In March 2020, eight personnel in the German-led, multinational North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) battalion in Lithuania tested positive for the novel coronavirus (The Baltic Times, March 24). From a defense-planning standpoint, the spread of COVID-19 to the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) units stationed along the Alliance’s eastern flank marked a critical challenge. Worse, several military exercises, most notably Defender Europe 2020, had to be canceled or dramatically scaled back, raising concerns about whether NATO countries would be able to maintain combat readiness at adequate levels in the midst of the global health crisis. But at the same time, the Turkish Armed Forces have remained busy pursuing a heavy agenda beyond the country’s borders, even though NATO’s southeastern-most member was hit fairly hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
Despite the pandemic and growing bio-security threat, the Turkish Armed Forces actually stepped up their combat operations. The Turkish Naval Forces have been pursuing a robust buildup in the Mediterranean Sea and recently intensified their deterrent presence off the Libyan coast (Yeni Şafak, July 7). The Turkish Land Forces have also been quite active. In Northern Iraq, Operation Claw-Tiger (Pençe Kartal Operasyonu) targets the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) logistical infrastructure, arsenal and militants (Msb.gov.tr, June 30). In tandem, the Air Force continues to strike at PKK positions in northern Iraq (Sabah, June 25).
In June 2020, the Turkish navy once more assumed command of Combined Task Force 151 to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia’s coast. In early July, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar paid a visit to Libya, where Ankara has forward-deployed contingents in support of the United Nations–recognized Tripoli government (Msb.gov.tr, July 7, 18).
Three important factors regarding the Turkish Armed Forces deserve mention before going into the details of how Ankara has managed the situation. First, Turkey is one of the few NATO member states that still employ conscription. This fact looms large as the biggest hardship and risk amidst the quickly and readily spreading coronavirus pandemic. Second, the Turkish military has an expeditionary posture. It has forward-deployed units and overseas bases in many countries and regions, such as Libya, Syria, Cyprus, Iraq, Somalia and Qatar (TRT Haber, January 3). Likewise, the Naval Forces sail beyond coastal waters regularly. At present, for example, one-quarter to one-third of the frigate arsenal operates in and near Libyan waters (Yeni Şafak, January 25). Third, the Turkish military is not a ceremonial or parading force. It fights, and it fights hard. Over recent years, Turkish generals planned and executed fierce campaigns against the PKK, Islamic State, the Syrian Arab Army and accompanying Iranian-backed Shiite militias at Turkey’s doorstep. Overall, the Turkish Armed Forces cannot risk being pinned down by bio-security threats. The wars go on.
To weather the storm, at the outset of the pandemic, Turkey’s Ministry of Defense established the Center for Countering the Coronavirus (Koronavirus ile Mücadele Merkezi—KOMMER) to tackle the outbreak within the military’s ranks. In a joint-force planning fashion, the KOMMER incorporated the General Staff, all military branches, Turkey’s four field armies, the naval fleet as well as each of the airbase commands (Anadolu Agency, June 7). By doing so, the defense ministry centralized its health-tracking databases and necessary countermeasures.
“Dronization” has been another factor that helped the Armed Forces. In many frontiers, Turkey’s generals were able to rely on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to achieve mission objectives with a limited troop footprint (TRT World, May 22; Al Jazeera, May 28; Mei.edu, March 26).
Apart from establishing the KOMMER and using UAVs extensively, the Turkish military closed its facilities, units and headquarters to outsiders. The navy, meanwhile, sailed its ships away from the homeports and kept the critical personnel away from the rest of the Armed Forces and society. The 2nd Field Army, which is responsible for the Middle Eastern frontier, did its best to isolate the forward-deployed elements in Syria and northern Iraq. Additionally, the defense ministry assigned Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defense teams to combat formations in high-risk areas to provide additional protection (TRT Haber, June 7). As a result, Turkey’s military operations were not “plagued” by the coronavirus.
One thing the coronavirus pandemic reminded war planners of is the bio-security aspect of military campaigns. Since ancient times, wars have centered on the soldier, for most of human history accompanied by other animals, such as horses, oxen and elephants. All living things are, of course, to one degree or another, vulnerable to microscopic pathogens and environmental conditions. With the Second World War, the mechanization of warfighting inevitably replaced the non-human part of traditional warrior packs. However, people must still man main battle tanks and fly fighter aircraft.
In terms of temporary strategies to weather, or mitigate the effects of the pandemic, the Turkish military did well, and it was able to continue fighting effectively in multiple fronts beyond Turkey’s borders. However, over the longer term, Turkey and other NATO countries will need to find and adopt more sustainable solutions to ensure uninterrupted high-readiness levels. The progressive introduction of ever-larger numbers of robotic systems to battlegrounds and exercises may offer some relief. Likewise, AI-assisted multi-national exercise simulations could replace some, albeit not all, military drills. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the limits of human planning and operations in the midst of a crisis. As the classic Latin adage goes, Si vis pacem, para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war. Turkey and its NATO allies will, thus, need to spend the next several years preparing to do so under more daunting bio-security conditions.