- Turkey has been investing its defense industry and expanding domestic production of military gear.
- Ankara wants to bolster its military and counter sanctions imposed by traditional defense partners.
- Disputes with friends and rivals have led Turkey to seek to “not be so dependent on outsiders,” one expert said.
In June, the Turkish navy successfully test fired the Atmaca, Turkey’s first domestically produced long-range anti-ship cruise missile.
The missile was fired from the TCG Kınalıada, one of the newest Ada-class corvettes, which are also domestically designed and built. In its final test, the missile sank an old research vessel, and it is now set to replace the US-made Harpoon as the Turkish Navy’s standard anti-ship missile.
It is the most recent in an impressive string of achievements for Turkey’s defense industry, which has historically relied on US and European companies to outfit its military.
In recent years, however, Turkish firms have increased their efforts to manufacture high-quality defense equipment — from guns and missiles to tanks and warships.
That increased investment has made Turkey’s military more self-reliant, and is turning Turkey into a top arms exporter.
Threats and sanctions
Turkey has long had a large and relatively capable defense industrial base. For decades it has built a variety of infantry weapons under license from foreign manufacturers, and it is one of only five countries licensed to build F-16s.
The recent focus on domestic design and production stems from an increase in potential threats from Russia and various militant groups and from sanctions placed on Turkey’s defense industry by its NATO allies, which have prevented the sale of critical technology or entire systems to Ankara.
Turkey has had a long-standing conflict with Kurdish PKK militants in its southwest, which regularly bleeds over into northern Iraq and was a major factor in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria’s civil war.
Turkey is also dealing with a stronger Russia, its longstanding state rival. Turkey enjoyed a sense of security in the Black Sea in the decades after the Cold War, when Russia was considerably weaker, but Moscow’s recent actions pose a new challenge.
“The military balance in the Black Sea has shifted rather significantly in Russia’s favor after the seizure of Crimea and the further militarization of the peninsula,” Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at the RAND corporation, told Insider.
“The Russians have increased the level of military forces in their Southern Military District, and they are also engaged in a fairly substantial modernization of the Black Sea Fleet” Flanagan said.
Despite the increase in threats, Turkey can no longer rely on the US and Europe to sell it the equipment it needs.
US and European concerns about Turkey’s human-rights abuses, its actions against the Kurds in northern Syria, and its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system have led to sanctions on Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries, the government institution that oversees its defense industry.
“All of that has only reinforced Turkey’s need to become more independent in the development of its defense industry and its own defense capabilities,” Flanagan said.
Increased domestic output
Turkey had a similar experience with Western sanctions in the 1970s, when tensions with Greece over Cyprus almost led to war. Those sanctions were lifted, but Turkey prepared for their potential reimposition.
Now that preparation is showing returns.
Turkey is replacing the G3 with the MPT-76, a domestic design, as its standard-issue rifle. It is replacing its AH-1 attack helicopters with Turkish Aerospace Industries’ T129 ATAK, and it plans to field its first domestically made Altay tanks by the beginning of 2023. It is also upgrading its Leopard 2s without German assistance.
Turkey’s efforts to become a leader in unmanned systems is perhaps its most impressive initiative.
Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles were key to Azerbaijan’s victory in that country’s recent war with Armenia. Other countries looking for an aerial advantage are now seeking TB2s.
Turkey has a number of other unmanned systems in development.
It has begun mass production of the Akıncı, a larger unmanned combat aircraft with a payload of 1.5 tons, and has started sea trials for the ULAQ, an unmanned surface vessel armed with six guided missiles. Four kinds of armed unmanned ground vehicles are currently competing for a Turkish government contract.
Turkey also has plans for a “mobile naval mine” that can be used for surveillance and to attack ships, as well as for unmanned fighter jets and strike aircraft to be used on its amphibious assault ships, which officials claim will be able to carry 30 to 50 drones.
Exports, new partnerships, and self-reliance
Increased domestic defense output has also allowed Turkey to become a growing weapons exporter. It now sells its weapons to 28 countries.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks the global arms trade, recently listed Turkey as one of the three fastest-growing arms exporters, with the volume of its exports increasing 86% in the latter half of the 2010s. Over the same period, it rose six spots to be the world’s 13th largest arms exporter and went from being the 6th largest arms importer to 20th.
Turkey is currently constructing two modified Ada-class corvettes for Pakistan’s navy (with Pakistan building two more itself under license) and at least one Ada-class corvette for Ukraine. Turkey also recently received a US export license to send attack helicopters to the Philippines.
“There’s been a heavy emphasis on the idea that Turkey was going to develop its indigenous capabilities so as to be able to both become more effective as a military producer and less dependent on foreign sources, but also as a potential [source] for export-driven growth,” Flanagan said.
Turkey’s increasingly nationalistic leaders are determined to grow its domestic arms industry. Feeling spurned by its traditional partners, they are now looking to countries like South Korea and Ukraine to fill its remaining technological gaps.
There is still some Western technology that Turkey needs and can’t replicate.
It uses US-made engines in the T129 ATAK, and German guns for the Altay tank, and German air-independent propulsion systems for its new Reis-class submarines.
Disputes with neighbors and NATO allies have fueled a sense that Turkey “can find Turkish solutions to some of these problems and then not be so dependent on outsiders,” Flanagan said. “They have a strong indigenous capability and also can compete for exports among allies for international customers, along with the major international arms suppliers of the world.”