Turkish Army Halts Multi Billion Dollar Modernization Projects

ISTANBUL (Reuters)–Turkey’s powerful military said on April 11–that it had postponed 32 spending projects worth $19.5 billion in an effort to ease a financial crisis that has slashed the lira’s value by almost half.

The military–NATO’s second largest–has plans to spend billions of dollars on modernization–including purchasing 1,000 tanks and 145 attack helicopters over the coming decade. Critics had called such plans profligate at a time of economic crisis that had gutted an IMF-backed economic reform program and forced many businesses to the wall. Turkey now seeks cash from foreign lenders and there have been unconfirmed reports that the IMF has asked for defense cutbacks before it will lend.

"The Turkish Armed Forces have decided after reassessment–to postpone 32 military projects in the short–medium and long term," said the statement by the General Staff.

The decision to delay the plans follows a Greek move to postpone the purchase of 60 Typhoon fighter jets from the Eurofighter consortium. Relations between traditional rivals Turkey and Greece have improved in recent years–and the two recently agreed to work to remove landmines along their common border. "These cuts have been made keeping in mind all of Turkey’s security considerations," the statement said.

Surveys have long shown Turkey’s armed forces as the country’s most trusted institution in a political landscape most see as riddled with corruption and influence-peddling. They have staged coups against civilian governmen’s three times since 1960 and it was their behind-the-scenes pressure that forced the downfall of an Islamist-led government in 1997. Analysts suggested that maintaining the military’s moral prestige over civilian politicians now facing angry street protests–was a major factor in the belt-tightening move.

"There are many things (behind this)–including the easing of tension with Greece–but for the armed forces the most important thing is their standing in the eyes of the people," Mehmet Ali Kislali–a writer on military affairs noted. "Of course–their prime concern is defense but now they can say to the people–’Look–the soldier is making bigger sacrifices,’" he said.

After Turkey’s crisis bit in mid-March the military released a statement saying that it had reduced its share of the budget to 10.6 percent in 2001 from 18 percent in 1985. Observers say exact expenditure is unclear because of extra-budgetary funds. The military statement made clear that there would be no weakening of Turkey’s ability to defend itself.

"The Turkish armed forces…will continue on the one hand to pursue the modern systems our times require and make the largest savings possible without risking the security and independence of the exalted Turkish nation," it said. The statement did not specify which projects would be postponed–but said the projects were part of the armed forces’ modernization program–which includes a thorough review of its aging tank and helicopter inventory.

Last year–Turkey put US firm Bell Textron at the top of its list for the attack helicopter tender–worth an estimated $4.5 billion with production of the first copter scheduled for the second half of 2003. The tank tender–part of a huge revision of the inventory over the coming 15 years–had been expected to cost some $8-10 billion. Firms from Germany–France–Italy and Ukraine are bidding for that contract. Turkey had also undertaken to buy 26 of a new transport plane–the A400M–being developed by the Airbus Military Company.

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