Contextualizing Erdogan’s ballistic missile comment

As Turkish missile capability increases, Erdogan’s rhetoric aimed at NATO neighbor Greece causes concern

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed that Turkey will further increase the range of its ballistic missiles amidst his increasingly incendiary rhetoric against Greece.

“Currently, the range of our missile is 565 kilometers (350 miles). It’s not enough, we’re going to increase it to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles),” he declared on Jan. 14.

Erdogan made the remark after declaring that Turkey’s recent tests of ballistic missiles are “scaring” Turkey’s neighbor and fellow NATO member state.

“Tests are being carried out from Izmir, and a missile that might be launched from there begins to scare them,” he said. “I say, ‘O Greek, we have no business with you as long as you behave yourself. Just behave yourself.’”

On Jan. 20, the Turkish president issued a stern warning to Greece’s prime minister Kyiakos Mitsotakis.

“Look Mitsotakis, you are talking about things in public again,” he said. “Know this well, if you dare make a mistake, the crazy Turks will come marching, keep it in mind.”

While Erdogan’s threatening rhetoric is alarming in and of itself, it comes as Turkey is making discernible progress in its ballistic missile program.

On Oct. 18, Turkey test-fired the secretive Tayfun short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) over the Black Sea, demonstrating its 565 km range. The testing was significant since it showed that Turkey has been developing an SRBM with twice the range of the Bora-1 SRBM it unveiled in 2017.

The Tayfun is also the first known SRBM Turkey has developed with a range exceeding the recommended limits outlined by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal political agreement of which Turkey has been a part since 1997. The MTCR advises its members against exporting military drones or missiles with payloads exceeding 500 kilograms and ranges over 300 kilometers (190 miles). With its maximum range of 280 km (173 miles), the Bora-1 conforms to these limits. That’s one likely reason the recent sale of its export version, the Khan missile, to Indonesia hasn’t raised eyebrows.

Greek social media promptly noted that the Tayfun could potentially strike Athens in the event of a war. Instead of assuaging such concerns and affirming that Turkey has no intentions of ever firing missiles into a fellow NATO state, Erdogan, on Dec. 11, did not rule out that possibility.

“(The Greeks) say ‘It can hit Athens,’” he told a town hall meeting. “Of course it will. If you don’t stay calm, if you try to buy things from the United States and other places (to arm) the islands, a country like Turkey … has to do something.”

While the rhetoric is concerning, Erdogan’s stated goal of developing a 1,000 km SRBM is relatively modest compared to past proposals.

An in-depth 2017 academic paper on Turkey’s missile program began by maintaining that “the optimum range bracket for Turkey’s ballistic missiles appears to be around 800 kilometers” (500) miles).

The authors arrived at that figure after assessing “geostrategic, technological, cost, and foreign policy considerations.” They later noted that “there seems to be few if any additional targets and benefits to be attained by extending the range of Turkish missiles beyond 750 km” (466 miles).

Furthermore, a whole decade before Erdogan declared Turkey’s plans to build a 1,000 km missile, he and other Turkish officials hinted at ambitions to develop a missile with a 2,500 km range!

There were likely political reasons behind this aspiration. The paper quoted then-Prime Minister Erdogan in late 2011 making a case for developing a missile with a range exceeding 2,000 km to compete against Iran and its Sejjil ballistic missiles, which have a purported range of 2,000-2,510 km (1,200-1,560 miles).

“Our neighbor Iran has built missiles with ranges of 2,000-2,200 kilometers,” he said at the time. “During the meeting of the YAS (Supreme Military Board), I’ve asked the commanders the range of our own missiles. They told me 150 kilometers. This is utterly unacceptable. We have to develop what our next door neighbor Iran has got already.”

Last February, Iran unveiled the Kheibar Shekan (Castle Buster) solid fuel missile, which it claims can accurately hit targets from 1,450 km (900 miles) away. Further east, Turkey’s ally Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, possesses the Shaheen-III ballistic missile, which has a 2,750 km (1,700 miles) range.

In that context, Erdogan’s goal of developing a missile with a range of 1,000 km hardly seems all that noteworthy. It may even be deemed conservative in light of what he advocated for a decade ago.

What is neither conservative nor responsible, on the other hand, is Erdogan’s willingness to brandish Turkey’s ballistic missiles against his neighbor, which is alarming regardless of their range.

*Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about the political and military affairs and history of the Middle East.

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