Turkey represents NATO's most credible war-fighting force at the Southern Flank. The manpower advantages and high combat-readiness of the Turkish military makes it a reliable actor in the Alliance’s rapid response plans, which are expected to receive a boost in the July 2018 Summit. In recent years, Ankara has weathered very serious security challenges. In the meanwhile, Turkish-Russian relations pursued the trajectory of a pendulum's swing that caught many analysts off-guard. Besides, the Turkish-American bilateral ties have recently witnessed one of the hardest times in historical record ever. Nevertheless, Turkey keeps being a very important actor for the NATO alliance that could be replaced with no other country, due to its unique geopolitical features.
Trends in terrorism threat to the North Atlantic Alliance show that Turkey will enjoy a growing significance for the Euro-Mediterranean security and stability. Turkey remains the only NATO nation that does not adopt a "no boots on the ground policy" when dealing with the ISIS. While other members of the Alliance have predominantly preferred airpower, special forces and military advisors to face the threat, the Turkish Armed Forces cleared the principal bastion of ISIS in the west of the Euphrates, al-Bab, with a joint, multi-brigade offensive.
More importantly, since the terrorist organization is currently transforming from a dreadful statelet with its self-proclaimed territory and population, into a global terror network (coupled with menacing prospects of a merger with Al-Qa’ida), Turkey's special role in counterterrorism intelligence becomes even more critical. The foreign fighters aspect of the grave challenge makes Ankara's border security and maritime control operations indispensable for NATO countries.
Turkey's recent military campaigns in Syria, Operation "Euphrates Shield" and Operation "Olive Branch", suggested that the Turkish Armed Forces still remain one of the most capable war-fighting force in the NATO Alliance despite some shortfalls.
In fact, in 2016, the "Euphrates Shield" was a big challenge for the Turkish Army due to the growing hybrid threats at Turkey's doorstep. The Turkish armored platforms, which lacked active protection systems and the required armor modernization, suffered losses from anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). The man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) capabilities of the adversary disrupted the army aviation operations, and suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED) claimed many lives from the personnel on the ground.
Nevertheless, in early 2018, Turkey carried out its second counterterrorism push into Syria: Operation "Olive Branch". This showcased a significant uptrend in combat capabilities, in less than two years. Especially, Turkey’s expertise in producing and using high-end unmanned military systems deserve attention.
Apart from the Syria campaigns, the Turkish Navy has been gaining robust power projection and blue-water capabilities. Besides, Turkish defense sector is making significant advances in the smart, precision weapons segment.
All the above mentioned improvements remain promising for Turkey’s prospective role in the new NATO Readiness Initiative, aimed to enhance deterrence through boosted combat-readiness level.
With regard to air defense, the S-400 represents a complex political-military case that even the most defense experts fail to fully comprehend. In fact, Ankara’s decision to procure the Russian SAM system (S-400) results from a number of reasons. Among them, there is the Turkish political willingness to raise NATO allies' attention regarding Turkey’s unfulfilled demands, in domains as critical technology transfer and co-production of strategic weapon systems.
Following the 2016 failed coup attempt, Ankara took drastic measures to prevent infiltrations into the state security apparatus. Considering the serious involvement of air platforms in the hostile plot, the Turkish administration’s efforts focused on the pilots at the ranks of the Air Force and the Army Aviation. In result, a large number of pilots were dismissed from the Armed Forces. While Ankara aimed to ensure adequate security for this critical segment of the military, the side effects had surfaced by a serious decrease in the pilot-to-cockpit ratio (the number of pilots for platform).  For this worrying reason, Turkey opted for addressing the pilot shortage by initiating the "reserve pilot" concept which depends on harvesting flying personnel from the nation's commercial airlines for dual employment. Turkish defense planners also promoted some ground crew for the flight posts, and accelerated pilot generation efforts.
However, in the short term, a stopgap measure is needed to secure the nation's airspace: the S-400 project comes into this picture. It is understood that while Ankara has traditionally relied on its robust fighter squadrons for airspace control, now, a more balanced air defense planning, shared between SAM systems and fighter aircraft, is preferred. Due to the system’s technical features, as well as the lack of radar and sensor network capabilities and tactical datalink - all of which profoundly depend on NATO architecture in Turkey’s case -, Ankara intends to use the S-400 as a standalone, strategic air defense asset rather than a ballistic missile defense (BMD) solution.
In the meanwhile, Turkey has been developing its national Hisar air defense systems line (at low, mid, and high altitudes), and is also working with EUROSAM to co-produce a NATO-operable BMD system. However, military procurement deals are not immune to political repercussions. The S-400 deal already caused problematic fluctuations in the F-35 project in which Turkey remains a level-3 partner.
The F-35 stealth, multirole aircraft will form the backbone of the Turkish Air Force in the coming decades. All in all, in case the S-400 procurement erase the F-35 project, it would do more harm than good for Turkish air defense planning.
Turkey had non-NATO defense partnerships before. The indigenous main battle tank project, Altay, is a product of bilateral military ties between South Korea and Turkey. In the 1990s, Israel offered lucrative solutions to the Turkish defense industry. Had Turkey not witnessed the heavy 2001 economic crisis, it could have even procured the Arrow air and missile defense system. Recently, Ukraine came into the picture with a number of critical military cooperation opportunities (including the active protection system co-production for armored platforms of the army).
The problem with the burgeoning cooperation with Moscow remains the conjuncture. Following the Russian intervention in Ukraine, NATO has adopted a series of measures since the 2014 Wales Summit. Thus, some Western members of the alliance see Turkey’s moves, mostly the S-400 deal, as a negative factor harming the allied coherence.
One of the problems, from Turkish strategic community's standpoint, is the US-led anti-ISIS coalition's support to the PYD/YPG, which has incontestable ties with the PKK terrorist organization: this remains the most serious case. In the 1990s, Turkey suffered from the PKK terrorism, which was used as a proxy war asset by the Baath regime of Syria under Hafez al-Assad. In the 2000s, the terrorist organization started to pose more complicated risks, especially in urban areas. In Ankara's eyes, a PYD-YPG de facto autonomy in the northern plains of Syria marks an unacceptable geopolitical scenario.
Probably, in Russia's calculus, a US-Turkey collision in Syria means much more than any, hypothetical, "below-the-threshold of war" or "grey" intervention in the Eastern flank of NATO suggested by Moscow's new, ambiguous military toolkit for modern warfare (the "Gerasimov doctrine").  Thus, the allies should develop a more insightful approach to the Turkish administration's threat perceptions.
Nevertheless, Turkey still plays a vital role for NATO, especially at a time when the Southern Flank challenges are becoming contagious. As indicated before, while the military spending and capability development efforts remain insufficient in Europe, Ankara offers a credible, combat-proven, and robust war-fighting force to NATO, which did not hesitate to fight ISIS with conventional formations on the battleground. Furthermore, Turkey is not stepping back from its tactical nuclear weapons host nation status, and also keeps an X-band radar to augment the Alliance’s missile defense efforts.
 It is reported that, at the lowest point, the Turkish military suffered a problematic 0.8:1 pilot per seat. In doctrine, while 1.25 flying crew per cockpit is generally assumed adequate to sustain the combat readiness of an air deterrent, 1.5 pilot per cockpit remains ideal and reliable.
 Presented by General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, in an article written in 2014.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)