Special Operations: The Turkish Volunteers


July 18, 2010:  Turkey is forming special counter-terrorism battalions for fighting the PKK (Kurdish separatists). Aside from some specialized training, the main distinction  is that these units will have no conscripts. This is part of a trend in the Turkish military, towards an all-volunteer force. Turkey cannot afford an all-volunteer force yet. Currently, about 80 percent of the 600,000 troops are conscripts. But the need for longer training in so many specialties, and the importance of military service in Turkish culture, are in conflict. To ensure that all physically and mentally fit males can serve, conscription service is now (since 2003) only 15 months long. Because of that, two years ago conscripts and reserve officers were removed from the 14,000 man commando force. The seven Commando Brigades are similar to the U.S. Ranger Regiment. The troops are carefully selected and intensively trained. But conscripts only serve fifteen months, so the commandos lose their young troops just as they have become effective. At the time of the change, 80 percent of the commando troops were conscripts and reserve officers (college grads who took military training along with their academic subjects, and are only on active duty for a year). The other twenty percent were career NCOs and officers.

Getting in the commandos was always a big deal for conscripts, as it is a prestigious outfit. But from now on, conscripts will have to volunteer to serve two or three years before they can be a commando. Many conscripts, who qualified for the commandos, did agree to serve longer. Having been in the commando brigade is a big deal, especially on your resume.

So Turkey is taking this a step farther by forming a counter-terror brigade with the same personnel requirements. The Turks have found that many conscripts who did not qualify for the commando brigade, would get into the new unit. The allure of being in an elite unit encourages many young Turks to volunteer for longer service. But instead of the three year requirement for the commandos, the new counter-terror force requires a ten year commitment. While commandos are mostly about talent and learned skills, the counter-terror force depends more on experience. This is the model the U.S. Army Special Forces uses, and it's accepted that it can take five years or more before a Special Forces operator has gained enough experience to be fully capable.

The Turks realize that, even with the increase in the percentage of troops who are career military men, they will have no problem getting volunteers for the longer terms demanded for elite units. Typically, there are 5-10 conscripts volunteering for each of these positions. The career troops also get paid a competitive (with civilian jobs) wage. Conscripts get paid very little. Most of all, these special operations type units appeal to the ancient Turkish traditions of elite military units, containing only the best. For operations against the PKK, the generals, and the troops, have concluded that only the best will do. Conscript units will still be involved, but only for simple security and support functions. The difficult combat operations will be carried out by the career troops, all volunteers who want to be there.


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