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Shrinking Armies

Day one, post two, and something interesting has happened already. The newly-appointed chief of the General Staff, General Yaşar Büyükanıt, has announced that the Turkish army is to shrink in size by up to 30 percent over the next eight years.

Speaking to the latest issue of the military’s Defence and Aviation (Savunma ve Havacılık) magazine, he said he wanted to reduce the number of employed staff and condense the land forces’ “structure of power”. NTVMSNBC quote him as saying that under his aptly-titled “Force 2014” plan, he wants to create an army that is small in quantity but modern in quality. The new force will, he says, be made up of modern weapons systems and brigades with high firepower.

This is an interesting announcement from the man poised to take over as head of one of the ten largest armies of the world. You don’t have to travel far in any part of Turkey to see a military outpost, a gendarme or at least one of those rectangular red signs outside a military zone that warn trespassers away. This omnipresence is easily explained by the fact that the army regards itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular system.

The role has won it much respect – the Turkish Armed Forces are probably held in higher esteem than any other organisation in the country – and the military knows this. It is for this reason that its notorious history of intervention in government has been regarded by many Turks as necessary, even welcome. Military interference has ranged over the years in degree from a few polite words in the defence minister’s ear to an all-out coup d’etat and suspension of party politics – although to its credit, whenever a coup did take place, efforts to restore democracy were launched immediately afterwards.

However, even the army could not completely avoid the unprecedented winds of change that have swept Turkey over the last few years. Two years ago, spending on the military – traditionally higher than any other branch of state – was cut for the first time into second place, behind education. The military’s influence has also been substantially reduced over the National Security Council, a body which The Economist once called a place “where military leaders barked orders”. There have been rumours of friction between soldier and statesman ever since; until his appointment two weeks ago, for instance, certain circles in Ankara were convinced that the government did not want General Büyükanıt to be the next chief of staff.

Büyükanıt’s restructuring programme is a clear indication that he would rather have a modern and efficient military force, rather than three quarters of a million men, at his disposal. It can also be interpreted as a response to changing times and changing circumstances – after all, the kitty is a little less full than it once was.

But it does also raise certain questions about compulsory military service, specifically, “What will happen to it?” As it stands, all Turkish men have to serve for eighteen months, or nine if they manage to get into university education first. There have been rumours of a gradual abolition of compulsory service; could this be an indication of things to come?