Success at its best: The Turkish defense industry

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A general assessment of the Turkish defense industry would have to cover an extensive time span due to its multilayered development process and the different areas of strength throughout these periods. Therefore, an assessment of the current conditions of the Turkish defense sector would involve looking into the developments that took place after 2017 and how they turned out. What sets apart this period is first and foremost its official positioning in the republic. The industry was governed by the Defense Ministry from 1989 to 2017, when official control was transferred to the presidency in December and the industry was renamed the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB). The process of direct affiliation with the decision mechanism is relevant to the point that the defense industry has reached, as well as its desired objectives, the policies and the transformation of the defense industry, changes in the methods used in the fight against threat factors and changes in Turkey’s government model.

From the 1990s on and until the mid-2010s, the Turkish defense industry revolved around objectives such as setting strategic plans, declared objectives, sectoral policy analyses and the emphasis on a self-reliant industry. In the following period, the Turkish defense industry gained momentum in many areas, faced its existing deficiencies and problems and solved them and followed a unique trend of gaining strength, rising and expanding. Two important issues, counterterrorism and the failed coup attempt, shaped what have become the priorities of the industry itself. In order to grasp what this translates into concretely, one could present these developments as follows:

  • The $1 billion defense and aviation turnover of 2002 has reached $11 billion per year as of 2020.
  • Defense and aviation exports, which were only $248 million in 2002, were more than $3 billion in 2019.
  • As 66 defense projects were in force in 2002, in 2020 the number of total projects approached 700.
  • While the overall budget assigned for defense projects in 2002 was $5.5 billion, the volume in 2022 was approximately $60 billion.
  • As only two Turkish firms were on the list of the world’s largest defense companies, this number is currently seven.

According to official statements, the demand for products of the Turkish defense industry is on the rise. One revolutionary aspect is the increasing potential of Turkish-made unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). The drones show a highly capable performance and the incorporation of a specific drone doctrine that prescribes the use of UCAVs in conventional battle has enabled Turkey to achieve key military successes in complex geopolitical stages in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan. This significant impact and their contribution to enhancing the military performance of its allies have brought Ankara more international influence as a resonance of the currently more revisionist, interventionist policies. This has resulted in an increase in demand for the UCAVs and forming further alliances or forwarding military bases. The most significant examples involve Poland and Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, no analysis can be lacking in describing the limits when assessing success. Although the Turkish defense industry has had exponential demand and growing investment, the problem it has yet to face is its reliance on foreign suppliers. For solid procurement and a consistent doctrine, reliance on foreign supplies have to be minimized. Yet, the import of military hardware and in certain areas technology, is a growing concern for analysts. This is related to the fact that there exists an experience deficit in foreign expertise, hardware and technology for the ongoing projects. Relying on foreign designs by conducting local alterations seems unsustainable for the long-term if the goal of self-sufficiency is to be achieved.

European security

Turkish contributions to European security start with the relationship that exists between the Turkish defense industry and the European Union’s defense framework. Here it is of use to make a comparison between what is being prioritized by the EU and what Turkey holds as assets in relation to these prioritized defense/security objectives.

  • Turkey shares borders with states that are key for the future and current positioning of security of the Middle East.
  • Having a large population (84.6 million as of 2022) makes Turkey an important regional power.
  • The Turkish army stands as the second largest standing military within NATO and the ninth largest in the world and therefore can be decisive in closing the capabilities/expectations gap (such as strategic airlift and sealift) that affects European security and defense policy.
  • Turkey has provided a powerful contribution and a reliable providence of troops to U.N.-backed international peacekeeping.

These concrete facts are better explained in their translation to direct participation in European security. Offering troops to EU missions can cite strong commitment to military unity. On the other hand, what concerns the contribution of the Turkish defense industry is the aircraft and command structures that were offered to seven EU missions.

The Russia-Ukraine war

The ongoing war in Ukraine has most definitely carried military operational and defense industrial conversations into the conflict itself. Trade, support to Ukraine and weaponry are extremely hot topics. Nevertheless, looking back at the beginning of 2021, when the world was more concerned with the pandemic and there was no expectation of war in Europe, senior Ukrainian officials declared that Ukraine was interested in strengthening its defense capabilities, with the help of Turkey, by the inclusion of militarily technological equipment. Furthermore, it was declared that the next step of the cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine in terms of defense industry was going to be the joint production of the Turkish Bayraktar armed drones with an engine contributed by the Ukrainian engine company Ivchenko-Progress.

At the beginning of February 2022, when the world was experiencing the societal anxiety of whether there would be war soon, governments were getting prepared for both cases and there was news indicating that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Kyiv resulted in the strengthening of strategic relations between the two states. The two countries signed a range of bilateral agreements (the long awaited free-trade agreement being the most major development) and a defense sector deal paving the way closer to the production of Turkey’s highly rated armed drones in Ukraine.

Then came the attack of Russia through missile strikes one morning on Feb. 24, 2022, and the war began. Purely analyzing from a defense industry point of view, Turkish drones achieved success in hitting Russian targets. This not only translated into helping Ukraine but also Turkey’s being a long-lasting ally and member of NATO.

The contribution of Turkey by selling armed drone systems to Ukraine through its private companies could possibly result in some development on Turkey’s end. The first would be demanding the cutting of the embargo on the Turkish defense industry and the rejection of sharing technology systems taken as a measure by the U.S. as a response to the S-400 crisis. The second would be further demand and success for the Turkish defense industry. Lastly, it is estimated that the current positioning of Turkey in the ongoing war and the locked-up situation in terms of S-400s will lead Turkey to enter into the F-35 program once again and show closer commitment to NATO through the ongoing war.

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