Turkey’s Military Options for Confronting the PKK in Northern Iraq

Turkey’s Military Options for Confronting the PKK in Northern Iraq

In meetings with Secretary Rice in Turkey over the weekend and with President Bush Monday, Turkish leaders sought a promise of U.S. action against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an agreement on joint action or, failing these, a green light from the United States for Turkish direct action in northern Iraq. Turkish officials have known since the onset of this crisis that a large-scale overt operation in northern Iraq would be unpalatable to the United States because of the delicate internal politics of Iraq and the U.S.-Kurdish alliance. That alliance has kept the north of the country relatively stable despite long-term concerns over oil revenue sharing and the final status of Kirkuk. However, a large-scale ground invasion is unnecessary given the other capabilities Turkey has at its disposal.

Contrary to several recent commentaries, the coming snows in mountainous northern Iraq will not pose an insurmountable problem for Turkish forces. The Turkish Air Force boasts over 200 F-16 C/D aircraft, many of which are outfitted with the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) systems that allow them to fly at low altitudes and attack ground targets at night. In addition, older F-4E and F-5A/B fighters, of which Turkey operates more than 100, were upgraded by Israeli firms to make them more capable for air-to-ground attack, including the addition of advanced ground radar and laser designators. All of these aircraft can carry precision air-to-ground munitions, including laser-, infrared- and TV-guided bombs that provide strike options in most weather conditions. In addition, Turkey possesses 32 Cobra and 9 Super Cobra attack helicopters, all upgraded with night targeting systems and capable of undertaking low altitude armed reconnaissance and ground attack missions.

Turkey has traditionally fought the PKK in northern Iraq with small 10-15 man units of conscript troops led by non-commissioned officers. For targeted raids, however, Turkey would be more likely to use its elite mountain commando units, which are part of its six Special Forces brigades. For the past several years, Turkey has been converting its Special Forces from conscript units to professional all-volunteer units. For covertly transporting such units in and out of operations, Turkey's fleet of Black Hawk helicopters is more than adequate.

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