Turkey’s ‘domestic and national’ military production is both hard power and PR tool

Ahval’s John Lubbock talked to Turkish academic Axel Çorlu about Turkey’s progress in domestic military production for the Made in Turkey podcast. Lubbock and Çorlu looked at how much progress Turkey has made in military production, and what factors are driving this effort.

Lubbock discussed the Carnegie Endowment’s recent report into the Turkish military industry, and discussed whether recent improvements were as impressive as the Turkish government’s PR suggests.

Turkey’s defence sector has been closely integrated to the power of the Presidency under President Erdoğan, who has made the Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) directly responsible to him. As such, the improvement of Turkey’s domestic military industry has become a pet project of the President.

The progress of domestic military production relates strongly to the history of Turkish nationalism, according to Çorlu, and bolster’s Turkey’s claim to be a significant power in its region. Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ attempt to expand its hard power in its region plays into nostalgia for a glorious past.

“The Turkish public has been fed a sophisticated, comprehensive information campaign starting from early age, throughout the education system, the media. And politicians of all sorts have been repeating this refrain, that Turkey needs to be independent. As long as we are associated with these structures like NATO, they are nice, but at its core, we need to be able to do whatever we want for our own interests, but when those interests don’t align, we need to be able to do whatever we want,” Çorlu said.

On a more practical level, Turkey still imports a significant number of components necessary to produce military hardware domestically. Becoming more self-sufficient has long been a goal of Turkish state policy makers, who understand that Turkish regional goals do not always align with their NATO allies, and would like to be independent of the military structures of its Western allies.

Çorlu says that Turkey’s recent military conflicts have flattered the progress in Turkey’s defence sector, being limited conflicts against weaker military groups who lacked air superiority. These conflicts were fertile grounds for the growth of drone warfare. 

For Çorlu, “The Erdogan regime has been dealt an unprecedented hand in history, the kinds of things that it did in its foreign policy, at any other time in history, would have resulted in far more significant consequences. Few regimes would have survived all the crises that the Erdogan regime dragged Turkey into, and yet it somehow managed to get away with a lot of things.”

This makes it hard to properly assess the improvements of Turkey’s domestic military industry, because while it is clear that some progress has been made, these improvements have so far only been showcased in small conflicts. One potential problem with this is that Turkey’s military leadership could start believing some of their own PR about how powerful they are and find that their drones do not work as successfully in bigger military conflicts with more advanced countries.

It is undoubtedly clear that Turkey has made considerable economic advances in self-sufficiency in its military production. In doing so, Turkey is becoming a more militarised society with more powerful capabilities, and freer from the constrictions of its Western power alliance with NATO. 

Many of Turkey’s military products are still built with foreign components. Promoting new military equipment as ‘domestic and national’ promotes the idea that Turkey is becoming more powerful, but this narrative both hides potential weaknesses in Turkey’s military production, and also convinces the public that Turkey is more of a military power than it is. These misconceptions promote the power of the ruling AKP government, but are also potential future pitfalls for its ability to project hard power in its region.

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