A military immune from any reform since 1960

NATO member Turkey’s government has long abandoned its earlier project of reforming the military so that it can bring its armed forces up to the standards of fellow alliance members that are subordinate to their elected governments while being restructured to meet 21st century threats.

Today’s and future threat perceptions vary, from deterring asymmetric threats to enhancing cyber security as well as securing energy supplies and having access to space activities.

During its first term in office following the November 2002 elections, the current government put its stamp on major military and civilian reforms under which the military’s power in politics was curbed to a certain extent, among other things. But those reforms were half-completed and were given a break while being replaced by cosmetic changes that had nothing to do with substantial military reforms to bring the military under the democratic control of elected governments.

In 2012, however, President Abdullah Gul made a remark on the state of the military which no politician had ever said openly. Gul, the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) during times of peace, took the first step towards urging for a military transformation to address 21st century threats during a speech to young officers at the Istanbul-based War Academy Command on April 6, 2012.

Pointing out that armed forces around the world have, in recent years, been restructured in response to changing threat perceptions, Gul urged the conscript-based TSK to introduce comprehensive defense reforms which he said could have been realized a long time ago.

He stressed that Turkey needs to revise its defense concepts so that it can act as a force of good in the Mediterranean/southeastern Europe, which he described as one the most turbulent regions in the world, where street uprisings continue 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,” he told the officers.

In the same speech he went on to add that Turkish military reforms should focus on increasing the joint operational capability of the three services, cutting spending that does not contribute to the TSK’s efficiency, increasing the ratio of combat troops in the military, raising the quality of the army by benefiting from the growing opportunities in the economy and the defense sector and employing local capabilities as much as possible in procurement policies.

Gul’s urging of the military to begin transformation at the time marked the first time that a civilian leader has given the TSK advice over defense policy, which has always been regarded as an area in which civilians cannot interfere.

The public learned late last week that Gul had in fact established a working group almost a year ago that has outlined the reforms necessary to transform the TSK into a modern military while turning its defense industry into a beneficiary of the economy.

A statement released by the National Security Council (MGK) at the end of its meeting on April 30 stated that it has also discussed and briefed MGK members on the defense reforms that Turkey needs in line with developments in regional and global security environment and those initiated by President Gul.

While answering questions on the topic on May 2 during a visit to the Black Sea town of Zonguldak, Gul’s remarks were striking as he pointed out something abnormal for the military despite the fact that it belongs to NATO, which has transformed itself into a club of democratic nations where the militaries are subordinate to their civilian governments: Turkey is the only country within NATO where the armed forces are not subordinate to the Ministry of Defense.

When he was asked to elaborate on the defense reform draft report, Gul said Turkey is among a small number of countries which have not restructured their armed forces since 1960, the year the military junta staged its first military coup, which was followed by the 1980 coup as well as the post-modern coup of 1997. In between those coups, two memorandums were released by the military, one against the then-government in 1971 forcing it to quit office as well as another against the current government in 2007 which backfired.

Hence, this was the first time President Gul admitted that the military has not gone through a meaningful restructuring, not just after the demise of the Cold War in the early 1990s but since 1960 in fact.

President Gul also noted in his May 2 speech that that every country and alliance members in particular have implemented extensive military reforms, restructuring their armed forces from scratch since the end of Cold War, adding that a defense reform of the TSK is a big necessity.

In general a draft report on defense reform initiated by Gul stresses the necessity of making the conscript-based military smaller but more mobile and effective turning into a professional army in thwarting threats and to be accountable to Parliament.

The fact that the draft report on defense reform was not shared with the public in depth and in a transparent manner raises questions over its degree of implementation. The defense reform project initiated by the presidential palace also needs to be adopted by Parliament as well as by the government so that it can be implemented on the ground.


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