A recent bottleneck which appeared with the US Congress's foot dragging over selling armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or armed drones, to Turkey is not a serious liability for Turkey in its counterterrorism struggle, according to Turkish experts.
Turkish defense policy experts have maintained, rather, that Turkey should depend on itself in finding a solution to its terrorism problem, be it an armed or non-armed solution.
Turkey seeks to buy armed drones from the US, but the request has been controversial, with some in the US Congress refusing to agree to a sale of the aircraft to Turkey, possibly due to Ankara's deteriorating relations with Israel, a close US ally. The US administration is reportedly willing to sell the drones to Turkey and is trying to persuade Congress not to block the sale. President Abdullah Gül and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, failed to make any progress during recent talks on the sale of drones and Obama cited Congress as the biggest hurdle despite his administration's determination to make the sale. Turkey already uses US Predator drones, previously used by the US military in Iraq, as a measure against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist group, which launches attacks on Turkey from northern Iraq. Separately, Ankara also seeks to buy MQ-9 Reapers, a larger and more modern version of the Predator, from the US as a further measure in the anti-PKK efforts. The use of Turkey's Israeli-made drones, Herons, has been restricted since the Israeli technical support for their maintenance has ended amid political tensions between the two countries.
In a phone interview with Sunday's Zaman, Mesut Ülker, the head of the Caspian Strategy Institute, affirmed that these drones would be an important tactical contribution to Turkey's fight against terrorism and it is obvious for Turkey to expect support from its chief strategic ally, the US, on that end; however, acquiring these drones is not something vital in Turkey's combat with PKK terrorism.
“Turkey is not in a vulnerable situation [in fighting terrorism]: It does have its unmanned aerial vehicles. Even a failure to gain a positive response from the US in the case of the drones sale will only increase Turkey's resolve to increase its own potential [in its defense mechanisms],” Ülker said.
Agreeing with Ülker, Yusuf Evirgen, a retired lieutenant whose research specializes in Turkey's defense economy, asserted that Turkey would be able to produce military supplies and ammunitions on its own considering its industrial capability. He claimed Turkey should seek to increase its own capacity to do so for the long term, rather than relying on arms deals.
“Turkey is able to produce 80 percent of the military equipment necessary for its defense, but government statistics show that only 52 percent of our military expenses were provided by national sources at the end of 2011,” Evirgen claimed, criticizing Turkey's underuse of its capacity.
Blocked by the US Congress during the mid-1990s from buying military equipment including air defense vehicles, Turkey turned to Israel for defense cooperation and supplies. Major military projects, such as the upgrade of F-4s, F-5s and M60 A1 main battle tanks as well as the purchase of Israeli-made Heron UAVs, stand among the major projects contracted to Israel by Turkey. “Turkey was able to produce its own tactical UAVs and some Turkish firms made successful pilot projects with the aircraft in 1997. But for reasons unknown, this technology has not been developed since that date, when Turkey mostly needs that and Turkey's difficulty with Israeli UAVs has started,” Evirgen further claimed.
Turkey purchased 10 Herons from Israel in a 2004 tender costing about $183 million. However, the Herons received were not able to reach the altitudes indicated in the contract. Israel delivered the Herons last year and Turkish Air Forces officers started to fly them after Israeli technical personnel left Turkey following the diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel over a bloody Israeli attack on May 31, 2010 on an aid flotilla ship named the Mavi Marmara that killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American.
As Turkey is experiencing problems with drones purchased from Israel and considering that Israel has withdrawn its maintenance personnel from Turkey, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) put a new plan into operation after the Israeli response and are using UAVs produced by the Turkish Baykar Company to gather intelligence. The aircraft have begun gathering intelligence in the Southeast. Also, Turkey unveiled its own UAV in 2009, the Anka, a surveillance craft able to fly 24 hours at a time over the rugged mountains where the PKK is based. However, the Anka has not yet been completed.
Recently, a report in the Wall Street Journal that claimed Turkey decided to bomb 34 civilians based on intelligence provided by US Predators -- which help Turkey gather intelligence against the PKK -- was released amid the negotiations with the US over the sale of the Predators. The civilians, who were assumed to be PKK terrorists, were killed by Turkish warplanes last December.
After the talks with Obama in Chicago, Gül criticized Congress for being suspicious about entrusting further US drone technology to Turkey after Turkey's alleged mistake in the Uludere incident. Earlier this week, in reference to Turkish plans to buy approximately 100 F-35 fighter jets from the US, Gül stated: “If drones are dangerous weapons, these [F-35s] are even more dangerous. We are buying these fighters and we are participating in the manufacturing process. These things should be told to Congress members.”
Professor Sedat Laçiner, the rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, speaking to Sunday's Zaman, estimated that the US failure to provide Turkey with drones would be perceived by the Turkish public as the US letting Turkey down in its struggle with the PKK, and this could even be an initial step toward the deterioration of relations between the strategic allies.
Meanwhile, Lale Kemal, a columnist who writes for both Today's Zaman and the Taraf daily, gave a different critique of Turkey's counterterrorism strategy and constant talks with US officials over about 30 years to purchase arms, stating that Turkey's terrorism problem does not arise from deficiencies in arms technology but from political and structural reasons. While affirming Turkey's foreign dependence on arms technology, Kemal maintained: “The Uludere incident was the strongest evidence of the fact that Turkey's terrorism problem cannot be solved by rearmament. The real problem is that while Turkish officials are conducting rigorous diplomacy for acquiring weapons, they have nearly given up efforts for a non-combat political solution to terrorism.”