Turkey’s defense budget and NATO commitment

Although Turkey has a chronic problem with how it inefficiently spends its defense budget rather than how much it actually spends, stemming from the weakened rules on transparency and accountability, the amount of money it allocates to meet its defense needs annually, which is in decline in relative terms, is nonetheless an important indicator of where Turkey is heading.

That is because the defense budget is an important barometer for not only military planning for defense capabilities but also for the extent and depth of the incumbent government’s political commitment. It provides a basis for a debate on defense matters, which should be naturally assessed from the view of long-term prospects as opposed to short-term needs. I believe the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been doing a great disservice in this regard by slashing the ratio of defense spending and slowing the modernization of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which urgently needs to be more agile, adaptable and capable in handling military conflicts in simultaneous arenas in the vicinity of Turkey.

The agreement by NATO members at the 2014 summit in Wales that the national threshold for defense spending must be a minimum of 2 percent, as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) within a decade, should have pushed Turkey to earmark more money for defense. Yet it has created an adverse impact on Turkey for reasons that are not entirely clear. According to the budget proposal by the Ministry of Defense submitted to Parliament in December, Turkey’s defense spending as a share of GDP was 1.7 percent for the year 2015. That will come down to 1.58 percent in 2016 and is likely to fall further as the pattern holds.

If we only consider the Ministry of Defense’s budget, Turkey’s defense spending would amount to 1.2 percent in 2016 as a share of GDP. That figure was 2.5 percent in the year 2000. Hence, there has been a significant drop in the TSK’s defense budget as a share of GDP in recent years. The difference between 1.58 percent and 1.2 percent for the year 2016 stems from the fact that the former ratio also incorporates extra-budgetary resources earmarked for defense spending undertaken by the Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM), the Treasury and the Foundation for Strengthening the Turkish Armed Forces as well as the budgets for the Gendarmerie General Command (JGK) and the Coast Guard Command (SGK) that are also separate from the Ministry of Defense budget.

Still, with everything considered, the 1.58 percent ratio for 2016 is quite low. Some analysts may take comfort in saying that Turkey fares much better when it was stacked up against other NATO allies. For example, with the ratio of 1.7 percent in 2014, Turkey ranked seventh in national defense spending, coming as it did after the US, UK, France, Poland, Greece and Estonia. In nominal figures, Turkey is still in seventh place.

But that is a flawed argument for several reasons. For one, Turkey is located in a highly volatile region and a neighbor to unstable countries such as Iraq and Syria. It has troubled ties with Iran and Russia. Secondly, unlike the US, the UK and France, Turkey does not have nuclear capabilities to compensate for the shortfall on its deterrence capabilities. It also lacks long-range missile systems after long-running procurement efforts have so far failed to obtain one. Thirdly, Turkey sits on the southern flank of NATO, on the periphery, as opposed to many allies in Europe that enjoy geographical proximity and contiguous territory. Therefore, Turkey must see its place in a rather different way than others in NATO and plan its defense spending accordingly to boost its capabilities and rise to its challenges.

Perhaps another reason why Turkey should increase its defense spending is the government’s ambitious program over the last decade or so to sign defense and military cooperation agreements with a number of countries. If Ankara does not want those agreements to remain on paper and is really committed to following through with deeds, it has no choice but to allocate a significant amount of funding to defense and military expenditure. The Turkish government has signed defense industry cooperation agreements with 65 countries so far and is currently negotiating to conclude new deals with 49 other countries. That is a huge portfolio of countries that Ankara needs to manage in meeting its expectations.

Moreover, the Turkish military’s commitment overseas has also been increasing, giving Ankara more reasons to justify an increase in defense expenditure. Turkish troops are currently serving in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and the Gulf of Aden under the UN, NATO and other initiatives while deploying assets in military operations in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. These engagements will be maintained and possibly expanded, which requires robust defense spending.

The rising threat assessments in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, and the expanding military and defense commitment of Turkey overseas, requires bold moves on Turkey’s part to expand spending on these matters. It is true that Turkey ought to be paying attention to the long-running talk about burden sharing by the US when it comes to criticizing European allies in NATO. But that must not be a foremost consideration for Turkey as its own requirements alone necessitate maintaining a strong and modernized military force to respond to the challenges in its own region.

In the absence of strong arguments to the contrary such as economic crisis or austerity measures, why Turkey is dropping its defense expenditure as a share of GDP is not clear. The burgeoning expenses of refugees in Turkey, amounting to some $9 billion according to the latest figure claimed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or a surge in the terrorism threat may be cited as a pretext that a conventional military won’t tackle such issues. That is not true in Turkey’s case, either. Because it is up to the military to seal the border as Turkey does not have special border patrol units to guard porous borders. Be it the flow of refugees or the transfer of terrorists across Turkey’s borders, Ankara has no choice but to rely on armed forces to provide protection against these threats.

The only possible explanation for not raising defense spending in line with the increase in GDP may be the lingering fear on the part of political Islamist elites about a possible coup. They may be signaling to the armed services that they will use the budget as leverage to tame generals and keep exerting pressure on the services. However, that has more to do with domestic political considerations and personal apprehension on the part of Islamists. This perspective hurts Turkish national security interests. Of course, extreme caution on the efficient spending, better transparency and strict accountability rules must be exercised in defense expenditure. But that is not the motivating factor for the current rulers who care less about them, to say the least.

Ironically, this feels like déjà vu. More often than not, the pervasive corruption practices during the ’80s and ’90s, when then-powerful generals enriched themselves through commissions on defense procurements, thwarted the military from modernizing itself rapidly. Now the political Islamist rulers who have proven to be savvy in pocketing hefty payouts from government contracts and tenders are eyeing military expenditure as a means for personal enrichment. In March 2014, leaked audio recordings allegedly revealed how then-Prime Minister Erdoğan instructed a pro-government businessman to engineer the cancellation and reopening of the national vessel Milgem and Landing Platform Dockship (LPD) tenders.

Anyhow, regardless of the commitment Ankara has made to NATO on defense spending, Turkey ought to exceed that in order for the nation’s military to be better equipped to respond to current threats and better prepared for future ones. After all, military planning requires long-term thinking, and any mistake made today will have serious repercussions in the future when push comes to shove.

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