Turkey’s march toward defense self-sufficiency

9 min read

Turkey is stepping up its investments in its defense industries, aiming to reduce its dependence on imports and insulate the country’s military capacity from embargoes and blockades, while also seeking to expand the reach of the Turkish armed forces, though it is doubtful if all of the targets set by the government will be met.

One of the oft-repeated policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is for Turkey to be fully self-sufficient for its defense industry needs by 2023, the centenary of the founding of the modern Turkish state.

While even a quick glance at the order book of the Turkish military tends to disprove this, with long-term air defense, aviation and naval re-equipment and acquisition programs tabled to run into the 2030s, Turkey has made significant advances over the past 15 years in expanding its defense production capacity.

At the turn of the century, Turkey’s military production capacity was limited, with up to 80 percent of its equipment either imported new or cast-off second-hand technology surplus to requirements by allies, most notably the US, the country’s main arms supplier.

Keystone policy

Since coming to office in late 2002, the AKP government has made enhancing the defense industry a keystone policy, with more than $60 billion invested in some 600 projects, large and small. Some of these have been undertaken by private sector firms, working to state specifications and under official supervision, though many projects are also conducted by the state’s own defense industries enterprises.

According to government estimates, domestic capacity now accounts for 60 percent of the Turkish armed forces technical, equipment and supply needs, up from 25 percent 15 years ago. Ankara has also made it a provision of many of its contracts with foreign equipment suppliers that there be an offset factor written into any such deals, allowing for at least some of the work to be carried out in Turkey by Turkish workers. Along with technology transfers allowing Turkish defense contractors to access advanced research and development outcomes, this offsetting process has allowed Turkey to build up an ever-deepening pool of skilled defense industry personnel, which now form part of the base from which the domestic sector is expanding.

In February, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told AKP deputies that Turkey had reached the point where it would no longer import ready-made defense equipment or systems if they could be sourced domestically, except in times of emergency. Besides boosting local industries and economy, this move would  also open new doors to attract Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) and would also generate many new employment opportunities in Turkey.

“Turkey will spend more time and money if necessary, but will definitely develop its own products and systems,” he said. “In addition to state organizations, there are many private sector companies that work day and night so they can compete with the world leaders.”

Fencing defense capacity

Another incentive for Turkey to develop its own defense industry capacity stems from its propensity to put traditional suppliers offside, with political spats at times resulting in defense contracts getting delayed or even cancelled. Recent tensions with Germany, including the detention for up to a year without charge of German citizens alleged to have disseminated terrorist group propaganda, saw Berlin put on hold a project to upgrade the weapons systems of Turkey’s German-made Leopard II main battle tanks.

The cooling of Turkey’s once-close ties with Israel also saw a number of defense projects stalled or scrapped, including revamps of some US-made M-60 tanks, first used in the 1960s. While still a viable fighting platform, the ageing M-60s require significant upgrades of their electronics and defense systems in order to continue to operate on the modern battlefield, which contains threats not developed when the tank was first deployed.

Washington too has at times blocked technology and equipment transfers to Ankara, with reports coming out in February there was opposition in Congress to the sale of advanced F-35 stealth fighters to Turkey, a result of growing widening gaps between the two over a range of issues.

At present, Turkey has committed to buying 100 of the F-35s, with first deliveries tentatively schedule for this year or by 2019. Though unlikely to get the backing of the Trump Administration, itself keen to boost defense sales, even the threat of an embargo on the sale has raised concerns Turkey’s air force may struggle to develop a replacement for its frontline fighter, the venerable US-designed F-16.

Policy independence

Such concerns are a driving force for Turkey’s defense industry build-up, according to Mete Yarar, retired Turkish military officer and Istanbul-based security risk consultant, with Ankara seeing independence from other suppliers as representing the foundation stone of an independent foreign policy. “The first point of focus for the national defense industry in Turkey is that, if you are bound to outside sources, it is impossible to create your own national policies,” he tells TRENDS, citing Ankara’s long-time reliance on US technology.

“Once you purchase your weapons from the US, once you rely on them for your materials, is it at all possible to create national policies? It is not,” he stresses. The fact that Turkey is able to produce most of the munitions and meet the technical needs of its forces in the current operations in Syria means it is not reliant on external sources for resupply and is also not subject to leverage should its suppliers oppose its actions, Yarar says.

Buy versus build?

There is, however, a strong belief that Turkey is looking to reinvent the wheel when it comes to many of its defense projects. While gaining operational and political independence, as well as generating employment, industrial capacity and export potential, Turkey may still struggle to develop those necessary advanced systems to rival those of overseas competitors, with the cost of off-the-shelf technology compatible with those of its allies also likely to be cheaper than creating standalone defense projects. The commitment to achieving self-sufficiency by 2023 is also likely to remain unfulfilled due to the time needed to develop capacity and acquire the skills to achieve that goal.

Though the state-backed Turkish Aerospace Industries Incorporation (TAI), working in collaboration with UK-based defense corporation BAE Industries, is developing Turkey’s first indigenous jet fighter aircraft, the program is in its infancy. However many key elements of the project have already been designated and will be supplied by an overseas contractor, with both Rolls-Royce and Pratt and Whitney in the frame. Rolls-Royce is a British multinational company that manufactures and distributes power systems for aviation and other industries, while Pratt and Whitney is an American aerospace manufacturer with global service operations.

However, according to Turkish defense industry experts, a locally developed and produced engine for the TF-X program is up to 20 years away.

There have been queries, dismissed by the government, as to whether Turkish troops will be sent into combat using equipment not as advanced or as reliable as the battle-tested products on offer from overseas.

A sales offensive

Quite apart from self-sufficiency in security defense technology, Turkey is also looking to raise its profile in the global military equipment market, offsetting some of its investments through overseas sales.

Last year, Turkey recorded defense and aviation exports of $2.0 billion out of a total production of some $6.0 billion, a more than 15 percent growth from the $1.68 billion posted in 2016, accelerating from just 1.4 percent the year before. This figure is set to jump in the coming years, with an accelerated roll-out of new products and a more intense sales approach by the Turkish defense industry.

During a defense trade fair in Qatar held in mid-March, attended by more than 30 firms from Turkey, Turkish contractors sealed agreements for a range of weapons transfers, including 85 armored vehicles, unarmed observation drones and support equipment, and 11 vessels for the emirate’s coastguard and navy.

On March 14, the last day of the defense fair, Turkey announced it had also been awarded a contract to develop a naval base in the emirate, thus combining its defense industry with another of the country’s leading foreign exchange earners, overseas construction.

In February, TAI announced it was finalizing a sales agreement with Pakistan for the domestically developed T129 ATAK close support helicopter, a deal valued at approximately $1.5 billion, while also announcing it was in talks with Malaysia and Indonesia about selling the newly operational platform. Many such new agreements and pacts are in pipeline.

Turkish contractors have also struck deals with Pakistan for the sale of four corvettes, with a combined price tag of nearly $1 billion and, over the past two years, have supplied equipment and technology to the maritime forces of the Philippines and Malaysia.

It is a market that will expand in coming years, as Turkey has a number of advantages compared to some other arms brokers, says Yarar, quite apart from product quality. “One is that Turkey does not place limitations on technology transfers and, secondly, it does not impose political restrictions on its technology sales or on how it can be used,” he notes.

Projecting power

While Turkey has been looking to both boost its domestic defense capacity and build up its arms catalogue, there is also a third pillar to its military industrial expansion – the capacity to project power far beyond its shores.

Turkey is currently building a landing platform dock, a 27,000 ton amphibious warfare vessel. Based on a Spanish design, the Anadolu, as the ship will be named, is fundamentally a multi-force rapid deployment vessel, able to convey troops, put them ashore and also act as a landing platform for a small number of rotary or fixed-wing aircraft.

While having the capacity to provide limited air cover, the Anadolu is not classed as an aircraft carrier, though President Erdogan said last year that Turkey was indeed planning to build just such a vessel.

Although it has indicated an interest in the carrier capable version of the F-35, such an acquisition of an off-the-shelf weapons system would be contrary to Ankara’s determination to be fully self-sufficient in all military hardware by 2023, as would be the likely need for assistance in the development and construction of any platform to fly the planes off from.

Possession of an aircraft carrier would, however, give Turkey the ability to project power beyond its shores, even though, as a traditionally land-based power with few long-distance threats on the horizon, some analysts query what horizons Turkey may seek to conquer. However, this seems to be a pure wait and watch situation with results seemingly not coming to the forth that clearly.

While plans for a carrier are still on the drawing board, Turkey’s ability to operate externally has already had solid foundations laid. Over the past year, Ankara has established military bases in Qatar and Somalia, with Sudan recently agreeing to Turkey developing a dockyard and logistics center on a coastal island, which could also have a support role for overseas deployments. Thus, although they lack the mobility of a carrier task force, Turkey’s overseas outposts do extend its reach, as well as potentially boosting its defense industry market.


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