Bordered by three states known to have pursued dual-use nuclear-weapons capabilities and ballistic-missile technologies, Turkey has taken steps to defend against the regional proliferation of nuclear weapons. But rather than pursue a nuclear-weapons program of its own, Ankara’s efforts have focused on strengthening global nonproliferation norms and pursuing technologies designed to defend against ballistic-missile attack.
Turkey’s agenda includes a push for all states in the region to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, the strengthening of export-control guidelines and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the promotion of a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone and a determined pursuit of counterforce and ballistic-missile technologies.
The 1991 revelation about Iraq’s advanced nuclear-weapons program was a transformative moment in Turkish defense planning. Iraq’s capability to launch ballistic missiles and its clandestine march toward a nuclear weapon prompted defense planners to turn their attention toward acquiring systems to defend Turkish territory against ballistic-missile attacks.
Turkey’s anxiety was driven by its experience during the first Gulf War. NATO was slow to deliver Patriot antiballistic missiles, leaving Ankara defenseless against Iraq’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and nonconventional warheads. Ankara resorted to asking its citizens to use plastic sheeting and duct tape to help defend against a possible chemical-weapons attack. NATO eventually did deliver the interceptors, but Turkey’s resolve to acquire an independent defense hardened.
After the end of the Gulf War, Turkish military planners quickly concluded that the devastating international and UN sanctions had neutralized the Iraqi threat. At the time, however, Turkey’s relations with Iran were incredibly tense, and there was a palpable fear that tensions could spill over and low-level conflict could erupt. Military planners began to take steps to neutralize what they perceived to be Iran’s greatest military advantage—its possession of ballistic missiles and WMD capabilities.
Ankara’s efforts to procure missile defenses began in 1997, shortly after the signing of a defense-cooperation agreement with Israel. Turkish military planners coveted the Israeli Arrow interceptor and accompanying Green Pine radar because they had been specifically designed to counter the region’s Scud-derived missile systems. At the outset, the United States opposed the deal, arguing that the Israeli export of missile defenses to Turkey would violate the MTCR. Because the United States was the Arrow project’s primary funder, Israel had to first receive U.S. permission to re-export the U.S. technology. After the election of the Bush administration, the United States dropped its objections to the deal, and the three sides began negotiations for the development of a regional missile-defense system. Despite prolonged interest, talks broke down after Turkey’s 2001 financial crisis.
Turkey paired these efforts with a plan to reform the military by increasing the armed forces’ intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and information-management capabilities. While ostensibly aimed at improving Turkey’s ability to wage an effective asymmetric military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the program has some relevance to missile defense and counterproliferation. Missile counterforce consists of identifying and attacking an enemy’s missile targets preemptively. To do so, the attacking states need to rely on accurate intelligence and weapons systems capable of carrying out such an assault. These weapon systems include advanced front-line fighters, long-range land-attack cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and more robust intelligence-collection capabilities.
Despite having the second-largest army in NATO, Turkey’s air defenses, missile defenses and counterproliferation capabilities are extremely limited. To help bolster its capabilities, Turkey has procured or is trying to purchase one hundred F-35 fighters, airborne early warning and control aircraft, armed and unarmed long range UAVs, long-range cruise missiles, and air- and ballistic-missile defenses. These systems, if integrated, would give Turkey some counterforce capabilities and limited defense from long-range missile attack. They also indicate development of the equipment needed for fielding a capable missile-defense system.
Turkey’s efforts to equip itself with a capable missile shield have moved in parallel to NATO efforts to deploy an alliance-wide system. While supportive of the NATO project, Ankara had some issues with other NATO members during the negotiations for the 2010 strategic concept. Ankara opposed the French-led effort to name Iran and Syria as specific threats to the alliance, arguing that NATO had never in its history mentioned any country as a specific threat. Turkey also wanted assurances that its military personnel would be stationed with the American troops operating the radar, that the system would cover all of Turkey’s territory and that intelligence from the radar would not be shared with non-NATO members, with this provision obviously applying to Israel.
After NATO agreed to most of Turkey’s terms, Ankara agreed to host a U.S. radar for the NATO system. In tandem, Ankara has continued to seek assurances that the systems will be used to counter immediate threats to Turkish territory. But so far NATO has rebuffed the Turkish requests.
Turkey’s policies suggest it has quietly been preparing for a nuclear-armed Iran for some time. Its tactics, however, differ considerably from the coercive approach favored by Washington and Israel. Turkey has paired its sustained commitment to developing a defense against Iran’s growing missile capabilities with a more conciliatory foreign policy, one designed to coax the Iranian leadership to be more forthcoming with the international community. Nevertheless, Ankara has continued its slow build-up of systems to defend against missile attack. It’s part of a larger strategy to modernize the Turkish Armed Forces and make Ankara ever more capable of defending against regional threats—even independent of NATO's future missile-defense system.
Aaron Stein is a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London. You can follow him on Twitter at @aaronstein1.