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Turkey’s Defence Industry is Growing With the Backing of the West

The strategic development of an independent Turkish defence industry is based on the practice of forming joint ventures with European and American defence companies. Collaborations that favour the transfer of know-how to Turkey

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Apostolos Fotiadis

The capitulation of Armenia earlier this week is a prime example of how the regional armament superiority that Turkey has begun to develop is becoming an immediate threat to many of its neighbours. During the conflict, Azerbaijan relied heavily on equipment and military assistance from Turkey.

The Turkish Bayraktar-TB2 drone acquired by the Azeris a few months ago played a key role. The TB2 has been touted as the crowning jewel of the  Turkish military industry’s growth potential over the last decade. At the same time, however, it is a prime example of how this development dynamic has contributed to the rapid militarisation of Turkish foreign policy in recent years. However, the role of western companies in the development of the system is rarely mentioned.

An analysis of the findings of a TB2 shot down in Armenian-controlled territory and published online by the US Armenian National Committee shows that the basic know-how and a significant number of system components come from companies in Europe and the US.

Ceri Gibbons, a researcher for the Brighton Against the Arms Trade activist group, was one of the first to gather data on the use of western-based components in TB2. “Western companies have fuelled Turkey’s military expansion in the region by providing critical technology for lethal unmanned aircraft. While domestic political sensitivities are urging the Turkish government to downgrade this cooperation, a close relationship with western companies is still required in order to gain access to state-of-the-art technologies,” Gibbons said.

Cheaper than the US, Chinese and Israeli systems, the TB2 has already been exported to Qatar and Ukraine. Turkey has deployed TB2 in northern Syria and delivered an unknown number to Libya in violation of the UN embargo. In early October, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbia was also interested in buying the TB2.

The risks that may arise from the growing power imbalance in the wider region have already been reflexively activated. Having already announced a large rearmament package, Greece has tried to include a provision for a possible EU arms embargo on Turkey in the conclusions of the European Council on the 18th of October.

According to sources based in Brussels, the Greek motion was blocked by various countries, such as Germany, Italy, Spain and Hungary. Since then, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has raised the issue bilaterally again with Germany, Italy and Spain at every opportunity. “The economic issue is secondary to a country like Germany,” says an analyst from a major US media outlet.

For Berlin, whether or not to suspend co-operation with Ankara on military-industrial programmes “depends on the assessment of how much this would alienate Turkey and Erdoğan even further from the EU and Euro-Atlantic structures”. This is a balancing exercise that also concerns the United States and an issue of drawing the line that is difficult to answer.

Athens has reason to worry. Greece has four T-214 submarines believed to provide the country’s Navy with a tactical advantage over Turkey. But Ankara has planned to acquire six T-214s through a co-production of a subsidiary of Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and the Turkish shipyard Golcuk. The first was already delivered at the end of last year and five more will be delivered by 2026.

The strategic development of an independent Turkish defence industry is based on this practice of forming joint ventures with European and American defence companies. Collaborations that favour the transfer of know-how to Turkey.

According to Martin Broek, a Dutch activist who has been studying this strategy since the 1990s, Turkey “uses its geostrategic position and the role of the EU’s border guard to operate with great confidence”. Weapons systems are a tool for this function, but the tool is not yet fully Turkish. “Access to components, military-industrial know-how and weapons could be curtailed or even cut to push Turkey towards a less aggressive foreign policy.”

According to Broek, the role of the Turkish Undersecretariat for Defence Industries (SSM) “has been central to the whole course of the expansion of the Turkish defence industry”.

The SSM was renamed the Presidency for Defence Industries (SSB) and moved under the control of the president after 2017 and the change to a presidential system.

SSB’s key role is to assist Turkish companies in research and development programmes through joint ventures with western companies. Broek cites as examples of this model of cooperation the armoured vehicle manufacturer FNSS Defence Systems, a joint venture between the Turkish Nurol Holding and the British defence company BAE Systems, with a 51% and 49% participation respectively, and the air defence systems manufacturer AYESA, a joint venture between Turkish companies Zorlu Group and Vestel Defence and the US-based L-3 Communications, which was renamed L3Harris Technologies last year after a merger with Harris Corporation.

The most iconic project of technology transfer in the last decade is the over one billion euro TCG Anadolu, the first of two scheduled light aircraft carriers built by the Turkish SEDEF and the Spanish state shipyard Navantia.

Other key projects in progress include the fifth-generation TF-X fighter and the ALTAY battle tank. But also the ATAK combat helicopter, manufactured by Turkish Aerospace Industries-TAI, with technology that Turkey acquired through a long-term joint venture with Italian state defence giant Leonardo.

All three programmes, however, face challenges due to disagreements over the transfer of know-how and intellectual property from the western defence industries involved. In early 2019, the Financial Times reported that Rolls-Royce had “abandoned” the engine construction program for the TF-X due to a dispute over intellectual property issues.

A similar dispute has delayed production of 250 ALTAYs, with German companies MTU and RENK – which would provide engine and gearbox technology – temporarily withdrawing from the collaboration. MTU is owned by Rolls-Royce Holdings.

There is also a delay in the 1.5 billion dollar order ATAK helicopters from Pakistan. The reason is the necessary re-export license for helicopter engines manufactured by the Light Helicopter Turbine Engine Company, LHTEC, a joint venture between Rolls-Royce and US Honeywell, which, however, has stuck in the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. This came as a result of Turkey purchasing Russian S-400 ballistic missiles.

Sim Tack, a military analyst at Stratfor, believes exports will be key to the viability of Turkey’s defense industry.

“As Turkey acquires a new regional role, it needs a level of independence in its supply chain. In the past, it relied on imports from the US and other western countries. As long as it distances itself in foreign policy, it must diversify and make its production  independent.”

Exports offer “direct political influence,” says Tack, “and also involve ensuring the long-term viability of domestic production. The more you export, the more sustainable the production cost becomes.”

According to SSB data, the industry’s sales in 2017 amounted to 6.69 billion dollars, from 1.86 billion in 2006. Turkish exports in 2018 amounted to 2.03 billion dollars.

Yannick Quéau, director of the independent Peace and Security Research Group, GRIP, explains why the Balkan countries will be a priority for Turkey in terms of exports.

“Turkey is looking for low and medium cost markets where it can expect the Turkish product to become part of the competition […] Buyers in Africa, East Asia or the Balkans are looking for reliable defense products, but do not have huge supply requirements. Thus, they are more likely to be approached by Turkey.”

* The survey was carried out with the support of Balkan Insight

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