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Does Turkey really need long-range missiles?

Turkey moves ahead with its plans to build its own ballistic missile capability.

In late 2011, likely to the pride of millions of Turks, the state scientific research institute, TUBITAK, announced that its scientists would soon finish a missile with a range of 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) and in 2014 another with a range of 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles). Another missile with an 800-kilometer range was ready for precision tests.

Professor Yucel Altinbasak, head of TUBITAK, said the order for the missile program had come from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “This is a most realistic project,” he said. An engineer from the institute’s missile project group told state television TRT, “Turkish missiles [are] more advanced than US or German missiles.” Turkey's efforts toward offensive missile capabilities come at a time when the country is also trying to construct its first long-range air and anti-missile defense architecture.

This is a curious program, not only in terms of military technology but also in regard to international politics and security. With Turkey as the epicenter of a radius of 2,500 kilometers, some of the cities that could in theory experience Turkish missiles overhead include Algiers, Amman, Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Beirut, Berlin, Brussels, Cairo, Copenhagen, Damascus, Geneva, Jeddah, Kiev, London, Milan, Moscow, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Tripoli, Vienna, Warsaw and Zurich. Which of these cities stand to be a future security threat to Turkey?

The Turkish missile program apparently matured when the Turco-Persian sectarian rivalry was heating up in 2011, with Tehran already in possession of 1,300-kilometer Shahab-3 missiles. Ankara's move was widely seen, however, as another indication that Turkey did not see a future in the largely interoperable NATO and European security structures, as evinced later by Erdogan’s repeated appeals to find a slot for Turkey in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Two years after the stunning revelation about Turkey's missile program, TUBITAK seems to have down shifted gears, possibly for technical reasons. Late in 2013, defense procurement officials claimed that TUBITAK’s 800-kilometer-range missile had been successfully tested, hitting targets with precision over the Black Sea. They had been launched from aerial assets, which “constituted a landmark achievement in [Turkish] missile technology,” as one official put it. The 1,500-kilometer-range missile would now debut in 2014, however, not in 2013 as promised. The 2,500-kilometer-range missile would appear later as well, not in 2014.

Officials say the 800-kilometer missile will primarily target naval and aircraft shelter targets. Which naval and aircraft targets 800 kilometers away? They do not know. Politicians should answer this question, but for now defense officials are proud that TUBITAK’s missile scientists are working day and night to produce missiles that can be deployed, on naval and ground assets as well as aerial assets. One expert explained that in theory all this ambitious work aims “to maximize the Turkish military’s firepower.” That’s for sure, but why missiles with such a long range? Who are the potential enemies? Can Turkey attain such a long-range capability?

“Theoretically, yes,” according to one missile scientist. “But practicality in this trade is always a different story for beginners like Turkey, especially due to strict international controls over proliferation.” Turkey is a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime, and thus it may now find it more difficult to access some of the “ingredients” necessary to make a missile. But can Turkey, really attain long-range missile capabilities? The scientist, with a sarcastic smile on his face, preferred not to respond further.

Contrary to public perception, ballistic missiles often lack precision, can be intercepted and can carry only limited payloads (on average 500 to 1,000 kilograms). In comparison, a conventional F-16 fighter jet can carry a payload four or five times bigger and is an agile war asset. There is a big “but” here: Rogue states often tend to opt for missiles, calculating that these war toys can also carry biological, chemical and nuclear warheads.

The main question here, therefore, is why does Turkey, which boasts a modern air force with highly deterrent firepower, need ballistic or cruise missiles? With which countries within a radius of 2,500 kilometers does Turkey think it may, in the future, have to go to war? Which targets beyond a 1,000-kilometer radius does Turkey hope to hit with a 2,500-kilometer missile? What is the point of NATO membership? Who are Turkey's potential enemy targets?

“No one,” said one London-based Turkey specialist in a telephone interview. “Turkey wants to boast, both to a domestic and then a foreign audience, that it is able to produce smart, deterrent weaponry. Which does not mean it really intends to use it. Most importantly, for the Turks, it’s [more about] the feeling of 'We’ve made it!' than whether they really have, or 'So what?' Secondly, Mr. Erdogan probably thinks it would not be too bad if his neo-Ottoman Turkey successfully produced and kept piles of missiles whose precision and capabilities potential enemies cannot be certain about. It’s a deterrence game.”

Regardless of whether all this is a game of deterrence, the work goes on. In what some military observers suspect was a discreet move to enhance Turkey's missile program, Erdogan’s government last year approved the construction of the country’s first satellite-launching center, officially to cater to the country’s mushrooming satellite programs. Turkey’s procurement agency last July signed a contract with the country’s national missile manufacturer, Roketsan, to build the Turkish Satellite Launching System for preconceptual design work. Under the contract, Roketsan will design a system initially to launch satellites into low earth orbit (500 to 700 kilometers) through a launching center the company will build and the Turkish air force will operate.

Turkey’s Western allies, however, worry that the Turks may be intending to use their own launching pad to fire the long-range missiles they hope to build. Whatever their intentions for the missile program could be, several expected and unexpected challenges on a global scale will likely be awaiting the neo-Ottoman army over any missile firepower it intends to possess.

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