The Turkish military has long been dragging its feet to reorganize itself so that it can develop the capabilities to deter the threats of the 21st century, which vary from asymmetric threats to energy security and cyber warfare.
The conscript-based Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has not yet introduced a professional armed force that can meet today’s threats. 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 other NATO member countries’ armies have already completed their transformation into smaller but more mobile forces, able to efficiently thwart today’s threats.
The following are among the main reasons behind Turkey’s delay in developing a smaller but more lethal and efficient armed forces:
- Despite the military reforms that have been put into force since 2003 to bring the TSK under civilian democratic control, they were not adequate to end the military’s historical habit of meddling in politics. Full-fledged reforms, such as the subordination of the TSK to the Ministry of Defense, need to be adopted by Parliament so that the military can forget about engaging in illegal activities such as coups.
- The Turkish military busied itself for a long period of time between 1960 and 2007 with either staging military coups or issuing memorandums against elected governments. Alleged plans to foment a coup to unseat the current government in 2009 and in 2010 and which are currently under judicial inquiry are proof of the TSK’s continued appetite until recently to stage coups. The TSK has maintained populous armed forces -- despite a worldwide trend of making forces smaller -- to stage coups or to make coup plans.
- The TSK has only recently begun feeling the heat, as many of its retired and active members are currently facing charges of planning a coup.
Judicial inquiries are expected to deter the military from engaging in illegal activities such as interventions into politics through the use of force.
Now it is time for the elected civilian authorities to begin exerting pressure on the military to initiate its long-delayed restructuring.
President Abdullah Gül, commander of the armed forces during peacetime, made the first step in the direction of urging the military to begin its transformation to deter 21st century threats when he delivered a speech on April 6 to the young officers at the İstanbul-based War Academies Command.
He pointed out that all the armed forces in the world had been restructured in the most efficient and optimal way in accordance with their perceptions of threats. Gül, therefore, urged the TSK to introduce a comprehensive defense reform that he said could have had been realized long time ago.
He stressed that Turkey needs to revise its defense concept so that it can act as a virtuous power in Turkey’s environs -- which he described as the most turbulent regions in the world -- where street uprisings have been continuing unabated.
“Political, economic, social and cultural factors have increasingly become a part of the safety equation. These parameters, called soft power, have been added to military power, leading to the concept of smart power,” Gül told the officers.
“A virtuous power cares not only about the military and political dimension of security, but also about justice and human values,” Gül said.
“Even though it looks more difficult and tortuous, this is the power concept that suits our country,” he added.
Gül urging the military to begin transformation to become a smaller force while outlining what Turkey’s defense concept should be marks the first time that a civilian leader has given guidance to the TSK over a defense issue, which it has always regarded an area in which civilians cannot interfere or make suggestions about.
Unlike Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Gül’s office released the text of the president’s speech delivered to the officers. Erdoğan’s address to around 800 officers took place at a closed-door meeting. But a few days later some excerpts of his speech were leaked to the Anatolia news agency, quoting him as warning, among other things, against military coups.
It is a positive step that, as a top civilian authority, President Gül outlines what Turkish defense policy should be while urging the military to begin its long-neglected restructuring. However, waiting for the TSK to take the initiative to begin scaling itself down is problematic. This is because military reforms can only become possible when the civilian authorities dictate them to their armed forces. No institution will give up its privileged status by itself.