The Turkish government’s possible purchase of missile defense systems from the United States, as part of an ongoing tender, has sparked a new debate on Ankara’s new regional policies and its domestic arms procurement projects. On September 9, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified the U.S. Congress of a possible sale to Turkey of 13 Patriot fire units, various Patriot missiles including the advanced capability (PAC-3) missiles, and other related support equipment. Raytheon Corporation and Lockheed-Martin are the principal contractors and if they are awarded the tender, the project is estimated to cost $7.8 billion. The statement described Turkey as the major U.S. ally in the region and added that by acquiring these systems Turkey will "improve its missile defense capability, strengthen its homeland defense, and deter regional threats" (www.dsca.mil, September 9).
Although this notice is a legal requirement for an ongoing tender, and did not mean a sale was concluded, the Turkish press widely covered this development and labeled it as one of the largest arms sales agreements in the country’s history. The extensive coverage of the story led to an impression that Ankara had already "decided to purchase" the Patriot systems.
The Turkish media maintained that Turkey wants Patriot platforms to defend itself against Iran and linked this decision to U.S. plans to build a missile shield. Others, by contrast, claimed that the U.S. decision was sparked by a concern to thwart Turkey’s negotiations with Russia over the purchase of the new generation S-400 platforms. Moreover, the Turkish press also highlighted that the country would be returning as a major customer of U.S. weapons systems, after having granted several multi-billion projects to other countries (Turkiye, Vatan, Hurriyet, September 13; Radikal, September 14).
To defuse such speculation, the Turkish defense ministry released a statement in which it said that the notice was part of Turkey’s ongoing international tender to acquire long-range air and missile-defense systems. Under this program, which was launched in June 2006, the under secretariat for the defense industry (SSM) issued a request for a proposal in April 2009 for the direct purchase of missile systems. The statement also underscored that in addition to the U.S. companies Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, requests for proposals were also sent to China’s Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC) and Russia’s Rosoboronexport. Moreover, since possible U.S. exports will take place under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) credits, a separate letter of request was also sent to the U.S. administration (ANKA, September 14).
The statement, however, did not end the debate. Critics raised two questions: from whom Turkey plans to purchase these systems and whether this multi-billion dollar project is justified given the huge financial burden involved.
Several Turkish and international observers quoted by the Turkish press maintained that the project was developed to quell threats from Iran. They believe that despite its flourishing ties with Iran, Turkey still perceives a threat from Iran’s nuclear program. Through the missile defense system, allegedly, Turkey seeks to enhance its defensive capabilities against Iran’s medium-range Scud missiles or long-range Sahab missile program. To substantiate their arguments, they referred to a report submitted to the U.S. Congress in February 2008, (Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East), in which it was stated that the United States should acknowledge Turkey’s concerns and contribute to its development of a missile defense capability (www.superonline.com, September 13; Vatan, September 15).
The congressional report concluded that considering Iran’s ballistic missile program has a range to strike any part of Turkish territory, combined with the prospect of eventual Iranian nuclear weapons capability, Turkey had concerns about the balance of power shifting in Iran’s favor. The report warned that if Turkey’s legitimate missile defense concerns were not met, it might opt for the development of a "Turkish bomb." Since the U.S. plan for any future ballistic missile defense shield in Europe would not include Turkey, the report proposed that "the U.S. government should remove unnecessary obstacles to the speedy development of a missile defense system that addresses Turkey’s needs" (www.gpo.gov, February 27, 2008).
Several Turkish experts, however, criticized the plans for the purchase of this weapons system and the designation of Iran as a source of threat. Some speculated that this project is not driven by Turkey’s real needs. Rather, it is promoted by the "weapons lobby," which is trying to make profits by sowing seeds of distrust between Turkey and its neighbors, Iran and Russia. They add that the media reports about Turkey’s perception of Iran as a threat are merely the manipulations of these weapons lobbies. Others maintain that "if this purchase ever takes place, it will be inflammatory, especially while Turkey is trying to be a peacemaker in the region" (Today’s Zaman; www.usak.org.tr, September 15).
Asked about how the purchase of these systems can be reconciled with the government’s policy of normalization with its neighbors, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu ruled out any specified target. "[Developing projects to meet our security needs] is not an alternative to [Turkey’s regional policies]. It does not mean that we perceive threats from any neighbors. Our policy of ‘zero problem with our neighbors’ is still intact" Davutoglu said (Cihan; ANKA, September 15).
The second line of criticism emphasizes the financial burden of the project. Some maintain that given the economic difficulties the country is experiencing and in light of the soaring budget deficit, such spending on expensive weapons systems, which in their view does not correspond to Turkey’s real security needs, cannot be justified. The critics call for redesigning Turkey’s defense procurement policies and significant cuts on arms expenditures (Taraf, September 14; Yeni Asya, September 16). Others emphasize that this development underscores an underlying problem: the lack of democratic and parliamentary scrutiny over Turkey’s arms procurement policy, which creates an imbalance between the country’s improving relations with its neighbors and the priorities of the military establishment (Taraf, September 16).
While improving relations with its neighbors, Turkey is also intent on hedging against future threats, reflecting the volatile nature of the region. Although as a member of the transatlantic alliance, it is a part of NATO’s security umbrella, Turkey realizes that in the past, there were problems in the activation of NATO security guarantees. Most notably, the dispatch of Patriot systems during the Gulf War (1991) and Iraq War (2003) were delayed due to intra-NATO disagreements, which fostered a legacy of developing national capabilities. Despite the domestic criticisms, the Turkish defense industry is unlikely to drop its plans to acquire missile defense systems any time soon.