Mandatory military service up for debate in Turkey


With threats to national security diminishing, Turkey’s maintaining of the largest military in NATO after the United States has come under question. But proposals for a smaller, more streamlined force relying less on conscripts have the military
defending the current mandatory-service system, and young men wondering how to plan for their futures

 DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ
DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ

With the government seeking peaceful resolutions to domestic and international conflicts, the large size of Turkey’s military – and the mandatory conscription system that feeds it – has come once again into question.
“Armies throughout the world are getting smaller and more flexible. Formed by professional soldiers, they are increasingly becoming reliant on high technology,” Sedat Laçiner, coordinator of the International Strategic Research Organization, a Turkish think tank, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
“The Turkish army is large, but large size does not make armies more powerful,” Laçiner said. “On the contrary, big armies are slower.”
Turkey currently maintains a standing army of more than 600,000 troops, the largest military of any NATO member after the United States. The country spends nearly $19 billion for defense annually, about 2 percent of its gross domestic product.
Though the military has resisted any call to reduce the size of its forces, Ankara is making a number of moves that would seem to make such a large armed force unnecessary. In one of the most significant security reviews since the Cold War, the National Security Council, or MGK, looks set to remove Russia, Iran, Iraq and Greece from a list of countries considered threats to national security. And the government’s efforts to end the decades-long Kurdish problem – including holding talks with a pro-Kurdish party, the United States and Iraqi Kurds – have many commentators suggesting Ankara has never been this close to a solution.
Amid these diminishing threats to national security, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is mulling changes that would radically increase the number of professional soldiers in the army and endorse a “paid military service” system for perhaps hundreds of thousands of potential conscripts.
Currently, all Turkish men over the age of 20 are eligible for mandatory military service and the army includes some 450,000 conscripts. Under a paid military system, a man who pays approximately 10,000 Turkish Liras would be required to undergo just one month of basic military training. The military is cold to this option, saying it would result in a lack of manpower. The debate is leaving many young men unsure how to plan for the rest of their lives.
“I don’t know what to do. Should I dodge the military service in December, and wait until at least April? What are the chances of legislation passing soon by Parliament for paid military service?” asked one young musician, a newly married university graduate in Ankara. He is just one of hundreds of thousands in a similar situation.
Currently, there are several options or possibilities for conscripts: A university graduate may do his military service as a reserve officer, with the rank of third lieutenant, for 12 months. Or he may do it for six months, as a foot soldier. Members of “valuable” professions, including medical doctors, carry out their military service as reserve officers, while non-university graduates generally serve five months as foot soldiers, starting out as privates and ending at a rank no higher than corporal or sergeant.
Professional soldiers fall into three different categories: full officers, non-commissioned officers and professional specialist sergeants. Officers and non-commissioned officers serve for at least 15 years before they have the right to retire. According to retired Maj. Gen. Arma?an Kulo?lu, between one-fifth and one-fourth of the Turkish military is currently made up of professional soldiers.
Debate over ‘unified’ system
Mandatory military service has long been a point of contention, with supporters of the practice arguing, among other things, that the military provides education and opportunities to the poor and illiterate. Some opponents, on the other hand, argue that the army, with its extreme emphasis on discipline and obeying instructions, seeks to impose military order on civilian life.
Military service is, of course, a risky business. Thousands of troops have been killed, mostly in southeastern and eastern Turkey, while fighting terrorists from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Hundreds of soldiers die each year in accidents, during maneuvers and elsewhere, or as a result of suicides.
Who faces the worst risks, and for how long, is among the factors in the current debate about potentially revamping the military-service system.
Some in the military and elsewhere support a mostly shorter and “unified” system for all conscripts, university graduates or not. “A unified [equal-term] military service would be better, since it is not fair for men to serve in similar posts for different durations just because they have different levels of education,” retired Maj. Gen. Kulo?lu said. “People are equal in many issues, but they are not if we are talking about military service.”
Others oppose unified service, saying it would not be fair if a man with a Ph.D. had to serve for the same amount of time as an illiterate man.
Analysts say a fully professional force of around 300,000 troops would meet Turkey’s national-security requirements, but the military says the huge cost of wages would make this option infeasible.
Kulo?lu opposes paid military service. “Vying for the sympathy of voters, politicians raise the issue of paid military service. However, paid military service will adversely affect the motivation of soldiers, because only those who have money won’t serve,” he says. “In addition, there is a lack of source [of potential conscripts] due to a decreased rate of males born between 1988 and 1996.”
One thing all sides can agree on, however, is that the Turkish military needs to be made more efficient. “The Turkish army should be more technology-oriented. Specialization is a must for the army,” said Laçiner.
Kulo?lu has proposed an increase in the number of helicopter-borne units to provide better efficiency and flexibility.
The U.S. military, the strongest and one of the largest in the world, is fully professional. Most Western militaries are either fully or largely professional, and many European nations, including Germany, offer public civilian service as an option in place of military service. Rejection of military service is illegal in Turkey, and dodgers face jail terms.
The Russian army, one of the largest in the world, has both conscripts and professional units, but generally is considered dysfunctional, with desertion rates higher than 25 percent.

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