Brain drain threatens Turkey’s defence ambitions

Turkey has seen a dramatic expansion in its defence industry in recent years, with a shift from arms procurement to arms manufacture and sales. But the sustainability of the growth in Turkey's defence industry is threatened by a brain drain caused by economic woes and authoritarianism.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the development of Turkey's defence industry a long-term goal since his early days in power.

Estimates differ between official statements and realistic numbers, but domestic production now reportedly accounts for around 50 percent of Turkey’s defence sector, compared to 20 percent in 2003. According to Erdoğan, Turkey only had 62 defence projects when his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002; the number is now nearing 700.

According to a Defense News report, from 2003 to 2020, the number of Turkish defence and aerospace companies rose from 56 to 1,500. The government was administering $5.5 billion’s worth of programmes in 2003; now the number is at $75 billion.

Local industry turnover rose from $1 billion to $10.8 billion; while exports jumped from a mere $248 million to more than $3 billion. 

Seven Turkish defence companies were listed in Defense News’s top 100 companies for revenue for 2020, up by two on the previous year. Armoured combat vehicle producer FNSS Defense Industries and military software company Havelsan were the newcomers, placing 98th and 99th respectively in this year's list.

Meanwhile, Aselsan, which became Turkey’s most valuable listed company in 2017, Turkish Aerospace, Roketsan, STM, and BMC remained on the list - ranking 48th, 53rd, 91st, 92nd and 89th, respectively.

However, several challenges - including a currency crisis, ongoing dependence on foreign suppliers, and regional political disputes - risk undermining Turkey's bid to increase its export capacity in the defence sector.

A brain drain can also put the brakes on development of the sector. 

Turkey has seen tens of thousands of qualified people in academia and industry leave the country in increasing numbers since the nationwide anti-government protests in 2013, a failed military coup in 2016, and the introduction of an executive presidential system almost two years ago.

Turkey saw a 27.7 percent rise in emigration in 2018, with the total number leaving Turkey reaching 323,918 people - over 136,000 of whom were Turkish citizens. The largest demographic group to leave the country has been the young and well-educated. 

Over 270 Turkish defence contractors, mostly senior engineers, left Turkey in 2018 for new jobs abroad, according to a survey by Turkey’s procurement authority.

One of the Turkish defence industry's major weaknesses is the lack of engine technology, Defense News reported. “For instance, one of Turkey’s most prestigious ‘indigenous’ programmes, the Altay tank, is struggling to make progress, despite a serial production contract, due to the lack of a power pack - the engine and the transmission mechanism,” it said.

Similarly, the sale of Turkish-made T129 ATAK helicopter gunships to Pakistan has hit a stumbling block as no engines have been found for the gunships after the United States failed to issue the permit required for their delivery.

The declining state of the country's academic system does help promote technical expertise. None of the universities in Turkey made it into the top 100 of the global education survey Shanghai Ranking in 2020.

Since a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, nearly 6,000 academics have been dismissed from their universities, and many more were stripped of their funding and left unable to work in Turkey. Many were also not able to travel abroad, as their passports were confiscated through decrees issued during a two-year state of emergency after the failed coup attempt.

Large numbers of educational institutes, including universities, have been shut down for alleged links to the Gülen movement, a religious group Turkey accuses of orchestrating the failed coup.

Erdoğan has framed independence in Turkey's defence as being a matter of life and death for the Turkish state. 

However, the challenges that the Turkish president faces and his neglect of Turkish academia risk ruining his defence policies and ambitions.