Since the beginning of May, the Turkish military has stopped enrolling conscripts as reserve officers in its commando brigades. This is the initial stage of a process that is expected to culminate in the creation of the country’s first fully professional army units (Vatan, Milliyet, CNNTurk, NTV, May 5).
Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, with around armed 600,000 personnel. Approximately 100,000 are full-time professionals, while the rest are conscripts. Military service is compulsory for all Turkish males over the age of 20. Women are exempt, although a small number serve in the military as full-time professionals.
Traditionally, military units have consisted of conscripts under the command of a member of the officer corps. At the rank of lieutenant, full-time professionals are supplemented by a small number of highly qualified conscripts who perform their military service as reserve officers. Most are employed in non-combat roles, although some serve in fighting units, such as the commandos.
In 2007 Chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS) General Yasar Buyukanit and Commander of the Turkish Land Forces General Ilker Basbug announced that conscripts would begin to be phased out of commando units from May 2008 and be replaced by professional privates, NCOs and officers. Turkey’s six commando brigades, consisting of a total of about 10,000 men, are expected to be fully professional by the end of 2009.
Conscripts assigned to commando brigades as privates undergo 10 weeks of specialized training, mostly in and around the Commando Training Center in Egirdir in central Anatolia. Approximately 96 percent of the training takes place out in the field, with 60 percent of it conducted at night (Vatan, May 5). For most privates, however, military service lasts only 15 months. As a result, after receiving their training, the majority of the members of the commando brigades return to civilian life after only a little more than a year in the field. The main reason for the professionalization of the commando brigades is to increase capability and continuity. Once the process is completed, the six professional commando brigades are expected to bear the brunt of the fighting against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey.
Even though it remains a predominantly conscript force, in recent years the Turkish military has increased the numbers of its full-time privates and NCOs. It appears to have had little difficulty in attracting recruits. In 2007, 25,084 Turks applied for positions as full-time “specialist NCOs” in the Turkish Land Forces, of whom only 1,540 were eventually accepted. Another 3,018 specialist NCOs are expected to be enrolled in 2008. Salaries are good by Turkish standards at around $1,000 a month net, approximately the same as a mid-level civil servant, although fringe benefits can take the total to over $1,500, which is almost five times the current minimum wage.
The transition to a fully professional commando force is likely to improve the Turkish state’s military capabilities and force the PKK further onto the defensive in southeast Turkey. It is unclear, however, what impact the increased professionalization of the Turkish military will have on its relationship with society as a whole. Many in the higher echelons of the TGS favor the complete professionalization of all of the country’s armed services, although they acknowledge that cost considerations make such a change unlikely in the near future. But there is also a concern that the abolition of conscription would sever what they regard as a sacred bond between the Turkish nation and the profession of soldiering.
Turkish school textbooks still portray the military as something akin to the essence of the Turkish nation, although the intensity with which it is inculcated has declined in recent decades. Indeed, until the 1960s and 1970s, when more Turks began to have access to formal education, the country’s military was itself frequently referred to as “a school.” It was often during their military service that conscripts from poorer backgrounds first learned to read and write and become familiar with social niceties such as the use of a knife and fork. Even today, for the mass of the male Turkish population, military service remains a rite of passage into manhood. Although it is frequently overlaid with resentment at the often haughty manner in which they are treated by the members of the officer corps, many retain an emotional attachment to the institution, if not necessarily to all of its members, long after they have completed their military service. Particularly outside the Turkish elite, the inculcation of the identification between the military and the nation, together with the personal experience of military service, undoubtedly have an impact on public willingness to tolerate the Turkish military’s occasional attempts to influence the political process; especially in times of perceived risk or crisis.
The identification between the military and the nation is, however, already being eroded by the spread of literacy and developments in communications, which have meant that Turks now have access to many more sources of information than the state-controlled educational system and what they are told by their commanding officers during their military service. Similarly, the gradual professionalization of the army, even if it is initially only in certain units, is likely to weaken the emotional bond formed by military service; raising the possibility that the requirements of improved military efficiency may come at the cost of a reduction in the TGS’s ability to influence the political process in Turkey.