles, and to cue Turkey’s future independent ballistic missile defense system. Ambitious.

The recent SLV announcement has prompted speculation that Ankara could, at some point in the future, use the technological know-how from its SLV efforts to develop a long range ballistic missile. Thus, Ankara’s failure to clearly articulate the nature of its 2,500 km missile effort has led to further speculation that Ankara does, indeed, intend to use the SLV as the basis for a ballistic missile. Perhaps.

However, I have a number of questions about the scope of the proposed missile program. For one, Ankara has indicated that they will have a prototype to test in two years. That timeline seems to unrealistic, given the difficulties of engineering such a system. However, the opacity of the program suggests that Ankara could be referring to the testing of an engine on the ground that is capable of providing the lift needed to propel such a device into lower earth orbit. Again, we just don’t know.

Yet, at this point, it would be unwise to think that Ankara has made the decision to arm its non-existant missile with a WMD warhead. In general, ballistic missiles have little military value due to their inaccuracy, which limits their effectiveness when carrying conventional warheads. As a result, they are primarily used for the delivery of nuclear weapons, whose large blast and devastating fallout ensure the destruction of the mission’s target. (Yes, I know that China has conventional armed missiles.)

For conventional strikes, however, military planners have long demanded greater accuracy and reliability. Cruise missiles, which Turkey is also developing, have increasingly become the weapon of choice for states seeking to bolster long-range strike capabilities. They are cheaper to build, more accurate, immune to missile defenses and can be launched from a variety of different platforms. Ankara has recognized the value of these weapons, purchasing the Israeli Popeye and embarking on a program to develop indigenous short- and longer-range variants.

Thus, for WMD worriers, Turkey has, at least in theory, two potential platforms that could be used to deliver nonconventional warheads. In tandem, Ankara re-launched its five decade old quest (no, I am not kidding, Turkey first asked the United States for a large power producing reactor in 1956) to develop a nuclear energy industry. However, with the exception of a 1974 agreement with Sweden and then a 1985 agreement with Canada – both of which were eventually cancelled because of political and financial issues – Turkey has reached an agreement with Russia for the building of four VVER-1200 reactors at the Akkuyu site near Mersin.

The timing of the most recent nuclear announcement (it was first announced in 2006 and pursued in 2008) has led some to speculate that Ankara was hedging its nuclear bets and responding to the breakdown of the EU-3 talks with Iran in 2005. While it may be tempting to draw a link between these two events, and then throw the missile program in to help prove a secret Turkish desire to develop nuclear weapons, the history suggests that this explanation is alarmist.

For example, Ankara, despite years of economic growth, continues to insist that the foreign company – in this case Rosatom – provide 100% financing for the construction of the reactor. And, most importantly, the future reactor will be built, owned, operated, and maintained by the constructing company. Moreover, Turkey included in the original reactor tender a condition for a take back provision, which means that Rosatom will remove spent fuel rods from Turkish territory once they have cooled in on-site fuel ponds. In short, Rosatom is essentially building a Russian reactor on Turkish territory and will then sell Turkey the electricity at artificially reduced rates. This policy, which was first articulated in 1984, has changed little since its inception, even as the threat of Iran’s nuclear program has grown.

In addition, Ankara signed and ratified the IAEA’s additional protocol. Thus, in order for Turkey to divert spent fuel for use in a reactor program, Turkish officials would have to secretly take control of the machine used to place spent fuel rods in the spent fuel pond, remove spent fuel, place it in a container suitable for transport, secretly build a reprocessing facility, master the PUREX process, develop a nuclear weapon, miniaturize it, and then certify it for ballistic or cruise missile flight. Turkey would have to do this in a foreign operated facility subjected to IAEA AP inspections, as well, I am sure, internal accounting for spent fuel. I am not sure that even Mehmet II could pull this off. (However, if Ankara were to substantially change this law, it could be a clue to a nuclear weapons change-of-heart. But, again, the AP would remain in force. In short, Turkey’s road to the Bomb is really complicated.)

So, if Turkey is unlikely to proliferate, one has to ask why it intends to build a 2,500 km range missile. Again, the answer likely lies in the subtle shifting of Turkish military doctrine in the 1990s. A long rang cruise missile would allow for Ankara to target command and control facilities in a number of neighboring countries (Iran and Syria come to mind). Ankara could also to try and mimic the capabilities of the American made MGM 140-ATCMS, which is advertised as weapon for use against command and control facilities. Turkey imported this missile during the 1990s, before opting to partner with China, after the American manufacturer failed to meet Turkey’s demanding tech transfer terms. Moreover, the pairing of strike capabilities with passive space based assets – hence the needs for the SLV – increases Turkish counterforce capabilities. The program, therefore, should be seen as a response to the threats posed by Syria and Iran (Iraq was on this list before 2003).


About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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