The transition to a professional army is an economic decision
He calls them one of Turkey’s biggest civilian lobbies. “Those who want paid exemption from military service have a very serious potential to influence decision makers,” Metin Gürcan, a former member of the Turkish armed forces told me during an interview published in the Hürriyet Daily News on Monday, Aug. 6.
Currently, there are at least six million men over 18 years old eligible for military service, according to Gürcan, who has switched to academia since 2015. For 2.5 million of them, this has become a matter of urgency; a source of real concern.
For those unfamiliar with the draft system in Turkey, let me remind “have you done your military service” is a question young men frequently come across. They are asked to answer this question not only during job applications but even when he asks for the hand of a woman or to meet the family of his future wife.
Each year around 300,000 people are conscripted. But the pool is much bigger than that and it needs to be emptied.
The “paid military service” lobby is 12-13 million people strong if you add family members, according to Gürcan’s estimates. That is why only 10 days before the June 24 elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had said work would be done for paid military service after the elections.
And as promised, one of the first decisions undertaken by the new administration was to send a bill to the parliament to introduce a paid exemption option for those 25 years and older.
This step was obviously taken to address an urgent need but it was also seen as a step for the transition to a professional army.
“They will empty the pool. I think 1.5-2 million people will use it and this will make them gain time for at least four to five years,” said Gürcan.
“A process to transition to a professional army has already started. The gendarmerie is ahead. It will become fully professional by 2020-2021. There has been talk in the Turkish army for at least a decade to downsize while becoming efficient. Currently, 53 percent of the army is made of conscripts; that makes around 220,000 soldiers. While you take this number out of the system, you have to give importance to technology and intellectual capacity. In other words, you have to decrease the number of people serving in the army but maintain the fire power as well as high decision-making abilities,” Gürcan told me.
Compulsory military service needs to be lifted in stages. Gürcan said it cannot be done at once, drawing attention to an important handicap in the debates about the issue:
“The debate evolves around politics, whereas this is an economic decision. You can do it if you have money in your pocket. We do not pay conscripts; they serve in the army free of charge.”
“If we are looking for a fully volunteered force, then you have to pay accordingly, which means you need to earmark around $70-80 billion. Do we have this money? Or, where do you save in order to have this money?”
Paying contracted soldiers is not enough, the salaries have to be satisfactory.
The average monthly pay of contracted sergeants and contracted private first class (PFC) is around 3,550 liras and if they serve in the southeast, that rises to 5,000 liras.
“But the army cannot keep them. They are homo economicus; they want to see the economic gains for the burden they shoulder. If they cannot see them, then they leave,” Gürcan said.
The current system is not sustainable, according to Gürcan.
“If you have the concept of a citizen soldier, then you should have a fully conscript system; or you should have a fully professional army.” He warned that this hybrid transition period will affect the operational efficiency of the military.
Two years are enough to rid of the initial shock of the July 16 coup attempt. The official transition to the presidential system also necessitates a rethinking on almost everything pertaining to the military; from civil-military relations to military education, from what type of army we want to its armament strategy.
It looks like this rethinking is going to be done by a very small group limited to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his close associates in the army.