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Rapid Turkish military restructuring alarming

Aram Ekim DuranAugust 4, 2016

Turkey is going through fundamental changes in its military structure following the July 15 coup attempt. There are concerns that these new changes will further politicize the Turkish military.

Türkei Militärparade in Istanbul
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Kose

The Turkish military is going through a dramatic structural change. In the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government declared a state of emergency, which was immediately proceeded by significant changes in the structure of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). Turkey, a country that has gone through three military coups in recent history, faces the prospect of a military completely under civilian jurisdiction for the first time.

Among the most significant changes are the placement of Army, Navy and Air Force commands under the Ministry of Defense, authorizing the president and the prime minister to issue direct commands to the generals and increasing the number of civilian members of the Supreme Military Council to 10, while lowering the number of military members from 12 to four.

'Defense University' to be founded

The government announced that the closed war academies, military high schools and prep schools will be replaced by a military university, to be opened under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. However, the structure of the university and admittance process for students remains unclear. The prospect of religious imam high school graduates being admitted to war schools has garnered criticism from secular circles within the country.

Türkei Erdogan
Erdogan has consolidated power in Turkey following the failed coup on July 15Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/bjones

Professor Mesut Hakki Casin, a retired military officer lecturing in military schools on international relations and international law for the last 16 years, emphasized that the Turkish military, just like its German, Russian and Japanese counterparts, has a traditional military-nation spirit and structure. Casin said that after discussing the issue with many of his high ranking colleagues, they share the concern that these changes could weaken the general chief of staff structure and could pave the way for the further politicization of the military.

Casin noted that the military high schools produced the military leaders that conducted the Balkans War and Turkish War of Independence. "I don't think it is a correct move to shut military high schools down," he said. "These schools do not only provide military education. Smart kids from Anatolia receive engineering and medical education in these schools. These schools are an integral part of the TAF. Furthermore, they have partnerships with the NATO Defense College and British Staff School. It is unacceptable that they will be excluded from NATO force directives and the educational framework."

'A lapse in security may occur'

Doctor Nihat Ali Ozcan, a former TAF member turned professor of International Relations at TOBB Economy and Technology University, also disagrees with the sudden closure of military high schools. According to Ozcan, transitioning to the new system is a "radical decision" which will create severe mid and long-term consequences regarding Turkey's security.

Ozcan said the new arrangement appears to be aimed at clearing old structures within the military rather than improving the TAF's security capability. "The quality of the education was based on the institutional qualifications rather than individual ones," Ozcan said. "From now on, the system will depend on qualified instructors and qualified students. But if one looks at the Turkish society as a whole, this will not be as easy."

He added that mass discharges from TAF and newly redesigned military-civilian and military-police relations will further weaken the TAF's security capabilities. "Restructuring of the TAF can't happen just by simply saying ‘you are now under the jurisdiction of the Ministry,'" Ozcan said. "The Ministry of Defense doesn't even have a sufficient number of experts in the field. One may place the chiefs of staff under the ministry structure, but they would need a headquarters, a place to meet. The ministry can't serve as a headquarters. It is not designed to serve as such. It will take at least five years for things to settle."

Türkei Irak türkischer Soldat an der Grenze
Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO behind the United StatesImage: picture-alliance/epa

149 generals discharged

According to a report published on the Turkish General Staff website on July 1, the Turkish military consisted of 518,000 military and more than 50,000 civilian personnel, 408,000 of whom make up the Army, Navy and the Air Force. With these figures, Turkish Military is regarded as the world's eighth and NATO's second largest army following the United States.

After July 15, the government placed the 200,000 strong Gendarmerie Force and the 6,000 strong Coast Guard directly under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior. Furthermore, on July 27, 149 generals and admirals, 1,099 officers and 436 petty officers were discharged from the military. Nearly one half of the 325 generals in the Turkish military were discharged for their alleged involvement with the failed coup.

Most recent graduates will not become soldiers

As a result of the new legislation, four military high schools - two in Istanbul, one in Izmir and one in Bursa - were shut down.

Nearly 4,000 students attending these schools will graduate on August 30, but they will not be granted officer or petty officer status. They will be issued diplomas from appropriate universities based on the grades they scored in the year university entrance exams were conducted.

Turkey's military high schools, founded in 1789 under the name Harbiye-i Umumiye by the Ottoman Sultan Selim III, and war academies, founded in 1848 by Sultan Abdulmecid, provide graduate level education to the Turkish armed forces.