Will COVID-19 be a cure for Turkey's military headaches?

Will COVID-19 be a cure for Turkey's military headaches?

One of the most interesting news stories about COVID-19 pertains to its spread in armed forces around the world.

The first and most notorious one broke out in early April when Brett Crozier, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was removed after saying the U.S. Navy was not doing enough to halt a coronavirus outbreak on board the aircraft carrier. While the outbreak effectively took one of the U.S. navy’s most powerful ships out of operation, the crew hailed Crozier as their hero for risking his job to safeguard their lives from COVID-19. This was followed by news in mid-April that more than 1,000 sailors aboard the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, the remaining two weeks of the carrier’s scheduled deployment to the North Atlantic were called off. Losing the Charles de Gaulle for an extended period could cripple France’s nuclear deterrence capabilities, wrote the New York Times, recalling that, by contrast, the U.S. navy had 10 other active carriers.

But according to an AP story from April 27, the number of coronavirus cases aboard the guided-missile destroyer Kidd rose to 64, forcing the vessel to pull into port in San Diego.

Now, imagine that a crisis breaks out in the eastern Mediterranean due to gas and oil exploration work, prompting the United States and France to send in their aircraft carriers, Turkey to deploy its submarines and Russia to become involved through its airbase in Syria.
Then what happens if COVID-19 starts to spread among the military personnel? Would France call off the operation, fearing it cannot justify its military presence to its public given that the natural resources of the eastern Mediterranean cover only a tiny portion of European demand? Would Russian families ever get the information that their sons’ lives are at risk simply because they’re flying in the same warplane?

What would make the captain of the Turkish submarine a hero: continue patrolling the seas or asking to end the mission? Would there be a suspension of hostilities?

Unfortunately, there is no suspension or cessation of hostilities in war-stricken zones at present – on that front, it suffices to look at Syria, Iraq or Libya. Still, things are not going to be business as usual in the post COVID-19 era, and some experts have already started making some projections about it.

One of them is Nihat Ali Özcan of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV). Underlining the fact that COVID-19 is not just a public health problem but also a direct and indirect security problem, he has been writing about the possible security consequences of the pandemic. He was one of the early ones to say that armies have yet to learn how to fight or fulfill any mission by keeping “social distancing” or by “staying home.”

He talked about the possibility that countries like France or Germany might opt to pull their forces out of Iraq, for instance, due to the pandemic. Whereas for some others, it might take time to make any policy change, as has been the case for Iran, which has not altered its position in Syria even though its military cadres have suffered serious casualties due to the pandemic, according to Özcan.

Meanwhile, another expert, Can Kasapoğlu of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), has pointed to problems that might rise in the defense industry. The possible contraction in defense economies might lead to uncertainties in supply chains, especially in mega and multinational projects like F-35 fighter jets projects, according to Kasapoğlu.

Turkey’s purchase of S-400s and F35s

Recently, Richard Outzen, the senior adviser for Syria at the U.S. State Department, recounted a Nasreddin Hodja story while commenting on the situation in Idlib, in northwest Syria.

Nasreddin Hodja is saved from being executed by the sultan on a promise that he will teach the sultan’s horse how to speak. He has a year, and when he goes back home, his wife tells him, “You can’t teach a horse how to talk.” Hodja says, “I have a year; maybe the horse will die, maybe the sultan will die, or maybe the horse will learn how to speak.” Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400s anti-ballistic missiles, which led to the delivery of the first parts of the systems last summer, prompted the United States to suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.

Turkey was supposed to activate the system this April, which would automatically trigger additional U.S. sanctions. While there has not yet been an official statement, it appears that Turkey will delay the activation. In this, Nasreddin Hodja’s story might just be playing out.