ANKARA — An annual reshuffle of Turkey’s military top brass, announced Aug. 3, underscores the new reality in Turkish defense: after an era in which the generals dominated major decision, civilians are now fully in control over defense procurement.
Analysts said the new command structure features generals who would work in full respect to government’s authority in both procurement and politics, agreeing to retreat to a minimal role in specifying requirements and choosing bidders.
“In the past the generals shaped the procurement process even by solely telling the government which equipment the military needed. I think this role too would be minimized with the selection of a government-friendly top brass,” said one London-based Turkey specialist.
A local agent for a major western player in the Turkish market said: “The days when we used to try to impress the generals are over. Now the only sensible counterpart for all international bidders is the government.”
The Supreme Military Council, which is chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and decides on promotions and retirement of top military officers, on Aug. 3 announced the unexpected retirement of paramilitary gendarmerie force commander Gen. Bekir Kalyoncu, who had been the leading candidate to take over land forces.
Kalyoncu was viewed as a government critic. Instead, Gen. Hulusi Akar was given the job and, according to custom, would be expected to replace Gen. Necdet Ozel as overall head of the armed forces in 2015. The General Staff also announced on its website the appointment of Vice Adm. Bulent Bostanoglu as commander of the Navy, Lt. Gen. Akin Ozturk as head of the Air Force and Gen. Servet Yoruk as commander of the gendarmerie.
In October, the government introduced a new set of rules to regulate procurement and broaden the jurisdiction and administrative powers of the civilian procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM).
Under the new rules, a program takes off when a military request for a weapons system has been approved by the SSM and the defense minister. The SSM is solely responsible for determining the ideal modality for every procurement program. It also has powers to buy from a single source when it deems necessary due to “national interest, confidentiality, monopoly of technological capabilities and meeting urgent requirements.”
“The new rules, coupled with the profile of the new top brass, mean that we may see a one-man show in procurement in the powerful personality of the prime minister,” one Ankara-based analyst said.
An immediate challenge that the new commanders face is the twin mass trials featuring scores of senior officers who have been sentenced on charges of plotting a coup against Erdogan’s government.
On Aug. 5, a special court near Istanbul announced the verdicts individually of the nearly 300 defendants, acquitting 21 but sentencing 19 suspects to life, including Ilker Basbug, a former armed forces commander. Several retired generals received life sentences while others, including academics and journalists, received prison sentences from two to 35 years. Erdogan’s secular critics view the charges as a plot to silence opposition as part of a broader plan to Islamize Turkey.
Erdogan’s government insists that the threat of a coup is not far-fetched, pointing out that secularist military staged three coups in Turkey between 1960 and 1980, and pushed the first Islamist-led government out of office in 1997.
In a separate case dubbed “Sledgehammer,” more than 300 hundred active and retired Army officers, including three former generals, received prison sentences of up to 20 years over a 2003 military exercise alleged to have been an undercover coup plot.
Commenting on the sentences for officers, the Turkish General Staff issued a mild statement Aug. 6: “We share the grief of our brothers in arms and their families.” The statement urged restraint and patience.
But critics say these dubious judicial investigations of military officers and the top brass’ reluctance to protect their rights have undermined morale in the Turkish armed forces in recent years.
In response to a parliamentary inquiry, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz has said that in January and February alone, 110 military pilots quit work. Another 11 are behind bars in the coup trial.
“Which confirms that there is a systematic erosion of ‘human resources’ at the military, especially in the Air Force,” said one colonel. “There are many officers especially in the Air Force and the Navy who have lost every motivation to work. Every year will witness a new wave of voluntary retirements and resignations.”