Conscription Reform and the Future of Military Manpower in Turkey

By Onur Kara

12 February 2019

A Turkish soldiers stands guard in Anıtkabir, Ankara.(Photo credit: Wojciech Olkusnik)


The military draft is making headlines again following several decades in decline. France seeks to re-introduce the national service and several gulf Arab states went ahead with implementing conscription despite their relatively small populations. Even Tunisia, known for maintaining a modest army, had a debate about making the military more attractive to its youth.

Turkish security bureaucracy, however, spent a good portion of 2018 working on a paid conscription exemption — a one-off payment of 15,000 Turkish Liras (roughly £2000 at the time of writing), for which people born before 1994 are eligible. This ‘exemption’ allows the reduction of military service to 21 days of mostly symbolic training instead of a 6-month minimum. The response was overwhelming; over 600,000 people applied by the time the government closed applications in November 2018. It also revealed that the Turkish military has a severe recruitment problem which remained under the radar, highlighting the strenuous interaction between politicians and the army.

Military service is a politically sensitive topic in Turkey. Military service exemptions were a talking point for many political figures before the July 2018 elections, while one analyst argued that the paid exemption supporters constituted the best organised lobby group in the country. They are very visible with their Twitter campaigns, supported by a dedicated association which attracts a wide following, constituting a large pool of voters with a very clear demand in mind.

Electoral politics, however, cover only one part of a larger story. Turkey’s defence and security establishment has been undergoing substantial change after the failed coup attempt in 2016, and the defence doctrine is not exempt from it. The manpower policy in particular is due to change, which feeds the second largest land army in NATO and one the strongest in its region. In a topic where available literature is a thin and anecdotal evidence is the norm, the issue of military service buyouts provides some insight.

Turkey’s conscription model is universal. It is not possible to opt for civilian service, or opt out due to religious or family reasons. Conscientious objection is not recognised, which often means a long legal struggle for objectors. The only practical way of total exemption is (apart from dropping the citizenship altogether) a medical discharge. All other methods result in deferrals, which does not remove the obligation and there is no cut-off point where the state stops tracking one’s military service status.

The key issue is that the manpower policy of the military no longer corresponds to the needs of the nation. Prime Minister Yıldırım announced that 5.5 million people still carried the military obligation in 2018, which denotes all men of the military age who still need to go through their military service. He also stated that the required force level of the army was 350,000. In a country of 80 million people with a large youth population, it means processing a very high amount of young men every year. The bureaucracy of enlistment and discharging previous cohorts alone causes several months’ gap between one’s application to enlist and the start of the actual service. So, 600,000 applications for the November 2018 exemption suddenly clogged the system, causing the government to announce a mobilisation-demobilisation schedule stretching to January 2020.

In June 2018, President Erdogan announced a commitment to a more professional and high-tech military as the paid exemption was being launched. The structure of the military has already changed considerably in the last years; the army no longer uses conscripts in most combat units, and the Gendarmerie declared that it will stop enlisting conscripted troops altogether after 2019. The Gendarmerie alone employs around 120,000 drafted personnel, which presents a substantial challenge on its own. Hence, a conscript today is unlikely to see combat, and the military experience remains limited to support roles.

How further professionalisation will be achieved, however, is still in question. The government is unlikely to abolish the military service altogether. Political cost of such a step is very high in an environment where nationalism is on the rise, and the armed forces itself could disagree. Stopgap measures in the past also proved themselves to be problematic: there were several cases in the 2000s where the army pushed for further professionalisation, especially for enlisted men ad NCOs. These were much less successful than anticipated and the armed forces usually could not recruit as many candidates as they wanted.

As a result, the military service became increasingly filled with variations and exceptions: differences between university graduates and non-diploma holders, special rules for dual-citizenship holders and Turks living abroad, and so on. The practice of paid exemptions contributes to this pattern while not finding a solution to the underlying structural issues. It also raises moral questions since those with the wherewithal end up not serving.

The armed forces themselves are aware of these problems. Hulusi Akar, the Minister of National Defence, recently made a statement declaring that the military service is to be reformed — which will unify the currently fractured system into a single training program where educational attainment and employment status will not make a difference. Such a reform would help alleviate the sense of injustice coming from the current system; however, it also requires the coordination of several government ministries.

Any concrete proposals for military service reform will become clearer after the local elections scheduled for March 2019. The manpower policy of the Turkish army is evolving as the society changes and the security policy evolves towards favouring a different kind of force structure. The end result is likely to be a form of compromise between the civilians and the military, which hopefully won’t be the worst of both worlds.

Onur Kara is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. You can follow him on Twitter @on_kara

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