Turkey. The Arms Industry on the Fast Track to Autonomy

In a single decade, Turkey has considerably increased its autonomy in the matter of arms manufacture and achieved several triumphs on the export market, especially in the area of drone production. But there are areas, such as motorisation, in which its military industry continues to depend on foreign suppliers.

Istanbul, 17 September 2019. Bayraktar Akıncı drone on display at the Teknofest 2019 aviation, aerospace and technology festival
CeeGee/Wikimedia Commons

“We are one of the ten countries capable of designing, building and maintaining their own warships,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boasted on Saturday 23 January 2021, at the launching of the destroyer TCG Istanbul. Presented as one of the jewels of the country’s navy, the ship is only 75% Turkish. The national shipyards could not do without foreign technology, which illustrates the internal dynamics of the armaments industry, a colossus that has enabled Turkey to take a major leap forward, placing it among the world’s leading arms exporters but which actually remains deeply dependent on foreign support.

Indispensable strategic autonomy

First made public in 2010, “Vision 2023”, conceived by the Office of the Prime Minister, involved a plethora of objectives designed to make Turkey an independent power that cannot be ignored, one hundred years after the creation of the Republic. In this respect, the armaments sector is seen as one of the spearheads of this ambitious project: a symbol of sovereignty if ever there was one, the Turkish armed forces must be equipped with material 100% made in Turkey.

Aside from this political symbolism, the authorities are seeking strategic autonomy for more pragmatic reasons: from 1975 to 1978, at the time of the Cyprus crisis, the United States declared an embargo on the sale of arms to Turkey. On account of the asphyxiation of Turkish armed forces caused by this embargo, Ankara decided it was time to develop its own armaments industry.

This under-siege mentality has since been fuelled by similar occurrences. In 2010 and again in 2012, the US Congress vetoed exporting drones to Turkey because of mounting tensions between Tel Aviv and Ankara. In January 2018, Berlin withdrew from the program of modernisation of German Leopold II tanks in use in the Turkish army on account of “Operation Olive Branch”, launched against the Kurdish canton of Afrin in Syria. More recently still, faced with Turkey’s increasing belligerence, several countries like Canada, Germany or the United Kingdom, decided in 2019 and 2020 to no longer supply certain indispensable components for the manufacture of Turkish drones, those spearheads of Ankara’s interventionism in the region.1

The increasing distrust of Ankara among the countries of Western Europe and North America, coupled with the accelerated development of the country’s defence industry led to the collapse of US arms exports to Turkey by 81% between 2010 and 2020. From 2011 to 2015, Turkey had been the world’s third-largest recipient of US weaponry but dropped to the 19th place between 2016 and 2020.[Pieter D. Wezeman, Alexandra Kuimova, Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2020”, Sipri, March 2021.]] And in July 2019, the United States was able to prevent the sale of Turkish helicopters T129 ATAK to Pakistan because they were equipped with CTS800 engines, made in the USA. With no alternative to replace these, the contract became void, while costing Turkey 1.5 billion dollars in penalties.

So, the Turkish authorities made the development of these industries one of their priorities: in 2018 the executive even placed them under its direct control by doing away with the under-secretariat for defence industries (SSB) and setting up a presidency to administer them.

Ranked 14th, worldwide

In ten years, the defence industry sector made a considerable leap forward: while in 2000, only one Turkish company featured among the 100 largest armaments firms, today they are seven. From a turnover of one billion dollars in 2002 to eleven billion in 2020, its defence industries have made Turkey the 14th largest exporter of military equipment. From 2010 to 2019 the country sold war material to 28 nations, not counting certain factions like the rebel groups backed by Ankara in Syria. During that period, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan accounted for 50% of Turkish exports.

Moreover, the goal of strategic autonomy seems about to be reached: from 2015 to 2019 Turkey imported 48% fewer of its war materials and technologies than from 2011–2015. The country has succeeded in developing every aspect of its defence industry: of its two companies having joined in 2020 the list of the 100 biggest military firms worldwide, one manufactures hardware—FNSS Defence industries—and the other, Havelsan, specialises in software.

On the battlefield, its armed forces already have or will soon have the benefit of a great variety of material designed and manufactured in Turkey. The US combat helicopters Bell AH-1 have been replaced by T129 ATAKs from the Turkish company TAI, while the German assault rifle HK-G3, standard issue since the seventies, has been replaced by the MPT-76, manufactured by MKEK. The Leopard 11 heavy tanks will be eclipsed at the beginning of 2023 by the Altay, produced by a consortium of several Turkish firms. And a snub if ever there was one, the industrial giant Aselsan managed to modernise, in June 2021, those same Leopard II tanks which the Germans had refused to improve in 2018!

The best symbol of Turkey’s triumph on the military industrial front is its extraordinary success in the area of militarised drones. From the armed drone Bayraktar TB2 to the surveillance drone Akinci, Turkey has become a specialist in these unmanned aircraft thanks to engineer Selçuk Bayraktar, now a national hero and President Erdogan’s son-in-law. From the coasts of Libya to the Syrian plains, by way of the mountains of Iraq or of Nagorny Karabakh, the drones have enabled Turkey and its allies to win the day on the battlefield with efficiency, rapidity and a minimum number of causalities.

Turkish drones are sold the world over, Poland included; indeed, for the first time in its history, Turkey has managed to sell weapons to NATO countries, to the detriment, moreover, of the USA, whose Predator drones have proven five times more expensive than the TB2 (2 million dollars for the US-made drone as against 5 million for the Turkish). On the strength of this success, Turkey is investing more in the drone sector and is currently developing a maritime drone, specialised in anti-submarine warfare, four different types of armed terrestrial drones, minesweeping drones or other unmanned aircraft capable of being deployed from an airfield or from an amphibious ship.

Areas of dependence on foreign technology

Despite the considerable advances made over recent years, Turkey still cannot do without the expertise of foreign powers. In addition to the delivery in recent months of Russian anti-aircraft systems S-400, Turkey should soon receive six submarines conceived in Germany, five Italian-manufactured aircraft specialised in submarine warfare and an amphibious assault ship, currently under construction in Spain, which can launch helicopters, drones and ADAC/ADAV aircraft (capable of short or vertical take-offs and landings). This vessel, which will be named TCG Anadolu, will also be equipped with the Italian radar system, SPN-720, for take-off and landing assistance in difficult weather conditions. A great number of other Turkish naval vessels, such as destroyers of the Baraross and Yavuz classes, or attack ships of the Kiliç class, were designed in Germany.

Products presented as “locally made” often contain material or technologies of foreign origin: the main battle tank, the Altay, will be equipped with a German Rheinmetal canon, the TI29 ATAK combat helicopters with LHTEC engines from the USA and the Reis class submarines are powered by Siemen engines from Germany. The supposedly forthcoming fighter plane, the TF-X, has turned out to be an industrial disaster and the date when it will be operational is constantly being pushed back, notably because of the difficulties in finding a suitable engine: the United Kingdom, which was meant to help Turkey power the aircraft via a partnership with Royles-Royce, withdrew from the project in March 2019.

The fact is that Turkey suffers from endemic shortcomings in matters of motorisation; A former military industry cadre put it this way: “It was a problem fifteen years ago, it was one ten years ago and it remains one today.” Whether they equip helicopters, tanks, drones or warplanes. Turkish engines always turn out to be hopeless and industrialists have no other choice but to turn to foreign companies.

Turkey takes care to choose its partners in countries where the dangers of a diplomatic crisis seem minimal. For example, the South Korean companies Doosan and S&T Dynamics will supply the engine for the Altay tank which was meant to be provided by the Germans before they withdrew from the project in 2018, when Berlin imposed its embargo. As for the T129ATAK helicopters, they will replace their US engine with a Ukrainian model, supplied by Motor Sich, while the Akinci drone, heavier than the TB2, will be powered by a Ukrainian turboprop engine, the AI-450.

Brain drain

Despite the generous subsidies made available to it, the Turkish armaments sector has to cope with a paucity of skilled labour. Following the attempted coup, in July 2016, the purges launched by the authorities caused the imprisonment or dismissal of tens of thousands and created a climate of fear in Turkey: in 2020, over 330,000 individuals, most of them young college graduates, left the country.

In 2018, a report made public by the defence industries presidency, revealed that 272 employees in the armaments industries, most of them young engineers and research workers, left the country for the USA, the Netherlands and Germany in particular. The figures speak for themselves: 41% were between 26 and 30 years old, 54% held a doctorate and 59% had over 15 years experience in the defence industries. For the Turkish armament sector, this represents a massive brain drain which explains in part its structural difficulties in surmounting certain shortcomings like those affecting motorisation.

This tendency should continue during the years to come. Among the reasons they gave for leaving Turkey, the armaments industry workers cited, among others, the climate of fear that prevailed in the country and a political situation which they felt to be “abnormal”.

While the Turkish armaments industry has never stopped growing for the last ten years, this exponential pattern should rapidly come to an end because of that brain drain, the persistent technological shortcomings and above all because of limited market outlets: while arms exports have grown considerably, the bulk of the production is for Turkey’s own armed forces. And this domestic market will soon be saturated, which will logically inhibit the growth of the armaments sector. Nonetheless, this industrial colossus created by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proven to be an undeniable political success which he intends to exploit, especially in view of the coming election and the centenary celebration of the Turkish Republic, both to be held in 2023.

1Selçuk Bayraktar, designer of the TB2 and head of technology for the Baykar Company, declared that the embargo had only a limited impact on the production and use of the drones.