Non-Proliferation activists express concern as Turkey announces its Moon mission programme

New Delhi: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his extra-terrestrial ambitions by apprising the world about the country’s Moon mission programme. Turkey plans to land on the Moon in 2023 — the year marking the birth centenary of the country. The Turkish President, who made this announcement on February 9, also put forward the ambitious space programme of the country for the next ten years.

In an extravagant telecast over the state-owned media platforms, Erdogan said, “Our feet will be on the earth but our eyes will be in space. Our roots will be on Earth, our branches will be up in the sky.”

The development has come as a surprise for observers and space scientists as the Turkish Space Agency (TUA) was established merely in December 2018. Back then, Turkish lawmakers had criticized Erdogan for hurriedly establishing the agency through a presidential decree, without going through consultations and following prescribed legislative procedure.

Acutely lacking efficient workforce and technology, the Turkish government sought the help of private players in the market and the President had also telephoned SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk last month. With the technological support from the company, Turkey had launched a dual-purpose satellite — Turksat 5A from the US in the same month —a satellite that is to be used for both civilian as well as military purposes.

While announcing the space programme, Erdogan put forward two major objectives behind it. Besides landing on the Moon in 2023, a major goal of the programme was to create a ‘global brand’ that could ‘compete’ in the field of rocket science and space technologies.

A couple of observers whom Zee News spoke to argued that “This should be seen as targeted messaging by Erdogan to its arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and UAE, as well as to militants fighting in the MENA region. Through the statement, Erdogan made an explicit declaration to his rivals as well as business partners that Turkey was soon going to emerge as a powerful player in the proliferation technologies and would beat the regional players competing for dominance in the Muslim Ummah.”

An expert whom we spoke to put forward a worrying proposition related to the development. He emphasised the need of seeing this development as a part of emerging China-Pakistan-Turkey nexus in clandestine proliferation market. He explained, “The world is well aware of the fact that Pakistan has been developing its missiles on the basis of Chinese proliferation technologies. In fact, it just renames Chinese missiles and then exports them to Turkey. Besides acting as a medium of the transaction between China and Turkey, Pakistan has also been helping Turkey to acquire proliferation technologies. In the past few years, these three countries have accelerated the processes of co-productions, mediated by Pakistan. The launching of the ‘space programme’ indicates that it would be for the first time that Turkey would start working to domestically produce proliferation devices at a mass scale.”

Another expert working on the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Islamic world pointed towards a more concerning trend. He argued that the unfolding of developments that have taken place in the past sometimes coupled with the emerging pattern highlights that Turkey has now officially launched its ‘Caliphate missile’ programme. 

“Similar to the Turkish mercenaries fighting in different war-torn regions across the world, Erdogan might use the missile programme to blackmail his adversaries. Further, it can also act as a revenue generation mechanism for Erdogan to fund his Caliphate programme. However, the deadliest outcome of the mission could be the trading of proliferation devices to the terror outfits,” he further commented while expressing his apprehensions.

He expert further opined that “this can be seen as an outcome of the capacity building exercise carried out jointly by Pakistan and Turkey over the past few years, especially after 2018. The series of marathon visits by top Army generals and military delegations from the Pakistani Army to Turkey should not be seen as a mere coincidence”.

He also mentioned a couple of such meetings that include: the 15th Turkey-Pakistan High-Level Military Dialogue Group (HLMDG) held on 22-23 December 2020, the visit of Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad of Pakistani Army to Ankara for the Second Round of Turkish-Pakistani Military Talks on 21st December 2020, the meeting between Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Pakistani COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa in October 2020, and over half a dozen top-level meetings. 

He went on to highlight that these meetings were the need of the hour for both the countries as Turkey was entering into the final leg of launching its rocket and missile programme under the cover of the space mission. The last major milestone in launching the missile programme by Turkey was the announcement by government-owned missile manufacturer Roketsan on successfully launching a rocket in space in November 2020.

On the other hand, acting as a merchant for Pakistani missiles, Turkey has also helped Pakistan to sustain the debt crisis amidst deteriorating ties with Gulf countries. In this regard, a report by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution for the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, released in June 2020 had stressed that ‘bypass countries’ like Turkey and China could help countries like Pakistan and North Korea for selling their proliferation devices across the world.

Works of eminent proliferation experts suggest that as Turkey was way behind its adversaries in proliferation and aerial technologies, it made calculated moves and progressed step by step. As soon as Erdogan came to power, he launched a programme to make Turkey a world leader in the production of cheap and efficient drones. These drones have certainly provided a massive advantage to Turkey and its mercenaries in regions like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh, etc.

Geopolitical strategists have been highlighting that as a counter to the efficient space programme of the UAE, Erdogan has been desperate to launch satellites for recce and imagery of countries in the MENA region. Turkey has also previously launched a recce and communication satellite and is also working on developing a high-definition satellite called IMECE being planned to be launched in 2022.

A non-proliferation activist we spoke to argued that Turkey has been smartly exploiting the loopholes of regulatory regimes in the field of proliferation as well as space technologies. Besides getting the assistance from the Pakistani Army, Turkey has been relying on the services of private companies based out of NATO countries for building up the capacity as well as momentum for its rocket and space programmes.

These private players are eventually ending up helping Turkey in technology transfers and building its capabilities for indigenously producing rockets and proliferation devices. For example, The Turksat 5A is 20% indigenously built and has the capacity to cover up all the countries located in the Middle East, North Africa, and a greater part of the European Union region. It is unfortunate to note that Airbus Defence and Space Co. has helped Turkey to develop the Turksat 5A and 5B. These satellites were developed in Britain and France with the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). It is interesting to note that though Turkey developed its satellite in France, it is now threatening the same country through its air power and proliferation weapons, highlighting the unique designs of the Caliphate project.

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“This is largely also because of the fact that Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance, which gives it leverage in accessing dual-use technologies and entering into an alliance with private tech players without any hindrance. The entry of the industry giant – SpaceX is indeed not a pleasing development and shall worsen the situation, possibly fuelling a blind race of developing proliferation weapons all across the world,” a non-proliferation activist told Zee News.

Turkish media reports reveal that Erdogan has allocated 7,67,000 Liras ($108,000) to the Turkish space agency in the first half of 2020. To achieve the targets set under the ‘Caliphate missile’ programme, it would further need billions of Dollars from the Turkish economy which is already crippling.

It would be interesting to see how the major world powers stand up to the ‘Caliphate missile’ programme of Turkey and ensure that the proliferation technologies don’t end up in the hands of terror outfits or are used to blackmail the world. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as well as NATO need to ponder on the burning question and demarcate a clear lining between space and proliferation programmes of nation-states. Most importantly, they need to pressurise the private players from aiding the extremist elements in developing weapons of mass destruction.

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