Does Turkey really have the most powerful military in the wider Middle East?
The Turkish military was ranked the 11th most powerful in the world and the strongest in the entire Middle East on the 2023 Global Firepower list. The latest ranking is noteworthy since Egypt has narrowly beaten Turkey on this list in previous years. But how accurate is this ranking overall? Does Turkey truly possess the most powerful military in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region?
“Regardless of what the ranking is saying about Turkey or any other country, many experts have been criticizing the website for not being so scientific in its methods to determine which country is more powerful than the other and depending on what and how,” Dr. Ali Bakir, a Turkey-expert at Ibn Khaldon Center and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Gercek News. “The measurement of power has always been a problematic issue for scholars and experts, especially when it is tied to the ability to achieve the end goals of this power.”
On its website, Global Firepower says it uses “60 individual factors” for determining each country’s military strength “with categories ranging from quantity of military units and financial standing to logistical capabilities and geography.”
Despite criticism about that methodology, Bakir agrees that Turkey does indeed possess “the most powerful military in the region and one of the most powerful militaries in the world.”
He also outlined a number of factors that weigh in the Turkish military’s favor when compared and contrasted with its Egyptian counterpart.
“In comparison with Egypt, the Turkish military has a historical tradition. It is a very professional army that enjoys the highest military education, training, and equipment standards,” he said. “More importantly, the Turkish army has been increasing its capacity to depend on the country's indigenous defense industry rather than completely relying on importing weapons.”
“Being the descent of the Ottoman army, the Turkish army emerged from the independence wars with several major military victories and continues to have successes in countering different kinds of threats along Turkey's borders and in remote theaters in the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus, and elsewhere,” he added.
Bakir also said that the Egyptian army’s “deep involvement” in the country’s internal politics and business “has corrupted it and made it much less efficient than it looks.”
“Moreover, Egypt is highly dependent on weapons imports, and the Egyptian army's training models undermine the soldiers' morale,” he said. “With probably one exception, Egypt's army has never emerged victorious on the battlefield.”
“This is not to say Egyptians do not have good soldiers,” he added. “However, the military equipment can’t substitute the soldiers who obviously do not have the will to fight on behalf of their generals, resting in five-star resorts and enjoying super wealth out of business.”
Nicholas Heras, director of the Strategy and Innovation Unit at the New Lines Institute, pointed out that Turkey has a large military organized in accordance with NATO principles that regularly participates in NATO exercises and training.
“The Turkish military, through NATO, receives some of the best military exercise on Earth, and Turkish forces have also been active in several battle spaces in Turkey's near abroad including Iraq, Libya, and Syria, further improving Turkish force capabilities,” Heras told Gercek News.
Nevertheless, in contrast to Bakir, Heras does not agree that Turkey’s military is the most powerful in the region.
“Turkey does not have nuclear weapons, or the advanced cyber and surveillance capabilities that Israel has, which is why, although a larger force, Turkey cannot be considered the most powerful military in the Middle East,” he said.
On the other hand, he pointed out that Ankara has a large defense industry and many other capabilities that make it a contender for such a position.
“It has rugged military capabilities especially now with drones and a shift to platforms like drone carriers to extend Turkish power in the Mediterranean and beyond,” he said. “And it has SADAT, a quasi-state private military company that extends Turkey's expeditionary capabilities abroad.”
One of the flashpoints analyzed by the Global Firepower is ‘Greece vs Turkey’, which is unsurprising given continued tensions between the two NATO member states. According to the analysis, Turkey outguns and outperforms its Hellenic rival in all categories, from air and manpower to logistics and geography. This would seemingly suggest that the Turkish armed forces could essentially steamroll Greece in the event of a war.
“Indeed the Turkish army is much bigger, better trained, equipped, and experienced compared to the Greek army,” Bakir said. “Although numerical comparisons tend to oversimplify the complex situation, previous recent and historical encounters between Turkey and Greece proved that Ankara would have the upper hand in any hypothetical military confrontation in the future.”
“This is one reason why some western countries have been beefing Greece with advanced military equipment to ensure that Athens has a technological edge over Ankara,” he added. “However, by doing so, they risk emboldening Greece and forcing it to miscalculate its position versus Turkey.”
Heras noted that in any hypothetical Turkish-Greek conflict, Turkey’s goal would be to seize islands in the Aegean Sea and establish beachheads to make them resilient against any Greek counterattack.
“A wider war against Greece would not likely be feasible for Turkey, because of the geopolitical consequences on Turkey, such as being kicked out of NATO and likely devastating sanctions,” he said. “Greece also has long-range strike capabilities that could cause significant damage to Istanbul and Ankara, as a type of mutually assured destruction against Turkey.”
“The Greek military is now also actively training with U.S. military forces, which is a big deterrent to Turkey.”
*Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about the political and military affairs and history of the Middle East.