Turkey's drive to create an indigenously-equipped military

In recent years, with its relations with both the U.S. and Europe on a downward spiral, Turkey has sought to highlight its capability to produce domestically-built military hardware. It has done so by showcasing its ability to design and produce drones, both reconnaissance and armed variants, and has plans to build its own fifth generation fighter jet, the TAI TFX, as well as its own main battle tank, the Altay.

“We no longer buy them (drones) from America or Israel. Our F-16s hit the targets identified by our drones. We will completely remove terror from the agenda of this country,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared, referring to Turkey's ongoing campaign against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan. In May, in the run up to the elections, the Erodgan also declared that Turkey “will continue to produce our own weapons and become a global power. We will increase our defence industry values like our Altay tank, ATAK helicopter, drones, armed drones.”

“Turkey's goal is to have 100 percent indigenously-made land, air, and sea defence systems,” he added.

While Turkey remains a long way off from being equipped with mostly indigenous built weapon systems – like the militaries of the United States, Russia or France are – it has still made significant progress and is certainly not completely dependent on foreign exporters for weapons systems and spare parts.

Turkey's Bayraktar Tactical Block (BTB2) drones, which Erdogan alluded to, are reportedly one of the most advanced of its kinds in the world and have, on hundreds of occasions, successfully designated targets for Turkey's F-16s, gunships and artillery and even struck targets with its own munitions, a significant achievement.

For Erdogan Turkey's drone program is also arguably a family business. The technical director of Turkey's Baykar Makina drone producer, Selçuk Bayraktar, married Erdogan's daughter two years ago. Last January a photo of Erdogan's own son, Bilal, in a drone control room during the Afrin operation was published on social media by Selçuk and subsequently denounced as inappropriate by the Turkish opposition.

Outside of his family circle, 25 percent of BMC, the manufacturer of the Turkish military’s armoured vehicles, is reportedly owned by Turkish business tycoon Ethem Sancak. Sancak once went so far as to say that upon becoming “acquainted” with the Turkish president he “saw that divine love is possible between two men.”

Putting aside Erdogan's personal connections to his country's arms industry it is clear that Turkey has an increasingly formidable ability to produce its own weapon systems.

"The Turkish defence industry has made considerable progress in the past decade and the country is now using domestically produced or manufactured weapons in major conflicts abroad," Aaron Stein, a Turkish analyst at the Atlantic Council think-tank, told Ahval News. "There are still bottle necks and the rhetoric from the AKP far outpaces reality, in terms of how 'independent' Turkey really is from foreign suppliers, but that shouldn't distract from the progress made."

A relative rarity in the Middle East, which consists primarily of oil-rich rentier states that rely almost entirely on imports, modern Turkey has actually proven quite adept at manufacturing various things. As the historian Norman Stone once observed: "When the country started off, in 1923, you could not even have a table made, unless by an Armenian carpenter, because the legs wobbled, the Turks not knowing how to warp wood. Now, they make F-16s."

Ankara wants to demonstrate that it can do more than produce F-16s under license. During its operation in Syria's northwestern Kurdish Afrin region earlier this year Turkey's state-run news agencies Anadolu and Daily Sabah (along with the ultra-right-wing Yeni Safak) enthusiastically pointed out that Turkish-made weapons systems were being deployed against Turkey's Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) adversary. Everything from T-155 self-propelled artillery guns and Kirpi (“Hedgehog”) mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles to T129 ATAK helicopter gunships.


The articles were honest enough to outline how many of these pieces of hardware were license-built or co-produced with other countries. The T-155, for one, is largely based on South Korea's K9 Thunder while the T129 is based on the Agusta A129 Mangusta helicopter built in cooperation with Italy's AgustaWestland. Both systems took the foreign designs and integrated them with domestically-made Turkish equipment, with the T129 using the basic frame of the A129 while incorporating Turkish-made avionics and weapons, notably the guided CIRIT rockets.

During the Afrin operation Turkey notably lost one of its new T129s, likely to YPG ground fire, both crew members were killed in the crash. Ankara also sent their armour into battle without modern protection suites. Before that operation Germany had contemplated upgrading Turkey's German-made Leopard 2s with active protections system (APS). Ankara, in another bid to demonstrate its self-sufficiency said it would upgrade its tank fleet with new domestically-produced APS known as Pulat, developed by Turkey's leading Aselsan company, for its operations in Syria. Turkey says that the system will provide the country's armoured forces with complete protection from anti-tank missile and will be produced by Aselsan “from scratch.”

“They provide protection for tanks even in close-range shots," claimed Nurettin Canikli, Turkey's Defence Minister. “The system will not only be limited to tanks but also in the future they may be fitted on other armoured vehicles.”

Nevertheless, as Jane’s Defense Journal noted, the system appears to be heavily based on the Ukrainian Zaslon-L APS system, which directly contradicts Ankara's claims of complete technological ingenuity.

Turkey's tank fleet consists of German Leopard 1 and 2 tanks and older American made M60 Pattons. Gradually Turkey plans, through the construction of the Altay tank, to gradually phase out foreign-made tanks with locally-made ones. In late April the undersecretary for Turkey’s defence industry İsmail Demir predicted that the Altay would begin production in 18 months. The first batch will consist of 250 of the new main battle tanks. Demir said that with the exception of the tanks engine and transmission assembly the new tank will mostly be made up of local systems.

“There may be a need of more work to make the protective systems better,” he said, referring to the aforementioned lack of APS on Turkish tanks. “Considering all these elements we can say that the tank will be indigenous in a very large extent.”

Not unlike the case with the aforementioned T129 and T-155 the Altay's basic platform is based heavily off a foreign-made vehicle, the South Korean K2 Black Panther main battle tank. The Altay will retain license-made versions of the K2's 120mm main gun while its armour and fire control systems will be locally built by Turkish defence firms. If all goes according to plan later batches of the Altay will also be powered by Turkish-built engines.

Regarding the TAI TFX, a planned fifth-generation stealth aircraft, Turkey will co-produce the warplane with the United Kingdom, from whom it needs design and technological assistance. However, there have been recent disagreements over the amount of “sensitive technology” and “intellectual property” Rolls-Royce is willing to share. Ankara plans to first test a prototype of the TFX by the year 2023, to coincide with the centennial of the founding of the Turkish Republic. It also plans to buy at least 100 stealthy fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II from the United States, it has already ordered 30, in the meantime. All of this demonstrates the limits of its current capability to build a modern fighter jet independently from scratch.

Turkey's Roketsan has also successfully developed a new bomb kit called the Teber which, using a laser designator and navigational system, can turn unguided American-made Mark 81 and 82 'dumb' bombs in the Turkish arsenal into precision-guided 'smart' bombs. On July 4 Demir tweeted a video purporting to show the pinpoint accuracy of the new kit, announcing that the Turkish military will begin taking delivery of the new system this month.

Ankara also does appear to be making significant headway in producing its own ballistic missiles. It has announced plans to make an upgraded version of its Bora-1 missile, which was produced and went into service in the Turkish military just last year, with the Bora-2. Defence Minister Canikli has pointed out that the guidance system on the Bora-1 is American-made. Turkey, he claimed, will produce the guidance system for the Bora-2 from 2019 onward in line with its drive for complete self-sufficiency. It's unclear why Turkey is building a new variant of the Bora missile so soon given the fact that the original version has a reported range of 280 kilometres. Under the Missile Technology Control Regime, of which Turkey is a signatory, Ankara cannot construct a missile with a range exceeding 300km, leading some to question why it would allot resources to upgrade a missile just to extend its range no further than a mere additional 20km.

When it comes to smaller weapons just this year Turkey has produced a lightweight 105mm towed howitzer gun for its ground forces and is also producing long-range grenade launcher ammunition for close-quarters engagements against adversaries such as the PKK.

Taking all of these examples into account it's clear that one cannot realistically underestimate the capabilities and scale of Turkey's exponentially growing domestic arms industry. At the same time, and by the same token, Ankara also cannot realistically overestimate it while still relying substantially on outside powers for a lot of its equipment.

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