Turkish missiles: Not quite a deterrent

Turkish missiles: Not quite a deterrent

It was in the mid-1990s when Turkey’s military and defense procurement officials agreed the country was in “urgent need” of acquiring scores of attack helicopters. It was about a year ago, or two decades after that decision, that the first deliveries were made after several failed attempts. Turkey’s biggest naval ambition, frigates, has a similar timeline in recent history. 

 In June 2006, nearly a decade ago, Turkey’s top defense committee pushed the button to build/acquire long-range air defense systems. Seven years later, Turkey selected a Chinese company to build the system. Two years after that Turkey scrapped the contract and decided to build an indigenous system. 

Last week, the top defense procurement official, İsmail Demir, told a parliamentary panel that it would “realistically” take “five to 10 years to build that system.” Should his less optimistic guess prove more accurate than his more optimistic guess, Turkey will have its long-range air defense architecture two decades after it decided to have it. And your columnist would bet that the target of 10 years for indigenous development and manufacture is fairly too optimistic given Turkey’s technological capabilities - despite progress in recent years - potential cost deviations and mismanagement, none of which is too unfamiliar to the local industry and procurement bureaucracy.

But there are more worrying aspects of Turkey’s defense-related ambitions than just delays and self-aggrandizement. Security threat analyses are notoriously fluid, and so are the procurement prioritizations. 

Mr. Demir, for instance, spoke of an emerging “northern threat” (read: Russia) in addition to southern threats (read: Syria, Iraq and, although the undersecretary did not say “eastern,” Iran) which made defending Turkey against a hostile missile threat with just four systems (as defined in the air defense program) impossible. 

So, Mr. Demir argued, “it is rather difficult for a country [Turkey] to be deterrent with defensive [missile] systems only, and for that reason it is necessary that we also develop offensive [missile] systems.” This thinking, in the worst-case scenario, can spell military disaster for Turkey and, in a better scenario, could waste tens of billions of dollars and several thousand engineering and project management hours.

The “emerging northern threat” is the country that produces the efficient S-300 and S-400 air and anti-missile defense systems. Turkey hopes to build similar systems by setting out on this grand ambition in the year 2016, and, ideally, will have them in its military inventory in five to 10 years’ time. 

Mr. Demir is right to think that a mere, four-system architecture cannot protect all of Turkish territory against a missile threat. But he does not say how many hundreds of billions of dollars should be spent on any system that would provide Turkish territory with blanket protection. 

But never mind. Suppose Turkey has all that money to spend on a dubious military program, it wants to just experiment in order to feel good because it now has some anti-missile protection like an emerging empire should have. The ambition about the offensive missiles Ankara wants to possess like an emerging empire should possess is more worrying and makes less sense.

Do the most important men in Ankara really believe that the rogue states to Turkey’s south and east would really care if their citizens are hit by Turkish missiles because they decided to hit Turkey with their own – and theirs possibly carrying comparatively mischievous warheads? Do they really believe they can counter the “northern threat,” which has a generous nuclear arsenal, with a handful of offensive missiles? 

Well, the only way they can counter the northern threat with their missile program is if they cunningly think that this could be a way to neutralize the most important men in Moscow by giving them laughter spasms. Hey, Ankara, that’s no way to be deterrent.