Turkey strengthens defence ties with Italy as tensions with EU increases - "Business as usual" (5)

The ongoing realignment of Turkey in international policy, following the Syrian war and tensions with its traditional partners, is boosting the expansion of its domestic defence industry. Traditionally supplied by its Western allies, Turkey wants to reduce its dependence on foreign arms.

During Turkey’s cross-border military offensive to expel Kurdish forces from the Syrian district of Afrin, the German government faced protests for Turkey’s use of German tanks. There was a similar controversy in Italy, but on a much smaller scale. The attack helicopters used in Afrin, called domestically produced by Turkish media, were described in the Italian press as Italian made A129 Mongoose aircraft, briefly moving the spotlight onto the intense cooperation of the Italian and Turkish defence industries.

In fact, the T129 Atak is both the crown jewel of the Turkish defence industry and is the best example of how it optimises the partnership with Western industry. Based on the time-tested Italian A129, the Atak was developed in close collaboration by Leonardo helicopters and Turkish Aeronautics Industries (TAI), resulting in a new, more powerful model built around the specific needs of the Turkish armed forces.

“The T129 Atak is a very different helicopter from the Mongoose,” a former Italian Army helicopter pilot told Ahval. “The two engines have more than double the power. They provide more lift and higher speed, but this implies completely different mechanics and a stronger airframe. The bigger payload and the more advanced avionics of Turkish production allow a wider range of missions, in line with the demands of the complex environment where the Turkish Army operates.”

The model of cooperation of the T129 project is typical of the way Turkish defence industry is growing, projecting Turkey onto international markets.

“After bringing the armed forces under political control, the government began an ambitious programme of modernisation with the stated goal of creating a domestic defence industry. The question became quickly central in the electoral and political rhetoric, well resumed with the catchphrase ‘milli tank, milli uydu, milli uçak,’ ‘a national tank, a national satellite, a national plane,’” said Federico Donelli, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Genoa.

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The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists Turkey as the world's sixth largest importer of weapons in the period 2012-2016.

It is a topic that resonates deeply with the Turkish public: “The lack of a national military industry was considered one of the causes of the historical defeats and humiliations suffered by the Ottoman Empire. Its establishment was seen as a necessary condition for rehabilitation and resurgence, as well as for the independence and the nation’s very survival.”

However, the times of fully independent national defence industries are over. The complexity and funding required for modern weapons systems require and encourage multinational projects.

The emphasis on national production, exciting for the domestic audience, is thus misleading but it would be equally wrong to see the joint ventures as mere acquisitions of know-how.

“If it’s true that there is a significant technology transfer from Italian companies, they take advantage of the cooperation with a young and vibrant military industry, with orders worth billions of dollars,” Donelli said. “Turkey’s geopolitical centrality can open the doors of new markets to Turkish - Italian partners, especially in Africa.”

Africa and Asia are the new theatres where Italy, traditionally heavily involved in peacekeeping and NATO missions, is deploying its military, as an integral part of Italian foreign policy. One of these missions is the deployment of an Italian air defence missile battery in Kahramanmaraş to protect the Turkey’s southern border, after U.S. and German units were pulled out.

“Despite the mission being part of the normal rotation within NATO, the Italian choice to be part of it while Europe was extremely critical of Turkey was surely positive for bilateral ties,” said Donelli.

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SIPRI fact sheet

The mission became necessary after the war in Syria exposed serious shortcomings in Turkish air defences. Maybe not by chance, the weapon system showcased in that mission, the French-Italian SAMP-T, was later chosen for a joint venture to give Turkey an indigenous air defence missile.

This new venture is the latest in an impressive list of joint projects: besides the attack helicopter, the Italian holding Leonardo is cooperating with Turkish companies to provide maritime patrol aircraft for the project MELTEM-III and the long-range air surveillance radar Selex RAT-31DL. Its C27J Spartan is a contestant in the bid for a tactical transport airplane while other companies provide components and software for weapon systems. The ubiquitous Oto Melara 76/62 cannon will arm the MILGEM frigates.

Unlike Germany, which imposes tight conditions to the use of Leopard 2A4 tanks supplied to Turkey, Italy is uninhibited about the use its partners make of its military hardware.

But Italy is only one of the many NATO or Western-aligned partners of the Turkish defence industry. Besides the T129 Atak, Turkey locally produces helicopters like the U.S.-designed Sikorsky UH60 Blackhawk and the Eurocopter Cougar. Turkey is a partner for the multinational A400 strategic transport airplane and the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Turkish defence industry is successfully exporting armoured and combat vehicles like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Kirpi, the lightly armoured Cobra and Akrep, developed with parts from the U.S. Humvee and the British Land Rover respectively. Together with Spanish shipbuilder Navantia Turkey is building its first amphibious assault ship, while the tank Altay has been designed with Korean Hyundai Rotem.

The peculiar case of Turkey’s uncompleted purchase of the Russian S400 air defence missile system could have a very specific meaning in this context.

Cooperation with Turkish companies has quickly become vital for the European industry. A recent agreement with UK BAE Systems will produce the first indigenous fighter jet: the TFX project has been called a lifeline to the British military air industry.

Paradoxically, the building of the strong and independent indigenous defence industry, vaunted as a blow to foreign powers trying to influence Turkey’s policy, is ending up reinforcing Turkey’s integration with the Western allies.

“So far, none of these projects could be produced without vital patents and parts from international suppliers, whose green light is also needed to export to third countries,” said Donelli. But he is nevertheless cautious about any supposed leverage these ties could give. “Turkey has quickly diversified its partners, gaining more leverage over them than supplying countries could have on its policy. When European countries criticised Turkish crackdowns or touched sensitive spots like the Kurdish question or the Armenian claims, Ankara showed no hesitation to suspend or even cancel altogether defence contracts and orders.”

This is a lesson well understood in Europe. Diplomatic tensions with Germany have not stopped the MILDEN submarine building programme. Even in the middle of the current diplomatic row over Kurdish forces and Syria, Turkey and France held a series of successful meetings to increase their trade exchange to 20 billions euros.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.