ANKARA — Turkey feels increasingly isolated and threatened by a multitude of conventional armies and wants to be more deterrent. But diplomats and analysts greet its ambitious to develop offensive missile systems with caution.
"It is puzzling from a NATO perspective that this ally wants to develop offensive missile capabilities," said one NATO ambassador in Ankara. "Turkey is part of the security umbrella. We are not sure if any Turkish effort for offensive missiles makes strategic sense … despite [Turkey's] legitimate perceptions of increased military threat in its region."
Pro-Sunni Turkey lately has faced increased sectarian tensions with Shiite and Shiite-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq due to its support for the Sunni opposition fighting the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey has fought to oust Assad and supported "mildly" Islamist Sunni forces, its allies, to replace him. That goal has put Turkey into major disputes with all of its southern and eastern neighbors, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
More recently, Russia, which backs Assad along with Iran and the Iraqi government, has vowed to punish Turkey "beyond commercial sanctions" after two Turkish F-16 aircraft shot down Nov. 24 a Russian Su-24 citing violation of its airspace along its border with Syria.
In a Jan. 7 briefing to parliament's defense committee, Turkey's top procurement official, Ismail Demir, advocated offensive missiles.
"It is difficult for a country to be deterrent with defensive missiles only … This is why offensive [missile] systems too should be developed," Demir said.
A senior procurement official confirmed Turkey's intentions to build offensive missile systems.
"The political authority is determined that Turkey should possess such missile capabilities. How, at what cost and how soon are questions that remain to be examined," he said.
He admitted that in any such program's initial stages Turkey would need foreign know-how. He did not name any particular country that may be willing to assist any Turkish program, but he did not reject the "Chinese option."
"The idea is to make the system indigenous over years as it progresses," he said.
In November Turkey scrapped a $3.44 billion contract for which it in 2013 selected China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp. (CPMIEC) for the construction of the country's first long-range air and anti-missile defense system. Ankara said two local state-controlled defense companies, Aselsan and Roketsan, would instead develop a "national" system.
An EU ambassador in Ankara said the Turkish move for an offensive system was confusing. "Such ambitions can fuel sectarian tensions in the region. A missile rivalry between a NATO member and Iran does not sound pleasant in any way," he said. In recent years Iran has announced several missile programs.
Experts, too, remain skeptical about Turkish ambitions.
"Ballistic missiles have certain disadvantages … like lack of precision. They can also be easily intercepted. Their limited payload is another problem. In comparison a modern fighter jet can carry up to four or five times more payload and is an agile aerial asset," said one London-based Turkey specialist.
He said that missiles are often preferred by "rogue states" as they can carry biological, chemical and nuclear warheads.
"Turkey is not a rogue state and it is curious that it has ambitions to develop offensive missile systems," he said.
Burak Ege Bekdil is the Turkey correspondent for Defense News.