Turkey's Nuclear Aspirations

Does Turkey's civilian nuclear program constitute a cover for the development of a military program – as was the case in Iran? A review of Turkey's investment in its defense industry, space industry, civilian nuclear projects and missile technology, along with its aspirations for regional hegemony, raises some tough questions. Exclusive article

Turkey's Nuclear Aspirations

While the negotiations between the western superpowers and Iran regarding the latter's nuclear capabilities are approaching the finishing point, it has become clear to all of Iran's neighbors that Iran will probably remain a nuclear threshold state. In other words, at best – it will be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon within a year of deciding to do so, and at worst – within a few months. This reality changes the strategic balance in the region, and such powerful countries as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey have already taken steps toward the acquisition of nuclear knowledge and technology.

Turkey joined NATO in 1952, and since 1959 the USA has kept nuclear weapons there, in different configurations, in order to deter the USSR (currently Russia). Until 1963, the US arsenal consisted of Jupiter missiles and at a later date of B61 type nuclear bombs. In the 1980s there were around 500 US nuclear warheads in Turkey, out of which 300 were bombs carried by aircraft. These bombs (up to 200 kilotons) were intended for four Turkish F-4, F-104 and F-100 squadrons deployed in the following airbases: Erhac, Murted, Eskisehir and Balikesir.

The current US arsenal in Turkey consists of upgraded bombs of the same type, having a maximum energy output of 340 kilotons, depending on the specific configuration. None of the aircraft in Turkey, with the exception of the F-16, are able to carry the B61 type nuclear bombs that are used by the Americans. Turkey wants to acquire F-35 fighters which, as estimated, will be adapted to carrying these bombs.

In 1969 Turkey signed the NPT (the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons/Technology). In 1982, it reaffirmed the Treaty. Turkey also signed the BTWC (The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention) and CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention). Moreover, "official" Turkey opposes the nuclear arming of the Middle East to this day, and attempts to promote the demilitarization of nuclear weapons.

Over the years, Turkey has aspired to develop a civilian nuclear program for the supply of electrical power. Turkey imports most of its energy in the form of fuels and gas, and nuclear energy could provide this country with energy independence. This is the point where concerns regarding a possible military program emerge. A 2014 report on a German website, based on estimates by the German intelligence service, claimed that Turkey was adopting the Iranian model – a civilian nuclear program on the surface, with a military program underneath it, quite literally.

The Turkish Atomic Energy Commission (TAEC) was established in 1956 for the purpose of engaging in the development of nuclear reactors for the supply of electricity and for research purposes. In 1961, Turkey's first nuclear research center (CNRTC – Cekmece Nuclear Research & Training Center) was established. A year later, a 1-megawatt reactor was built at the center. In 1966, a second research center, ANRTC, (Ankara Nuclear Research & Training Center) was established. Both research centers worked on a program that involved the establishment of a heavy water based nuclear reactor with an output of 300-400 megawatts. This program never materialized. Later programs involved the establishment of reactors at Akkuyu Bay and Sinop.

All of these programs were halted following the military coup in Turkey in 1980. After the coup, the USA raised suspicions that Turkey was helping Pakistan acquire nuclear know-how. At that time, NATO had stopped the Pakistani uranium enrichment program, and the latter turned to Turkey for assistance. Suspicions were voiced by the USA to the effect that Turkey was providing Pakistan with nuclear materials that had the potential of being developed for use in nuclear weapons. The USA even suspected that Turkey was helping Pakistan enrich uranium. At the same time, Greece, too, accused Turkey of developing nuclear weapons.

In 1982, a Nuclear Energy Authority was established in Turkey. In 1983, Turkey initiated a renewed effort toward the establishment of an energy reactor. The idea was to have three reactors built according to the BOT model with the foreign contractor operating the reactor over a period of 15 years. However, this effort never materialized, for various reasons, notably the concerns of western countries that Turkey would use these reactors to develop nuclear weapons.

In the late 1980s, concerns about the possibility that Turkey was developing nuclear weapons increased owing to the nuclear cooperation agreement Turkey had signed with Argentina in 1988. Turkey intended to purchase an Argos PWR type reactor developed in Argentina, in the previous year. Both countries were looking into other activities, including the mining of uranium and reactors for the production of nuclear fuel. Argentina's objective was to use Turkey as a model client with the intention of marketing reactors of that type in our region. Turkey, for its part, wanted to acquire from Argentina another reactor – type CAREM-25.

CAREM-25 was a 25-megawatt reactor regarded as "too small to produce energy and too large for research purposes, but suitable for the production of plutonium", as a senior Turkish official stated at the time. According to the agreement, Turkey should have financed two such reactors, one to be erected in Turkey and the other in Argentina. In this case, too, the USA was concerned about Turkey selling the technology to Pakistan.

In the early 1990s, with the dissolution of the USSR, suspicions began to surface that Turkey was interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear technology from former USSR republics. It should be noted that Turkey has its own deposits of uranium and thorium, so raw materials are not a restriction with regard to the development of a Turkish nuclear program.

Alongside the concerns about a possible nuclear program, world experts were also apprehensive about safety issues. Turkey is prone to earthquakes and the establishment of a nuclear reactor in such areas could lead to long-term catastrophic results. However, the concerns on both sides notwithstanding, the Turkish government promoted the energy producing nuclear project and in 2014 Turkey signed the first agreement with Russia for the development of a nuclear reactor in the Akkuyu area. Another agreement was subsequently signed with Japan for the construction of a second reactor in the Sinop area, to begin in 2017. Turkey also signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Jordan (Russia builds a nuclear reactor for Jordan, too).

Missile Program

The primary concern of western intelligence services was and has remained the connection between Turkey and Pakistan. The latter is a nuclear state possessing the capabilities to enrich uranium, develop warheads and attach them to missiles – In short, everything needed in order to plan, manufacture and implement a military nuclear program. According to 2012 a report on the "Hürriyet Daily News" website, Professor Yücel Altinbaak, then head of the Turkish technological institute TÜBITAK, stated that Erdogan had ordered, back in 2011, the development of a program involving missiles to a medium range of about 2,500 km. In one of his public appearances, Erdogan stated that he aspired even to an intercontinental range of 10,000 km. It should be noted that Turkey has been a member of the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) since 1997 and is also a signatory to the HCOC (Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation).

According to the NTI website, Turkey currently holds US-made type MGM-140A Block I missiles as well as locally-developed missiles designated J-600T Yildirim and Mark-II, based on a Chinese-made missile designated CSS-X-11. Turkey signed a technology transfer agreement with China in 1996, which included the manufacture of 200 missiles. The first trial, where a missile was fired to a range of 120 km, was conducted in 2001.

Current reports indicate that those missiles are now effective to a range of 300 km which Turkey wants to extend to 600 km and 1500 km. Turkey has developed several other short-range missile systems based on Chinese-made systems.

Turkey is also developing a cruise missile designated SOM to a range of 200 km which will be adapted to the F-35 fighter in the future. Turkey wants to extend the range of this missile to 600 km. In 1997, Turkey negotiated with Israel regarding the joint development of a Turkish-made Arrow missile system, but the Americans refused to transfer the technology to the Turks. At some point, the Israelis sobered up and the project was discontinued. Erdogan also wants to build two bases for the testing of missiles of various types, one in the town of Sinop and the other near the town of Aksaray, probably for the benefit of experiments on the Turkish-made T-300 Kasirga MLRS system and on tactical range missiles.

The launching capability is also a cause for concern in the nuclear context. In 2013 the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Turkish company Roketsan, according to which the company will build a satellite launching center in Turkey, including a Turkish launching vehicle, to be operated by the Turkish Air Force. It is feared that Turkey will use this center for the purpose of developing ballistic missiles to a medium range of 2500 km as well as missiles to longer ranges. Last April, Turkey signed a cooperation agreement with the Ukroboronprom Company of the Ukraine, for the development of space and missile technologies, among other things.

Another element of the Turkish program is an air-defense system. This project has been ongoing for many years. The Turks had already finalized a deal with the Chinese for the purchase of and FD-2000/HQ-9 system, then backed away and closed the deal once again. The saga around the air-defense system is influenced significantly by geopolitical pressures with Russia, Europe, the USA and China all pulling the blanket in different directions. 

The Americans threatened that if the Turks purchased a Chinese-made system, Turkey will not be allowed to connect to that network. Turkey still does not have its own early warning capabilities, so the decision was delayed. 

If we set aside the politics around the sale, the Turks, for their part, insist on the technology transfer clause. As far as they are concerned, the purchase of a system of this type including the know-how could help the Turkish engineers narrow the gaps in missile technology – including offensive missiles.

Space Program

In many cases a space program and missile technology are indications that the state in question endeavors to acquire a military nuclear capability. In the context of space, Turkey became interested in military applications of satellites in the 1990s. In 2012, Turkey launched into orbit an optical surveillance satellite designated Göktürk-2. Last May, Turkey inaugurated a satellite development center managed by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). The center will be used for the testing of another optical surveillance satellite designated Göktürk-1, requisitioned from Italy and France (according to estimates, this satellite will produce black and white images with a 50 cm resolution).

On the agenda are a future SAR satellite designated Göktürk-3 and a communication satellite designated Turksat-6, manufactured exclusively by Turkey. At the same time, Turkey and Japan are developing the Turksat-4A and Turksat-B4 communication satellites, based on the DS2000 platform by Mitsubishi, which had established a Turkish company titled Mitsubishi Electric Turkey. Mitsubishi will manufacture the A5 satellite on Turkish soil. There are also joint plans for a Turksat-6A and a Turksat-7A. Turkey also plans to launch military communication satellites in the years 2023, 2026 and 2030, as well as a ballistic missile early warning satellite in 2025. Additional plans involve Turkish navigation satellites: Ankara wants to launch some 33 satellites of various types and acquire an independent launching capability by 2033.

Another indicator of the development of a military nuclear program involves the geopolitical aspirations of the country in question. Most of the world's countries do not develop nuclear weapons, so when a country aspires for such weapons, the reason for that aspiration should be determined. For some countries it may be the instinct of survival, for others, regarded as superpowers, it may involve games of deterrence played for the purpose of gaining political influence. For others still, the aspiration may be the result of fundamental religious ambitions. In the case of Turkey, it seems that it aspires for enhanced political influence in our region.

The concerns about the fact that Iran is probably on the way to a "legitimate" nuclear bomb are troubling for Turkey, which shares a border with Iran and competes with it for hegemony in the Middle East. Turkey attempts to enhance its influence by developing a military industry and possibly by developing nuclear weapons as well.

Until 2002, Turkey relied on foreign sources for the development of 80% of its military materiel. By 2015, this percentage has dropped to 45%, and the Turks aspire to reach complete independence in the field of military materiel by 2023, according to a statement made by Erdogan last May. The development of a military industry at such a rate reflects an aspiration for regional domination in accordance with the equation that the stronger a country is militarily, the stronger the influence it will have over the relations with other countries in the region.

Wolf or Sheep?

"Turkey truly needs nuclear energy for the benefit of energy production," explains Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies who specializes in Turkey's current foreign policy. "If you review the publications of the Turkish EDAM Institute, which is regarded as one of very few sources that cover this issue in Turkey, you will come to the conclusion that Turkey is not on the way to a nuclear bomb. At the same time, Erdogan had stated in the past that he reserves the right to enrich uranium. The concerns about the development of a civilian nuclear program are understandable, but one should also be concerned about safety problems at the nuclear reactor – not just about a military program. The answer to the question of whether Turkey is on the way to nuclear weapons depends on the beholder. No sufficient solid information is currently available to point either way."

Without a doubt, if one connects the activities of Turkey in the contexts of its military industry, space, missile technology, civilian nuclear power and Turkey's perception, according to which it still regards itself as a superpower, one can reach the conclusion that Ankara probably aspires for the development of nuclear weapons. Possessing such weapons will get Turkey accepted to the exclusive club of countries whose members influence global politics. It seems that the USA, Europe and Israel, Erdogan's religious radicalization and the indications on the ground notwithstanding, are not investing any particular intelligence collection effort in this context. With the exception of German intelligence, which throws the occasional clues into the air, all of the other countries, including Israel, remain quiet. 

Tal Inbar contributed to this article.

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