Geopolitical Challenges and Defense Priorities
Turkey's geographical position places it at the crossroads of several geopolitical crises and security concerns. As such, its position has contributed to shaping its approach to military strategic depth characterised by the risks of a complex security landscape influenced by regional conflicts, terrorism, and geopolitical rivalries. Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has been deploying and implementing a foreign policy that has gradually but steadfastly increased its influence (Kerişçi, 2016) and sees it now playing major roles in the war between Ukraine and Russia, the Libyan crisis, the Balkans, the Middle East, and NATO’s enlargement.
Geographical Advantage and Challenges:
Turkey’s geographical position results to be strategic because of its control over key maritime chokepoints, such as the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. This allows for the projection of power and control over access to the Black Sea. Additionally, its proximity to conflict zones in the Middle East places Turkey as a critical and key player in regional security dynamics.
1. Geographical and geopolitical ambitions: The Eastern Mediterranean region and Northern Africa are the main geopolitical target, with an eye that spans from Gibraltar to Suez, looking for a way out into the oceans. The map of the Ottoman empire is the Turkish mental map, that is part of the geopolitical approach as part of the backbone of Turkey’s aims, not a strategy that has been revived by Erdogan.
During the Cold War, due to what were then perceived as geopolitical risks and threats, Turkey uniformed its geopolitical ambitions to the needs of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO). With the end of the Cold War, Turkey was left free to pursue its geopolitical ambitions (Kerişçi, 2016).
2. Border Security Concerns: Turkey shares borders with multiple countries, including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Greece, and Bulgaria. Managing these borders poses significant challenges due to the potential for cross-border threats, including terrorism, refugee flows, and smuggling. Securing and defending these borders are crucial elements of Turkey's military strategic depth.
3. Energy Security: Turkey's strategic depth extends to energy security concerns and considerations. As a transit hub for oil and natural gas pipelines, particularly from the Caspian and Middle Eastern regions, Turkey's stability and control over critical infrastructure are essential to maintain its energy security (Turkey 2021, Energy Policy Review, International Energy Agency; The World Factbook, CIA).
Defense Priorities and Strategies:
The analysis of Turkey’s defensive priorities and strategies has to consider several aspects. One of the most important is the analysis of the Turkish geopolitical mindset. In the paragraphs above, the geopolitical map of Turkey has been mentioned. This geopolitical approach is accompanied by the inner thought and perception present among the Turkish population that Turkey is not inferior to any other country. Based on this approach, why should Turkey receive orders from other geopolitical powers or actors such as could be the USA, the European Union or Russia?
These aspects must always be considered when analysing the features concerning deterrence and regional power projection, counterterrorism, border and homeland security, military and naval power.
1. Deterrence and Regional Power Projection: Turkey seeks to maintain a credible deterrence posture to protect its national interests and maintain regional stability. In order to do so, over the past decades Turkey has been investing in modernising its military capabilities, including air and naval forces, placing particular emphasis and importance on strengthening its political and military power projection capabilities to display influence beyond its borders (Pierini and Siccardi, 2021; Yeşiltaş, 2020).
The region of the Balkans represents an example of Turkish application of theories and strategies of defensive depth and external projection, where the government of Ankara shows its abilities and capabilities to influence beyond its own geographical domestic sphere.
The relationship between Turkey and Albania is an instance where Ankara has filled the vacuum left by Italy in the past decades: Rome had a privileged relationship with Tirana throughout the Nineties. However, due to Italian political incapacities to strengthen and preserve this relationship, space for political manoeuvre was gradually earned and filled by Turkey. This ability to fill political gaps and voids has allowed Turkey to create a pincer around Greece and strengthen its bridge (not only political) towards the Muslim Balkans, specifically Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania.
Libya represents a further example of Ankara’s ability to fill the vacuum left by foreign powers and project its power beyond its geographical sphere: in 2011, France and the UK attempted to establish a geopolitical balance in Libya that would replace the Italian influence with theirs - the attempt failed resulting into a series of events that has turned Libya into a failed state, divided between groups fighting for primacy: the political vacuum that has been created by this failed attempt has been filled by Turkey to the point that the government of Ankara has become a key player at the Libyan table.
2. Counterterrorism and Border Security: Turkey faces threats posed by terrorist organisations, such as the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (ISIS). The latest example is the attempted terror attack in Ankara on October 1st, 2023, whose paternity has been claimed by the PKK. For these reasons Turkey prioritises counterterrorism operations and border security measures. This includes conducting cross-border operations and fortifying border regions to prevent infiltration and attacks. Examples of these types of operations are those conducted over the past two decades in Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurdistan. In these territories, the main targets have always been Kurdish organisations. For what concerns ISIS, part of the international community has often questioned Turkey’s real intentions and efforts in defeating ISIS, considering its military standing vague and opaque. However, so far there has never been compelling evidence about Turkey turning a blind eye on ISIS, but only inconclusive evidence that does not lead to firm conclusions (Kedar, 2020).
3. Naval Power and Blue Homeland Concept: Turkey recognizes the strategic importance of its maritime domain, particularly the Eastern Mediterranean region and the Black Sea. It places emphasis on developing a robust naval force capable of protecting its interests, securing energy resources, and asserting its claims in contested maritime areas, as reflected in its Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) concepts and doctrine (Pinko, 2021).
During the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey paid the price of not having an efficient and strong military navy. The defeats against Italy in the Italo-Turkish war (1911-1912) over the shores of Libya and in WW1, with consequent dismantlement of the Empire, left a deep mark in Turkish society and political environments, a mark that is still vividly felt today. The main line of thought of this debate is that if Turkey had had a strong military navy during WW1, it would have fought against the British in Libya not in Çanakkale (known in the West as the Battle of Gallipoli).
For these reasons, the development of a strong and efficient military navy is perceived as an issue concerning the very survival and independence from foreign influence for Turkish society.
4. Technological Advancements and Indigenous Defense Industry: Military and technological self-sufficiency is the aim that Turkey is pursuing. For this reason it seeks to reduce its reliance on foreign defence suppliers by investing in its indigenous defence industry and developing advanced technological capabilities. Particularly relevant is the domestic production of combat aircraft, drones, missiles, and naval vessels, bolstering technological superiority.
Regional and Global Engagement:
Turkey’s geographical position allows it to look geopolitically into different directions. While its NATO membership strengthens its position with Western democracies, an active foreign policy towards the Middle East and Northern Africa allows it to have a strong foot into regional affairs.
1. NATO Membership: Turkey's membership in NATO enhances its strategic depth by providing collective defence guarantees and access to advanced military technologies and exchanges. It also enables the country to contribute to regional and global security through participation in missions and exercises of the Atlantic Alliance.
2. Regional Partnerships and Alliances: Turkey actively engages in regional partnerships, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the Turkic Council. These alliances offer opportunities for cooperation, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic leverage, thereby extending Turkey's strategic depth.
3. Active Foreign Policy: Turkey's active foreign policy and assertive regional engagement play a role in shaping its military strategic depth. It pursues an independent foreign policy, balancing its relations with multiple regional and global powers, and seeks to position itself as a key actor in resolving regional conflicts and maintaining stability. Over the past few decades it has been playing a growing role in Albania and working on strengthening its role in the Balkanic Muslim regions, e.g., Bosnia Herzegovina. Following the fall of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and the worsening of the civil war, Turkey has been implementing a policy aiming to increase its influence (Fabbri, 2020). Eventually, this policy is paying off politically as it allows the government of Ankara to sit at the main negotiating table along with other actors such as the United Nations, Egypt, Qatar, and the European Union.
Turkish drone industry
The Turkish drone industry has gained significant attention and recognition in recent years due to its rapid growth, technological advancements, and successful deployment of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in various operational contexts. The rapid growth and development of this industry is the result of the connubian between the government and the private sector.
Turkey's drone capabilities have had a notable impact on both its domestic defence industry and its role in international conflicts.
The Turkish Drone Industry is featured by
- Technological advancements, in terms of drone platforms that have been developed, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with advanced sensors, cameras, communication systems, and armed capabilities. One of the most prominent products of the Turkish drone industry is the Bayraktar TB2, a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV manufactured and supplied by Baykar, a private Turkish company (GlobalData, Army Technology, 2022). The Bayraktar TB2 has been used in various military operations, surveillance missions, and intelligence-gathering activities. It has also been used in various conflicts, including in northern Syria against Kurdish forces and in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
- Domestic Production: The Turkish government has established its priority in terms of increasing domestic production and self-reliance in the defence industry. This approach displayed its efficiency through the partnerships between the military, private companies, and universities and research institutions to develop indigenous drone technology. These research efforts are centred on improving the final product's capabilities, autonomy, endurance, and integration with other military systems (Bekdil, 2021).
- Export and International Collaboration: The successful results offered by the Bayraktar TB2 has fuelled Turkey’s abilities to become an exporter of drone technology to other countries. Turkey’s success has attracted interest from various nations seeking modern UAS capabilities (Gao, 2022).
- Civilian Applications: The development of its UAVs capabilities has led the Turkish government to apply the drone technology to civilian sectors such as agriculture, environmental monitoring, disaster management, and infrastructure inspection.
In conclusion, the Turkish drone industry has made remarkable progress, showcasing the country's capacity for technological innovation and military modernization. The successful deployment of drones in various operational contexts highlights their significance in modern warfare and intelligence-gathering activities.
At the same time though, the rapid growth of the industry has also raised concerns from some of the regional and international powers about potential misuse, proliferation of armed drones, and regional instability. The use of drones in conflicts has triggered a debate about ethical considerations, accountability, and the impact on civilian populations.
As the industry continues to evolve, it will likely have broader implications for both Turkey's defence capabilities and international defence strategies.
Turkey's military strategic depth is influenced by its unique geographical location, security challenges, and defence priorities. From border security concerns to energy security considerations and regional power projection, Turkey's approach to defence is multifaceted. By investing in modern military capabilities and implementing a foreign policy that allows Ankara to fill the vacuum left by other geopolitical actors, Turkey is following a policy that strengthens its regional power and position.
While it is not currently possible to foresee what path Turkey will follow to realise its ambitions, what can be highlighted are the problems that the government of Ankara may have to face over the next years. One problem Turkey has to deal with is to manage its own ambitions and desires to be consecrated and officially recognised again as regional power: the mindset of regional power may easily lead Turkey to overstretching and overrating itself, its influence, and its capabilities. The potential mismanagement of its ambitions may lead Turkey to political clashes with the USA, who may see Turkey’s aims as elements of instability. A potential clash with the USA may lead to an unofficial alignment with Russia, which in turn would cause discontent among NATO states.
The above reasons lead to conclude that although Turkey is structuring itself to reaffirm its regional power and position, the final outcome is not written yet.
Bayraktar TB2, Baykar; https://baykartech.com/; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
Bekdil B., The Rise and Rise of Turkish Drone Technology, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, 2020; https://besacenter.org/t; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
Fabbri D., Così l’Italia ha perso il suo estero vicino, Limes, July 2020
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GlobalData, Army Technology; https://www.army-technology.com/; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
Kedar M., Turkey’s Relationship with ISIS Proves It Is Deserting Its European Allies, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, 2020; https://besacenter.org/t; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
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Pierini M. and Siccardi F., Understanding Turkey’s Direction: Three Scenarios, Carnegie Europe, 2021; https://carnegieeurope.eu/; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
Pinko E., Turkey’s Maritime Strategy Ambitions: The Blue Homeland Doctrine (Mavi Vatan), International Institute for Migration and Security Research, 2021; https://iimsr.eu/; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
Turkey 2021, Energy Policy Review, International Energy Agency; https://iea.org/; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
Turkey, The World Factbook, CIA; https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)
Yeşiltaş M., Deciphering Turkey’s Assertive Military and Defense Strategy: Objectives, Pillars, and Implications, Insight Turkey, 2020; https://www.insightturkey.com/; (Last check, October 6th, 2023)