Turkey’s state-controlled missile maker Roketsan’s Khan (Bora) missile (pictured) has a range of 280 kilometres and carries a warhead of 470 kilograms. The system made its operational debut in May 2019 against a target in northern Iraq. The system is said to be based on Chinese B-611 technology that was acquired in exchange for the passage of the semi-finished Soviet-era aircraft carrier Varyag from the Turkish Straits. It was announced at the time that the platform would be used as a “floating leisure centre.” Yet it ended up becoming China’s first aircraft carrier and got the name “Liaoning.”

An ambitious new space program unveiled by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan amid a deepening economic crisis has led experts to question whether it is meant to serve as a cover to circumvent international regulations to acquire the capacity to develop long-range ballistic missiles.

According to the state-owned Anadolu news agency, the new program, which was introduced complete with publicity stunts on February 9, consists of 10 targets, with its “primary and most important mission” making Turkey’s first contact with the moon in 2023. The first stage of this goal is a rough landing to be made “with a national, domestically produced hybrid rocket that will be launched into orbit at the end of 2023 through international cooperation.”

Other targets include establishing a space port, developing a regional positioning system and sending a Turkish astronaut onto space. Critics question the Turkish government’s decision to spend vast sums of money on a space program at a time when the country’s already struggling economy has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, Erdoğan’s stated goal of developing long-range ballistic missiles, coupled with the limitations on importing foreign technology due to provisions of international arms control arrangements, suggests that the Turkish government might be planning to use its space program as a cover.

Erdoğan’s desire to develop long-range missiles go back to early 2012, when the president of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) announced that then-Prime Minister Erdoğan asked them to start developing missiles with a 2,500 kilometre range. According to internationally accepted classifications, this meant Turkey was interested in developing medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), which range between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometres.

The Under secretariat for the Defence Industries (SSM), the top authority for defence industry planning and procurement, confirmed the existence of such efforts in September 2012.

In November 2015 Erdoğan himself voiced his desire to develop longer range missiles in a TV interview. “We currently manufacture missiles, but we are not at the desired level with respect to range, which must be much longer,” he said. “What we … want are indigenous, long-range and offensive [missiles]. … If we build offensive [missiles], we will be addressing defence as well. While undergoing reserve officer training at Tuzla, they told us, ‘The best defence is a good offense.’ This is what we should be aiming for: offensive and long range. The moment we produce those [missiles], we will be solving the issue of defence, too.”

Yet, Erdoğan’s statements were puzzling in different respects. According to Sıtkı Egeli, an international security expert and former SSM employee, a good strategic explanation was not given as to why Turkey, a NATO member and non-nuclear weapon state, has developed an interest in acquiring long-range missile capability. Turkey is party to non-proliferation and export control arrangements including the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC), both of which aim at restraining the spread and use of ballistic missiles.

MTCR brings restrictions to the import/export of what are known as Category I items. These include ballistic missiles and unmanned air vehicle systems with capabilities exceeding a 300kilometer/500 kilogram range/payload threshold and major sub-systems including rocket stages, re-entry vehicles, rocket engines, guidance systems and warhead mechanisms.

But the MTCR guidelines specifically state that the regime is “not designed to impede national space programs or international cooperation in such programs.”

Egeli says long-range ballistic missiles are commonly associated with nuclear weapons as they are considered the ideal delivery means for such weapons. “Historical evidence in this regard is conclusive: every state to have acquired nuclear weapons has also sought MRBMs,” Egeli says. “And with an exception or two, all countries pursuing MRBM-class missiles had their eyes set on nuclear weapons, too.”

But can the efforts to reach MRBM capability be the harbinger of nuclear weapons ambitions for Erdoğan’s Turkey, a NATO member with a clean non-proliferation record already under the nuclear umbrella?

In a 2012 paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled “Turkey and the Bomb” Sinan Ülgen argued that “[n]ot even the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is likely to push Ankara to develop its own nuclear weapons.” Yet, there is only one “circumstance where such a scenario would acquire a degree of likelihood,” he added, “… a breakdown in Turkey’s security relationship with the United States.”

In fact, the years that followed led to a breakdown in what was once called the “model partnership” by President Barack Obama. Today the two countries have myriad disagreements. Arguably the most consequential of them is Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian S-400 missile defence system, which led to the country’s removal from the F-35 joint strike fighter program and the imposition of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Many believe that Erdoğan’s choice of a Russian-made missile defence system despite backlash from the US was aimed at diversifying its defence capabilities to counter a possible threat from its own allies. Only a few weeks ago the country’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, said on a TV program that the US was behind a failed coup attempt in July 2016 to topple Erdoğan. In early September 2019 Erdoğan made a surprising statement regarding nuclear weapons capabilities. “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads,” he told a meeting of his governing party. But the West insists “we can’t have them,” he added. “This I cannot accept.”

Some take Erdoğan’s words as rhetorical posturing designed to advance Turkey’s status in the regional security architecture. Others believe Turkish defence technologies and its industrial base are far from achieving such a capability in the short term. But Erdoğan’s increasingly erratic foreign policy decisions that have departed from the country’s traditional cautious approach to diplomacy during the republican era and his increasing use of military power have led experts to think that this possibility is not out of the question.

“With Turkey now in open confrontation with its NATO allies, having gambled and won a bet that it could conduct a military incursion into Syria and get away with it, Mr. Erdogan’s threat [to develop nuclear weapons] takes on new meaning,” a New York Times article said in October 2019. “If the United States could not prevent the Turkish leader from routing its Kurdish allies, how can it stop him from building a nuclear weapon or following Iran in gathering the technology to do so?”

Hans Rühle, the head of planning in the German Ministry of Defence from 1982 to 1988, said in a 2015 report that “the Western intelligence community now largely agrees that Turkey is working both on nuclear weapon systems and on their means of delivery.”

Similarly, in a 2017 report titled “Nuclear Infrastructure and Proliferation Risks of the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt,” the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks the bomb’s spread, concluded that Erdoğan’s efforts to consolidate power and raise Turkey’s regional status were increasing “the risk that Turkey will seek nuclear weapons capabilities.”

The primary concern of Western intelligence services seems to be the connection between Turkey and Pakistan. The New York Times cites “Nuclear Black Markets,” a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank, which claims that companies in Turkey aided Pakistan’s covert effort to develop a nuclear weapon by importing materials from Europe, making centrifuge parts and shipping finished products to customers.

Erdoğan has close relations with Islamabad. The two countries have a High-Level Military Dialogue Group that brings together defence officials. Following the 15th meeting of the group in December 2020, Indian news outlets claimed that the officials discussed cooperation in the fields of missile and nuclear weapon technology.

But Turkey is a signatory to both the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty. The risk of trying to acquire a nuclear weapon in defiance of its international obligations would be considerable for Erdoğan. Any sanctions would devastate Turkey’s already fragile economy and demolish his ailing reputation in the West. Yet, as the last couple of years have shown, Erdoğan is not someone who abides by the rules. If he thinks the bomb would help him protect his position, he might very well consider taking the risk.