Turkey’s Arms Industry Expands at Home and Abroad
Advanced projects point to country’s desire for self-sufficiency
by PAUL IDDON
In January 2017, Turkey hosted British Prime Minister Theresa May. During her visit, among other things, she negotiated a deal worth more than £100 million to help build Turkey’s first indigenous jet fighter, the planned fifth-generation all-weather TFX air superiority jet.
The plan would bring together Turkish Aerospace Industries — aka TAI — and the United Kingdom-headquartered BAE Systems. Officials in London saw this as a “gateway agreement” that might lead to billions more pounds in defense deals with the Turkish military.
But despite the foreign connection, the arrangement highlighted how Turkey’s defense industry is itself now a major player at home and abroad. Turkish firms are pushing advanced projects that could ultimately make the country’s military less dependent from foreign — and predominantly western — companies.
The Turkish defense sector’s growth is noteworthy given the strained ties between Turkey and western powers, namely the United States, over a host of issues. Chief among these are Washington’s continued support of the Syrian Kurds against Islamic State in Syria and the United State’s continued refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen.
The government in Ankara alleges Gulen was behind the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The cleric, politician and outspoken critic of Turkish Pres. Recep Erdoğan has lived in the United States since 1999.
TAI’s TFX program — not to be confused with the Pentagon’s 1960s project of the same name — could be a major step in moving away from American defense contractors. By 2030, Turkey expects the final TFX design to eventually replace the country’s existing fleet of F-16s, some of which TAI produced domestically under license.
If all goes according to plan, the new planes could lessen Turkey’s reliance on foreign fighter jets — including both the F-16 and the incoming F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As TAI imagines it, the TFX would be similar in many respects to the stealthy F-35.
Of course, producing an advanced fighter jet from the ground up is a major challenge for any country. Israel attempted to produce its own domestically-built fighter, the IAI Lavi, in the 1980s.
But the fighter never entered mass production because of political concerns. If Israel let the Lavi enter mass production the country would have been “capable of competing with the aerospace giants of the United States, the Soviet Union, and France,” former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens argued.
“With little understanding of the process of aircraft design and development they [the Lavi’s opponents in government and society] claimed that developing a fighter aircraft in Israel was beyond Israel’s capabilities, that the aircraft would not meet its performance specifications and that cost-overruns were going to kill the project,” Arens wrote.
These were the only reasons the Lavi did not become the mainstay fighter jet of the Israeli Air Force, according to Arens. Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Taiwan had also expressed interest in buying the aircraft.
China was reportedly interested in acquiring the technology behind the Lavi, as well. In turn, U.S. officials were worried about the advanced aircraft with American-made engines and other gear competing with Pentagon-brokered arms deals or going to potential adversaries.
As a result the backbone of Israel’s Air Force remains imported American F-15 and F-16s, updated with domestically produced Israeli avionics.
In Turkey, there probably won’t be much dissent over getting the TFX into production. The main obstacles will be whether BAE and TAI have the technological capabilities to make the jets a reality and how much of that work the Turkish company can do itself.
Regardless, the challenges of projects such as the TFX aren’t holding the Turkish defense industry back. The fighter jet is only one part of a wider effort across Turkey’s air, sea and ground forces to buy more indigenous military hardware.
When it comes to air defense, despite air and missile threats from neighbors such as Syria, Ankara still sorely lacks a long-range missile system. In times of conflict, including during the ongoing Syrian civil war, NATO allies have deployed Patriot batteries to reassure Turkish officials.
These same allies were concerned when Turkey seemed poised to buy a long-range Chinese-made clone of Russia’s S-300 surface-to-air missile system to provide that defense on its own. NATO warned such a system might not be compatible with other allied weapons, radars and other equipment.
On top of that, U.S. and European defense firms said the proposed purchase would jeopardize cooperation “in certain fields.” Both statements were clear warning to Ankara to back off from any such deal.
Though Turkey scrapped those plans, the country did not give up on its efforts to build a domestic air defense arsenal. Turkish officials even left open the possibility of buying missiles from Russia.
In December 2016, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık oversaw a missile test of Turkey’s own Hisar-O missile. The weapon is the product of a joint effort between Turkish defense firms Roketsan and Aselsan.
“Turkey has to achieve and develop critical technologies in both air and missile defense systems,” Işık said. “Turkey actually has made considerable progress despite its late start.”
“I believe after that we will get faster.”
The Hisar-O missile’s can blast aircraft, helicopters, missiles and drones more than 15 miles away, according to the manufacturers. Roketsan and Aselsan have displayed the prototype launchers fitted on a six-wheel Mercedes Zetros truck.
At sea, Turkey began constructing the first “Istanbul Frigate” in January 2017. Each armed with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and a 76-millimeter gun, these 3,000 ton vessels will be the first indigenously produced warships of their type in Turkey’s navy.
Turkey has “proceeded a long way in recent years to developing its own war vessels,” Işık said on Jan. 19, 2017, while attending a ceremony marking the beginning of the project. “It is one of the top priorities of our government to enable our military to have a strong navy equipped with locally made arms, as three of Turkey’s sides are surrounded by the sea.”
And on land, in November 2016, Turkey’s Koç Holding’s Otokar said it could begin mass production of the Altay main battle tank, seen in the promotional video above, within 18 to 22 months. The company was just waiting on the government to sign off so it could start building the planned fleet of 250 vehicles.
“We completed the prototype development process in seven years in accordance with the vision of both the government and the Defense Ministry to meet their tank needs through domestic means,” Ali Koç, the Vice Chair of Koç Holding and the Chair of Otokar, said on Nov. 9, 2016. “Otokar made the offer to start mass production.”
“We have been waiting for approval and directives from the government, ministry and the Turkish Armed Forces.”
At that time, Turkey’s existing tank fleet consisted of over 700 German-made Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 main battle tanks. Another 2,000 aging American-supplied M-48 and M-60 Patton tanks were still in service.
The Altay will reportedly have improved protection for the crew and vital systems, including locally-produced composite armor. On top of that, the ammunition in the Altay is completely isolated, minimizing harm done to the crew if the rounds get hit and “cook-off” in a firefight.
In November 2016, a video emerged of Islamic State fighters hitting the specially sealed storage compartment in an Iraqi M-1 Abrams tank with a missile — and causing a spectacular explosion — showing just how vital this feature could be in actual combat. Given the fact that Turkey’s Leopards and M-60s both proved to be vulnerable to anti-tank weapons in Syria in 2016, Turkey’s armored forces could definitely use improved defensive equipment.
In another decade, Turkey’s air, sea and land forces may look strikingly different from today — and the country’s defense industry will make sure it makes as much of that new gear domestically as possible.