Why did Turkey transfer U.S.-made M60 battle tanks to Libya?

Recently released images confirmed what has been known for some time, that Turkey has transferred a small number of its M60 Patton main battle tanks (MBTs) to Libya. 

Turkish Defence Ministry (MSB) photographs released in late March showed Libyans training on a Turkish M60A1, another indication that an undisclosed number of these tanks were delivered to Libya by Turkey in direct violation of the United Nations arms embargo on the North African state. 

As Jane’s points out, other MSB-released images show Turkish-allied Government of National Accord (GNA) forces training on a Turkish-built T-155 Fırtına self-propelled artillery system (of the kind frequently used in Turkish operations in Syria) and a T-122 Sakarya multiple launch rocket system. 

Since Turkey’s military intervention in Libya decisively enabled the GNA to repel its adversary, Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), in mid-2020, the Turkish military has retained a foothold in the North African country.

Turkey has established short to medium-range air defence missile systems in Tripoli and other strategically important areas and even prepared the major Al-Watiya airbase in western Libya for potential future deployments of its air force’s F-16 jet fighter-bombers. 

But where do the M60s fit into this picture? 

“Indeed, the Turkish Defence Ministry visually confirmed on March 30 that it had deployed at least three M60A1 tanks to Libya,” Oded Berkowitz, the deputy director of intelligence at MAX Security, an Israel-based intelligence firm, said in an interview. “The publication wasn’t an outright declaration but an indirect reference while emphasising training and support provided to local forces.” 

Unofficial photos previously showing M60A1s in Libya date back to at least November 2020. Such U.S.-built tanks were never part of the old Libyan arsenal. 

The tanks are very old and have been in the Turkish Army’s inventory since the early 1990s, which is one reason Turkey might have decided to transfer at least a small number of them to the GNA. Ankara ultimately plans to replace its older M60s with the indigenous Altay MBT it is building.

“The M60A1 is very much obsolete for a modern military such as Turkey, but Turkey deploying it to Libya is a clear case of ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, while increasing the GNA/GNU’s dependency on Turkish supply lines for its military power and capabilities ahead of a potential resumption of conflict with the LNA or any other potential conflict,” Berkowitz said. 

While Turkey no longer has much use for these tanks, they can provide a significant boost to the GNA’s limited armour capabilities, especially “considering that the overwhelming majority of tanks they would face are very old and poorly maintained [Russian-built] T-55/62s, with some small number of T-72s,” in the LNA arsenal, he said. 

“This is all in the context of limitations of MBTs in general, the type of warfare specifically in Libya, and of course that there are still very small quantities of M60s deployed, as far as we know,” Berkowitz said. 

The M60s are certainly no game changer since they are, like most armoured vehicles, vulnerable to anti-tank guided missiles, which are common in Libya, and drone strikes, which played a significant role in shaping the outcome of the last conflict. 

“These are inherent limitations of MBTs on the modern battlefield and not something that is necessarily unique to this type of tank or these specific countries or armed groups,” Berkowitz said. 

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist and senior fellow at the Global Initiative, a Swiss-based institute, estimates, based on testimonies collected from Libyans on the ground, that the M60s were delivered in February-March 2020.

“It’s not a recent delivery,” he said in an interview. “It happened basically at a moment when Turkey was making all kinds of materiel deliveries via ship to Misrata and Tripoli.” 

During this period, Turkey shipped large quantities of military hardware, advisors, and Syrian militiamen to bolster the GNA, enabling it to repel the LNA offensive. 

“The M60s were part of that picture,” Harchaoui said. 

Transferring U.S.-built military hardware to a third country or party usually requires U.S. authorisation to avoid violations of any end-user agreement. 

Harchaoui believes the transfer of M60s was “part of something that Washington clearly approved”. 

He also believes the fact the M60s are old tanks might have factored into Ankara’s decision to transfer them to the GNA. After all, Turkey was more likely to get at least a tacit green light from the United States when it came to transferring such old hardware instead of more advanced or modern equipment, which could have proven more provocative in Washington’s view.

Turkey will most likely continue to periodically violate the UN arms embargo on Libya by transferring military equipment needed for maintaining the bases it controls in Libya, especially Al-Watiya. 

Berkowitz pointed out that Ankara “never really abided by it” in the first place. 

“There is already plenty of Turkish personnel, tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, drones, air defence systems, electronic warfare systems, small arms, frigates and other naval vessels in the country, so there is no reason to suspect they will suddenly change their minds,” he said. 

“Thus, we can expect to continue seeing Turkish weapons and supplies flow into the country, alongside training and other military activity.” 

Harchaoui echoed this prediction but doubts future violations of the embargo will include any additional transfers of tanks since “there is no war happening” in Libya at present.

“In all likelihood, Libya will go through several more months without a major war that would typically warrant sending more tanks,” he said. 

However, if conflict once again flares up in the country, Turkey will undoubtedly send whatever hardware needed to protect its ally in Tripoli and its bases in western Libya. 

But the likelihood of any additional transfer of M60 or other tanks remains unlikely. 

Harchaoui said that there were two distinct phases of arms transfers from Turkey to Libya. The first transpired between January and May 2020, when Turkey transferred arms and forces to the GNA to help it roll back Haftar’s offensive, which it accomplished on June 4. 

“What’s absolutely remarkable is as soon as that happened, Turkey began a series of arms transfers meant for solidifying, refurbishing, and bolstering its own bases, the primary example being Al-Watiya,” Harchaoui said. 

Once the GNA was on the offensive against the LNA, Turkey began the second phase of arms transfers. These “voluminous transfers of materiel” started in June 2020 and, in many respects, continue to the present day. 

However, the second phase is markedly different from the first. Unlike the first phase, which were for conducting a counteroffensive against the LNA, the second phase has the clear objective of entrenching Turkish control over a very robust set of bases. 

“The transfers after the June victory indicates, in very clear terms, that Turkey has no intention of leaving Libya,” Harchaoui said. “We need to go through a very long period and set of efforts by countries as powerful as the U.S. for Turkey to maybe consider leaving.” 

“The M60s are not part of this second phase. They were exclusively part of the first phase.” 

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