By Yavuz Yener
The past couple of weeks have been devastating as well as terrorizing for the people of Kilis, a southern province of Turkey whose refugee population (110,000) now exceeds its local population (108,000)[i]. What has been even more destructive is the recent Daesh rocket attacks towards the city, which have claimed more than 15 lives since last January, leaving some 40 people wounded. These Soviet-era katyusha rockets, which are unguided but very easy to produce, have targeted the city center. More than 50 rockets in total have been launched from the Daesh-controlled parts of Syria, which are sometimes only 20 km away from central Kilis.
Now Ankara is considering a new option in order to defend the city from Daesh attacks, which might have a serious impact on Turkish-US efforts to seal off the border. Turkish and American sides are negotiating the details of the deployment of some rocket launcher systems known as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to Kilis to destroy Daesh targets near the Syrian town of Manbij. But, why would NATO’s second-largest army need such support? Is this a military request or a political move? Or, is there a covert message? We will seek answers to these questions in the following sections.
Turkey’s role in countering Daesh
Turkey’s role in the US-led, anti-Daesh coalition (Operation Inherent Resolve, as the Americans call it) has been controversial from the beginning. For instance, Turkey acted seemingly reluctant to allow coalition jets to use the Incirlik Air Base in the Adana province of Turkey in order not to provoke further Daesh attacks inside its borders. The US had to wait until last July to deploy their jets to Incirlik, which significantly reduced the logistical costs and allowed the jets to carry higher levels of payloads with each sortie.
Moreover, Turkey has not acted so vigorously against Daesh as it has against the Kurdish PYD/YPG, which has consolidated its power in northern Syria. The events of the past few months, however, have proved harshly to the Turkish policy-makers that the Daesh threat cannot be overlooked, and is at least as fundamental as PKK terror. The Suruç bombings on July 20, 2015, the train station bombings in Ankara on October 10, 2015 and two suicide bombings in Istanbul, both of which targeted tourists, were significant in displaying the brutality of this so-called ‘Islamic State’.
Daesh militants used terror tactics very successfully in delivering their message, but there is more. Across the border into Syria, Daesh is using conventional military forces. Its claim to be an ‘Islamic State’ necessitates that the organization arm, train and organize a regular army with conventional capabilities. This is why the security of the border is fundamental to the success of Turkey’s, and the coalition’s, anti-Daesh policies.
Efforts to seal off the border and HIMARS
Turkey’s open border policy has been vastly abused by Daesh, which led many to believe that defeating Daesh depends highly on preventing illegal crossings of the border by Daesh militants.[ii] The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) has cooperated closely with coalition forces and increased measures to seal off the border to prevent illegal crossings. The security of the 911-km-long border has been consolidated with concrete walls (23 km), gauze (108 km), deep trenches (386 km) and more personnel.[iii] However, securing the border also depends on successfully neutralizing threats across the border. To this end, the artillery units positioned near the border have also been responding to any hostilities that may emerge from the Syrian side in accordance with Turkey’s rule of engagement.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told local media on April 25 that Ankara is expecting the deployment of some M-142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) in May.[iv] HIMARS is a state-of-the-art piece of artillery. It is a member of the multiple-launch rocket system family. The system is combat-proven, as it was used several times during the Second Gulf War. More recently, the US Army HIMARS systems have been positioned in Iraq firing more than 400 rockets since the summer of 2015 against Daesh targets mainly in the Anbar province.[v] Furthermore, in January 2016, Lockheed Martin, the producer of HIMARS, celebrated its one-million-hour milestone with US military forces.[vi]
The system is also renowned for its extreme mobility and durability during combat. The vehicle carrying the launcher can move rapidly after each launch and hide before being detected by enemy forces. This technologically advanced system can be operated by a crew of one to three people – ideally, a driver, a gunner and a section chief. The guided version of this series, the new extended range-guided rocket GMLRS, has reached a range of more than 70 km.[vii]
Why does Turkey need HIMARS?
The decision for such a deal stems from the limited range of Turkish artillery, as Çavuşoğlu disclosed, “the range of our artillery is 40 kilometers, while HIMARS has a range of 90 kilometers.” It is true that Turkey’s T-155 Firtina howitzers have a maximum firing range of 40 km; however, these are not the only artillery pieces in the military’s inventory. In fact, some similar versions of HIMARS are being produced by Turkish defense giant ROKETSAN. For instance, T-122/300 multi barrel rocket launcher systems have a range of over 100 km, as stated on ROKETSAN’s official website.[viii] A 6×6 or 8×8 tactical wheeled vehicle radically increases the mobility of the system. The fire and control system is also fully-automatic.
The military has already deployed multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL) from the 102nd artillery regiment in Edirne to positions near Kilis.[ix] These systems have proved themselves rather potent and capable so far. On May 2, Turkish artillery units composed of Firtina howitzers and ROKETSAN’s multi-barrel rocket launchers successfully neutralized 34 Daesh hostiles and 6 vehicles.[x]
However, the problem with the T-122/300 is the ammunition it fires, rather than range it can reach. Unlike the HIMARS’s Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) rockets, ROKETSAN’s TR-122 and TR-300E rockets are not precision guided. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for the Turkish artillery to effectively detect and neutralize katyusha launchers before they can run and hide. In this regard, consolidating the defense of the border with American HIMARS systems will be a valuable contribution, though it is still difficult to say if the threat will be fully eliminated.
The deployment will also have serious political implications. Since the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet last November, Turkey has had a very hard time operating in Syrian air space. The state-of-the-art S-400 air defense system deployed last December to the Russian airbase near Latakia has created an air defense bubble to deny access to foreign jets, which has significantly limited Turkey’s room for maneuver near Syrian airspace. Hence, deployment of HIMARS will rebalance Turkey’s maneuverability problem near the Syrian border to some extent.
Now, both Turkey and the US want to deliver a clear and straightforward message: the US and Turkey are strong partners and willing to secure the border, whether the threat emanates from a state or a non-state actor. To this end, the deployment of HIMARS systems will be valuable and play a crucial role in terms of security and defense cooperation between Turkey and the US.