The attempted coup in July 2016 that sought to overthrow the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had serious, even crippling, consequences for Turkey’s military. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in the 1920’s the military has been one of Turkey’s most powerful and important institutions, but the political landscape in Turkey is changing and the military is finding itself increasingly marginalised in much of Turkey’s highest policy considerations.
The nascent Turkish space programme is something of a microcosm of the new politics in Turkey. The draft legislation currently before the Turkish parliament suggests that a longstanding dispute between the military and government civilians as to who should take the lead in Turkish space efforts has been won by the civilians, with the military relegated to a purely technical and operational role. At the same time, however, the political purges that have taken place since last year’s attempted coup have resulted in large numbers of skilled and highly-qualified space experts and satellite engineers removed from their positions, with many of these coming from the Turkish Air Force.
According to Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish military officer and a columnist in Middle East news publication Al Monitor:
Today, about 500 people work in the space field; 150 of them are engineers. There is hardly any work being done in research and development. Turkey will have to come up with a long-term personnel recruitment and training plan for space activities — especially since the Turkish air force, which is the driving engine of space activities, has suffered significant personnel losses since the July 15 coup attempt and subsequent purge. In the aftermath of the purge, some of the qualified space project personnel were dismissed, the Air Force Academy closed and the Aeronautics and Space Technologies Institute, which was the sole institution offering graduate studies in space sciences, was shut down.
This raises a number of questions about the ability of Turkey to achieve its goal of having ten satellites in orbit by 2023, never mind the Turkish military’s own ambitions to create a Turkish space force that provides space-based support for its terrestrial forces.
Among the programmes the Turkish military are pursuing are:
- Satellite Reconnaissance: Turkey has been developing and launching the Göktürk series of reconnaissance satellites. Göktürk-2 was designed and built by a consortium of Turkish aerospace companies and organisations and was launched 2012 and has a resolution of 2.5 metres. Göktürk-1, with a resolution of 0.5-metres, was built in cooperation with Italian satellite company Telespazio along with Turkish Aerospace Industries and Aselsan, and was launched in December 2016. There are plans for a third satellite, Göktürk-3, a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging system with a planned resolution of 0.5-metre resolution, is supposed to be indigenously designed and built by Turkish Aerospace Industries, Aselsan, and TUBITAK-UZAY;
- Satellite Communications: Turkish satellite communications are provided by TurkSat, who are also looking to be able to design and build communications satellites indigenously. Turksat-4A and -4B are being built by Japanese satellite company Mitsubishi Electric (MELCO), but Turksat-5A and -5B are being designed and built by Turksat and Turkish Aerospace Industries. Meanwhile, Turksat-6A is being designed and built by TUBITAK-UZAY, Turkish Aerospace Industries, and Aselsan. On top of all this, the Turkish military is looking to develop an X-Band satellite communications system, similar to the U.S. military’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system. This X-Band satellite project is being led by Aselsan that has completed a critical design review of the system’s ground segment and is conducting the pre-design review of the satellite;
- The Turkish military is also looking to migrate a number of other military functions to space, such as ballistic missile early warning and environmental monitoring satellites.
Certainly the Turkish military understands the strategic benefits of space power, with one spokesman from the Turkish General Staff stating to Jane’s Defence Weekly that the Göktürk reconnaissance satellites allow Turkish military intelligence to operate without being “restricted by geographical boundaries,” a clear reference to how space power can enhance and extend the strategic depth of its user if used in an integrated manner.
What is less certain in Turkey’s post-attempted coup political atmosphere is whether it has the human capacity available to actually fulfill its civil and military space ambitions.