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Turkey's ever-growing indigenous arms industry

Turkey's ever-growing indigenous arms industry
8 min read
18 October, 2019
Ankara is making substantial headway toward making the Turkish armed forces largely indigenous and self-sufficient.
Last year Erdogan announced Turkey had started work on its first long-range air-defence missile [Getty]
In recent years, Turkey has developed a variety of air, land and naval systems for its military in a bid to make it more indigenous so the country can rely less on foreign suppliers. 

"We will accomplish to make our own fighter jets, just like we did with our attack helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and armed unmanned aerial vehicles," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan boasted this September.

"Our aim is to completely remove foreign dependence in the defence industry, by 2023," he added.

That year will coincide with the centennial of Turkey's independence in 1923 when Erdogan plans to showcase Turkey's various achievements under his presidency.

In September 2018, the Turkish president said that in its military operations 65 percent of the weapons Turkey uses are indigenous. Turkey, he said, would have faced more obstacles when undertaking military operations if we had not reached this level.

"As long as we remain only a user of technology, we cannot guarantee our freedom in any area," he added.

Read also: How long can Turkey avoid US
sanctions for its S-400 missile purchase?

Erdogan's recent comment about building a fighter jet came after the suspension of Turkey from the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Turkey was removed from the programme for buying Russian S-400 air defence missile systems, which Washington insists could compromise classified information on the F-35's capabilities if they are both operated together in the same military.

Ankara denied there was any risk of this.

Turkey's suspension from the programme means it will not be able to take delivery of the 100 F-35 jets it ordered and also will not have a lucrative role manufacturing hundreds of the fighter's parts for other members of the programme.

Ankara has been working on its own indigenous fifth-generation stealth air superiority fighter jet, the TAI TF-X. It hopes the TF-X will gradually replace the country's F-16 fleet and also give Turkey fighter jets it can export.

However, it hasn't made progress on developing indigenous engines for the jet. Rolls Royce had submitted a tender but withdrew it after fears that its intellectual property would be passed on to a third party. For now, Turkey plans to use General Electric engines for the TF-X prototypes and the first batch of the aircraft.

However, this means that Ankara will have to compromise on the stealth capabilities of the TF-X.

Turkey has been much more successful in building a formidable drone programme.

"I don't want to be sarcastic but I would like to thank [the US government] for any of the projects that was not approved by the US because it forced us to develop our own systems," said İsmail Demir, the Undersecretary for Turkey's Defence Industries, back in May 2016, referring to Turkey's success in building the type of drones the US refused to sell it.

I don't want to be sarcastic but I would like to thank [the US government] for any of the projects that was not approved by the US because it forced us to develop our own systems

Turkey has built a variety of armed and unarmed drones for attack and reconnaissance operations. It has used these drones against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Additionally, Turkey also sent armed Bayraktar TB2 drones to its Libyan allies the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. These drones prevented that group's adversary the Libyan National Army (LNA) from dominating the country's airspace and also helped the GNA setback the LNA's ferocious siege on Tripoli.

Turkey also recently begun fielding ANKA-S drones which can reportedly fly as high as 30,000 feet, stay air bourne for 24 hours and carry a 200-kilogramme payload.

Turkey introduced its first locally built attack helicopter, the T129 ATAK, in 2014. The T129 was built in partnership with Italy's AgustaWestland and is, as a result, based largely on Italy's Agusta A129 Mangusta attack helicopter.

The Turkish Army's fleet of 41 T129 helicopters will gradually phase out its older and smaller fleet of American-made AH-1 Cobra and SuperCobra attack helicopters, the predecessor to the AH-64 Apache.

Since the T129 is powered by American-made engines Turkey needs US export licenses if it wants to sell the helicopters. This has directly affected a lucrative deal to sell T129s to Pakistan since the US has refused to give the necessary authorisation.

To date, Turkey has failed to find alternative engine suppliers for future T129s.

The T129 saw its combat debut when Turkey invaded the small Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin in early 2018. One crashed during that operation with the loss of both its crew.

Read also: How will the S-400 vs F-35
saga between Turkey and the USA end?

In April, Turkey officially launched the country's first indigenous program to build a heavy helicopter gunship in the 8- to 10-ton category.

The helicopter, which will include various advanced features ranging from its communications and weapons systems to its electronic warfare suites, is expected to make its maiden voyage in the next five years.

Turkey unveiled its first indigenous multirole helicopter in September 2018, the T625. It expects mass production of this helicopter to begin after 2021.

The country has also built some formidable missiles. In 2017 it introduced the Bora ballistic missile, which has a range of 280 kilometres, following years of working with China on missile development. In May, the Bora saw its combat debut when one was used to support Turkish operations against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey is also developing a short-range surface-to-air missile system called the Hisar-A which it test-fired in March. Turkey said the missile scored a 100 percent success against a target aircraft flying fast at a high altitude

In September, Turkey test-fired its indigenously-built cruise missile, the SOM-B2, which successfully penetrated the concrete roof of a bunker. Turkey plans to use the missile to destroy similar hardened targets in combat. 

In October 2018, Erdogan announced that Turkey had started work on its first long-range air defence missile, the 'Siper'. He claimed the project, which is seeing Turkey's biggest defence firms collaborate to develop, will deliver its first system by the end of 2021.

Turkey is also developing a short-range surface-to-air missile system called the Hisar-A which it test-fired in March. Turkey said the missile scored a 100 percent success against a target aircraft flying fast at a high altitude.

The mobile missile system, which has a range of 15 km, is expected to be delivered in 2021.

Turkey has a very limited air defence systems primarily consisting of very old medium-range British Rapier and American MIM-23 air defence missiles. It started taking delivery of the much new, more sophisticated and longer-range Russian S-400s this summer.

In November 2018, an agreement was signed for the Turkish arms manufacturing company Roketsan to build large numbers of long-range radar-guided anti-ship cruise missiles.

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Turkey has made significant headway in building warships too. The MILGEM programme national ship programme has seen Turkey successfully construct four indigenously-built Ada-class corvettes for its navy, the most recent being the TCG Kınalıada, which was commissioned at a ceremony on September 29 attended by Erdogan. 

Ankara is also building four MILGEM-class ships for the Pakistani Navy. Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli said the deal amounts to Turkey's largest defence export at once and for all and also noted that its costs are equal to almost one quarter of Turkey's total agricultural exports.

Turkey is even building an amphibious assault ship called the TCG Anadolu, which is based the Spanish assaults hip SPS Juan Carlos I. It will become the flagship of the Turkish Navy.

Since its suspension from the F-35 programme, Turkey cannot buy vertical takeoff F-35Bs for the Anadolu.

Also, unless it can buy much older and less sophisticated AV-8B Harrier jump-jets, which only the US Marines now possess, the Anadolu is not likely to have any fighter jets taking off from its short flight deck anytime soon. Therefore, the ship will likely be outfitted with helicopters and drones instead.

For its land forces, Turkey is building a main battle tank called the Altay. The Altay is slated to eventually replace Turkey's fleet of German Leopard and much older American M60 Patton tanks. Turkey also intends to export the Altay.

As with the aforementioned T129, the Altay is not wholly a Turkish design. Turkey bought the rights to use the technology in the Altay from South Korea for $400 million. As a result, the Altay is heavily based on the South Korean K2 tank. 

Similarly, Turkey's T-155 Fırtına self-propelled artillery guns are based on the South Korean K9 Thunder, albeit with significant modifications and systems developed by Turkey.

The transfer of these technologies to Turkey amounted to South Korea's two most lucrative arms deals.  

Turkey's BMC manufacturing company has also successfully made mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, the BMC Kirpi (Hedgehog), which has seen combat in Turkey's recent operations in Syria. Kirpi's have also been supplied to Turkey's aforementioned GNA allies in Libya's Tripoli.

In April, Turkish manufacturer Otokar unveiled the country's first electric armoured vehicle, the Akrep II, which the company's manager said is Turkey's first steps into the field of electric, hybrid and autonomous military vehicles.

Taken all together, these projects demonstrate that Ankara is making substantial headway toward making the Turkish armed forces largely indigenous and self-sufficient.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon