Turkish military purges decimate career officer, pilot ranks

Gurcan, Al Monitor, May 29, 2018

impending dismissal of another 3,000 Turkish soldiers suspected of disloyalty
is raising concerns about military readiness. 
Bektas. Turkish soldiers help guards of honor get ready for a welcome ceremony
at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, Aug. 5, 2016.

Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are gearing up for a new round of purges, even
as they struggle to recover from the initial culling that followed the failed
coup of July 2016.

Minister Nurettin
announced April 18 that a secret cell of 3,000 officers and
noncommissioned officers (NCOs) affiliated with alleged coup mastermind
Fethullah Gulen, a Sunni cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in
Pennsylvania, had been identified. All of them, he promised, would be
As of May
18, some 550 officers and NCOs had already been arrested. According to
government investigators, senior leaders of the so-called Fethullah Gulen
Terror Organization (FETO), a term Ankara uses to refer to Gulen followers,
have switched to using land
at markets, kiosks and cafes to avoid detection as they
communicate with plants inside the military.
insist that despite the purging of some 10,000 suspected Gulenists in the
immediate aftermath of the coup, the group retains a strong presence in the
military and is trying to reorganize. The accusations, however, are raising new
concerns about FETO’s alleged capacity to burrow into Turkey’s military
structure — as well as the armed forces’ ability to cope with a new round
of forced departures.
Ankara is
tight-lipped about the impact of the purges as it ramps up military operations
against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its affiliates in
Turkey, Iraq and Syria. But an analysis of government data by Al-Monitor points
to worrisome shortages of generals and staff officers as well as elite
operators including pilots and Special Forces troops that could be exacerbated
by a new round of purges.
The most
recent publicly available snapshot of the Turkish military
was published in February 2017, after the initial round of purges that began on
July 27, 2016. Comparison with figures from March 2016, before the coup
attempt, shows a 40% reduction in the number of generals — from 325 to 201
across the army, air force and navy — and a 20% reduction in
commissioned officers, from 32,451 to 25,728.
The dismissal
of almost 1,400 staff officers (77% of the total) and the abolition of the
staff officer system in August 2016 indicates that the officer corps was a
prime target for FETO as it sought to gain influence. Staff officers are the
most educated and privileged group in the officer corps, and are usually
assigned to critical posts at headquarters and given priority in the selection
of missions abroad.
numbers do not include the gendarmerie and the coast guard, which have since
been detached from the military command and attached to the Ministry of
Interior. Since February 2017, military academies and officer schools have
continued to graduate students, with the number of officers now reaching about
27,000 and the NCOs totaling about 67,000. Despite these new additions,
however, the totals remain below pre-coup strengths.
into the makeup of the purged forces as of January 2018 offers additional
The most
affected group by the purges has been the commanding elite. Out of the 325
generals and admirals in the Turkish army, navy and air force, almost half
(150) have been discharged. Among them were two four-star generals, nine
lieutenant generals, 30 major generals and vice admirals, and 126 brigadier
generals and rear admirals. In all, nearly 44% of army generals, 42% of air
force generals and 58% of admirals were formally discharged. An additional 586
colonels were forced to retire by the Supreme Military Council on Aug. 23,
The most
affected officer group are air force combat pilots. The Turkish Air
Force (TAF) had almost two pilots for each of the 320 combat
planes — including 240 F-16s — before the coup, but the
dismissal of 280 pilots reduced that ratio to less than one pilot per aircraft
as of September 2017. (The air force also operates 90 transport planes, seven
tankers and 105 training planes.) With 400 combat-ready pilots now
back on the roster, the ratio is back up to 1.2, but getting back into pre-coup
fighting form may take up to three more years of recruitment.
The army’s
helicopter pilots are in a similar state; about 40 of them have been dismissed.
The downsizing has meant a much heavier workload for serving air force and army
aviation pilots, who are stretched thin fighting the PKK, patrolling Turkish
airspace and conducting cross-border operations. Faster rotation periods,
heavier workloads and increased fatigue and stress are the first consequences
of the lower pilot-to-aircraft ratio.
Forces units such as the navy’s Underwater Assault Unit and the air force
Combat Search and Rescue personnel have also suffered a disproportionate number
of dismissals. Many of the elite units’ battalion and team commanders were
arrested and dismissed from service on charges of participating in the
uprising. Similarly, there have been reports of dismissals of numerous
helicopter pilots and other officers and NCOs serving in the TAF’s elite search
and rescue teams.

purges suggest a very focused and deliberate recruitment effort by the
Gulenists. The group apparently first sought to gain a foothold in the armed
forces’ personnel management system to control promotions and appointments.
From there, FETO seems to have targeted the staff officer system in order to
infiltrate headquarters; pilots and special operation unit commanders to
control the critical military cadres directly related to operational
effectiveness; and the military intelligence, judicial and health systems
to promote its hidden agenda. As such, purging the upper echelons of the
military makes more sense than going after rank-and-file soldiers.

To make
up for shortages, the TSK have been attempting to recruit directly from
civilian sources. Naturally filling the ranks too quickly with civilians raises
concerns about quality, discipline, professionalism and esprit de corps within
the military. In addition, hundreds of military personnel who have only been
suspended are waiting the outcome of investigations, another factor making the
personnel deficiency harder to manage.
In the
army, most of the purges are from the general staff and service command
headquarters in Ankara, and from corps and brigades in Istanbul and Ankara, as
those were the ones that overwhelmingly participated in the July 15 uprising.
The Second Army Command in Malatya, which is responsible for combating
terrorism in the southeast, and soldiers who served in Turkish operations
in Syria have been the least affected so far, with a high probability of being
purged later. This speaks to the government’s pragmatic approach to
de-Gulenification of the military. Today, about 20 brigades of the
Second Army Command are operationally active with new commanders.
The navy
has been the least affected service command; most of its dismissals have been
from the command offices in Ankara or personnel serving in rear headquarters.
As for
the air force, although it seems to be coping with the effects of the
dismissals, most of its elite units will need at least three more years to
return to pre-coup levels.
After the
coup attempt, Turkey established a National Defense University attached to the
Ministry of Defense that offers both undergraduate and graduate programs
to fill the vacant slots. But these programs are far from adequate to provide
the intellectual capital, particularly at the graduate level, that the military
needs for its transformation.
two years since the coup attempt, the TSK have yet to fully recover.
One step
in the right direction is the English-language War Studies Master’s program
that will be offered starting this fall at the National Defense University
located in Istanbul’s Levent neighborhood.
Turkish military has recently been busy with counterterrorism operations
both inside Turkey and abroad, including with peacekeeping tasks in Afghanistan
and the Balkans, and force projection efforts in Qatar, Somalia, Sudan’s Suakin
Island and the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, its
institutions have been strained due to the hasty reforms and ongoing mass
purges since the coup.
other factors — including inconsistent political directives on military
reform, lack of civil-military integration, ambiguity concerning the status of
the Turkish General Staff, frictions between the General Staff and the Defense
Ministry, and Turkey’s ongoing transition from a parliamentary system to an
executive presidency — have aggravated the power struggles and the
intellectual capital deficiency within the military. Worse still, all of these
institutional challenges coincide with the never-ending crises between Turkey
and its Western allies, particularly the United States and NATO.
course, if Canikli follows through on his promise to discharge another
3,000 ranking soldiers, the TSK may find it that much harder to
establish a golden balance between de-Gulenification and operational