05 March 2017

How Turkey Destroyed Its Formidable Army

The corporate memory of modern armies are embedded in two groups. 

One is the senior commissioned officers (COs), you know, your lieutenants, colonels and generals. 

The other is the Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs), your lance corporals, master sergeants and petty officers.

If you remove a significant proportion of the COs you will weaken your military know-how, your strategic planning and your decision making structures.

If you remove a significant proportion of your NCOs you will reduce your technical expertise, your ability to implement complex orders properly and your retention of lessons learned.

Turkish army was a formidable force not because it was the second biggest army in NATO but because it accumulated a tremendous amount of warfare expertise from its four-decades long civil war with the PKK. 

While that civil war was terrible, pointless and misguided, it turned the Turkish Armed Forces (known by their Turkish acronym TSK) into a remarkable fighting machine. They learned about guerilla warfare, adapting to difficult terrains and responding to and deploying tricky tactics.

All of this changed when Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party AKP came to power in 2002.

The First Purge

Because of its Islamist platform, AKP has always been suspicious of the secular bias of the Turkish Army.

And for good reason. For a long time, belonging to an Islamist political movement was s serious offense punishable with long prison sentences.

A few years before AKP came to power Turkey's first Islamist government, Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party was overthrown on 28 February 1997 by the TSK through what is known as the postmodern coup. They made him sign an anti-Islamist decree and urged him to resign. The army didn't even leave its barracks.

Hence the postmodernity moniker.

After the AKP came to power, it relied on the much more educated members of the Gulen movement to infiltrate the judiciary and national police. They also insisted that the army dropped its practice of eliminating Islamist officers during its annual review and promotion board meeting.

In 2010, the Gulenists in the judiciary launched the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations against sitting and retired senior officers of TSK. Hundreds of officers (including a newly retired Chief of the General Staff) were arrested and detained for years while their trial continued. It is now widely accepted that much of the evidence was fabricated and those trials were a sham [pdf].

In the end 237 of these officers were convicted and given lengthy prison sentences.

The numbers may not seem to be too high for an army with 600,000 personnel but it had a tremendous impact on the army's standing and morale. A large portion of those convicted were senior officers. And for a while it looked like any general in the army was fair game for the prosecutors.

Moreover, in a country like Turkey where the military occupies an exalted position as the ultimate guardian of the state institutions, the picture of three star generals in handcuffs made the TSK look weak and vulnerable, especially in the eyes of the secularists. They secretly hoped that the army would overthrow AKP and "save" its officers and its honor.

To their chagrin, it never happened. Which in turn, reinforced the weakened image of the army.

This first purge mostly targeted the COs and as such, it badly affected TSK's strategic planning and decision making abilities.

The Second Purge

Last July there was a comical coup d'etat attempt in Turkey.

I say comical because it consisted of a handful of privates led by a couple of COs and NCOs blocking one side of a bridge in Istanbul, a few officers reading a confused declaration on a state-owned TV channel that no one watches and a special forces team that flew to a southern resort to arrest President Erdogan.

The special forces were ordered to fly to their target five hours late giving Erdogan just enough time to depart ahead of them towards Istanbul. With all other flights being grounded, Erdogan's plane was shadowed by a couple of fighter jets but they did nothing. They did not shoot at it nor do they force it to land to a military base.

Another fighter jet allegedly dropped a bomb on the Presidential place in Ankara but somehow his computer-guided missile missed the 1000-room building by a full block and ended up cratering a city street.

Intriguingly, all of this took place not in the wee hours of the morning as it is customary for such operations but right after dinner in the evening.

So unlike the proverbial revolution, the coup was televised on prime time.

It was at best amateur hour, at worst someone conned a handful of not very bright officers to join a non-existent plot. Either way, the attempt did not have any significant participation within Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and consequently was doomed to fail.

In fact, within two hours of the attempt, I posted that it was more of a joke and should not be taken seriously. And one of these days I will write more extensively about this incident.

But this comical attempt was used by President Erdogan to undertake a massive purge. And I mean massive.

As of last December, 8334 military personnel were either sacked, arrested or forced into retirement. 16,409 students in commissioned and noncommissioned officer schools were kicked out.

But these figures hide a very damaging picture. TSK's command structure and its corporate memory are decimated. This was the situation right after the coup.
Of the 325 generals in Turkey's army, air and naval forces, 149 (45.8%) were discharged on July 27, including two four-star generals, seven lieutenant generals, 27 major generals/vice admirals (12 army, 11 air force and four navy) and 126 brigadier generals/rear admirals.
That means almost half of the generals and admirals were gone.

By December 2016, the tally for the army was 91 generals, 1560 COs, 669 NCOs and 642 enlisted men.

For the navy, 27 admirals were either arrested or expelled as were 137 NCOs and 9 seamen.

The air force suffered the biggest losses. 39 generals and 190 NCOs are under arrest and 474 officers were sacked. According to Der Spiegel the air force lost 265 of its 400 fighter pilots. This is a staggering figure.
The shortage of air force personnel has become so acute that nine pilots are currently flying sorties in Syria who were placed in temporary detention over the summer as alleged members of the putsch. They aren't actually allowed to leave the country and they are required to report to the police before and after each mission
Can you imagine that?

They are so desperate that, for serious military operations, they have to use pilots who were accused of plotting against the government and detained by the police.

After the first purge in July and August, pilot-to-seat ratio was 0.8.In mid-February with the number of sacked air force pilots reaching 551 that ratio now stands at 0.4.

This is simply a level unheard of in any NATO country. Instead of having two pilots per seat, the Turkish air force has fewer pilots than it has planes.

Experts estimate that the chronic pilot shortage cannot be alleviated for at least ten years.

And even then, the new pilots will have been trained by subpar instructors because all the experienced once were discharged. This is another way of saying that Turkey will not have a well functioning air force for at least a decade or longer.

Moreover, the successive waves of purges primarily target those officers who held degrees from abroad, getting rid of the best and the brightest.

So much so that NATO's supreme allied commander Curtis Scaparrotti said that the purge significantly weakened the alliance's capabilities.

Syria Exposed Much Diminished Fighting Capabilities

All of this explains the dismal performance of the Turkish army in Syria while implementing the infamous Euphrates Shield.

Erdogan announced on 24 August that the TSK was going to take over al-Bab, a small town in the Aleppo directorate. And then it was going to move to Manbij which is controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces and after that it would be the turn of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State.

Take a look at the map.

Afrin on the left side is a Kurdish canton. The rest of them are on the right side. The Kurdish aim is to unify these cantons.

Turkish goal is the opposite, namely to push YPG (the military arm of Syrian Kurds) and its ally Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the east of Euphrates, which is in the middle of the map. And to do this they would have to take al-Bab first and force SDF out of Manbij.

The problem was they couldn't take al-Bab until 24 February, a full six months after the operation began. In other words, the mighty Turkish army was blocked for six months by a bunch of thugs from the suburbs of Brussels and Paris.

What is even more telling is the fact that, in the process, it has lost 64 troops and 54 tanks and armoured vehicles. Much higher casualties and equipment losses than any other state actor in that theater.

This is hardly surprising.
The losses on the ground are "higher than they need to be" because the air force is no longer capable of providing sufficient support, says one fighter pilot dismissed from his position by the government. 
The Turkish air force is in such a bad shape that the military had to beg the US and Russia to provide air support to their ground forces.
The tremendous loss of fighter pilots restricts the Turkish Air Force operational tempo which in turn caused Turkey to urge US/European Allies to support operation in Al Bab. In fact, so dire is the situation that Turkey resorted asking “New Strategic Ally – Russian Air Force” for close air support marking a highly unusual military partnership between a NATO member and Moscow
I have two observations.

One is the fact that there is no discussion of this extraordinary situation in Turkey. In fact, all I could find were jingoistic pieces about how much stronger TSK became after the purges. Whereas if you Google the same topic in English or French you find hundreds of articles about how bad things are for the Turkish military.

Since it is simply impossible that half of the generals and admirals of the Turkish army were involved in that botched coup attempt, such a drastic weakening of the military should be of concern to politicians and civilians.

Astonishingly, it is not.

Even though these purges are rooted in one man's fear of losing his power and his desire to eliminate the only potent danger to his rule, no one seems to care that he is, in the process, destroying the nation's defenses.

My second point is that a weaker army will have unintended consequences for Turkey. It will significantly affect its regional status, its relations with NATO, its bargaining power with the US, its desire to join Eurasia power formation and its dealings with the Kurds.

And I don't see any upside in any of these areas.

But that is a subject for another post.

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