In recent years, Turkey’s defense industry has been developing rapidly. At the very beginning of the 2000s, the country’s rate of dependency on foreign industrial suppliers was around 80%. It now is able to create weaponry and systems with its local resources. In this regard, The 13th International Defense Industry Fair (IDEF 2017) was important in demonstrating the development of Turkey’s defense industry.
Turkish firms showcased their weapons and weapon systems. The National Corvette MilGem, National Attack Helicopter T129 ATAK, National Main Battle Tank ALTAY, National Assault Rifle MPT-76, National Combat Aircraft TF-X, Turkish Light Utility Helicopter T625, Armed Hürkuş, Missiles (Cirit, Kaplan, Mızrak, Hisar, Som, Bora), National Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Bayraktar TB2, Anka and Karayel, Göktürk-1 Satellite and Armored Combat Vehicle are some examples.
There are many other ongoing weapon and weapon systems projects like these that have been completed and are being used by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the police force. The era of direct procurement from abroad is soon to be over. From joint production and partial design, Turkey evolves towards creating genuine and unique designs.
The defense industry is actually an integral component of a country’s grand strategy, national security strategy, defense strategy and hierarchy of military doctrines. The success of these strategies mostly relies on military capacity, consisting of national weapons and weapon systems. Therefore, we can talk about the development of military technology in accordance with the aims determined by the hierarchy of strategies.
While the security threats that emerged with the Arab Spring in the Middle East indicated the scope of possible threats posed by states and non-state actors, it also underscored the importance of having and utilizing domestic military technology. Turkey has repeatedly experienced the said strategic value of the defense industry. From the hardships faced before and after the Cyprus Peace Operation to the ones that are faced in fighting terrorism, from direct and indirect embargoes from Western countries to internal and external actors trying to halt the development of the Turkish defense industry, the country has experienced many difficulties. However, despite these past experiences, the Turkish defense industry has started to attract increasing international attention and become a rather hot topic over the last fifteen years. Two Turkish defense firms are now among the world’s top hundred defense firms. According to a 2016 evaluation by Defense News, ASELSAN has risen from 62nd rank to 58th, while TUSAŞ from 78th to 72nd. It should be pointed out that no other member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is on this list.
Despite being in a better condition than in previous decades, the Turkish defense industry has to employ multiple methods to meet its strategic aims in shorter periods. The defense industry has critical projects for the future; the national combat aircraft TF-X is one of them. There are alternative solutions for Turkey to eliminate the deficiencies in terms of qualified personnel capacity and technical infrastructure in a short time. According to TUSAŞ General Director Temel Kotil, “The TF-X will be a fifth generation combat aircraft. When we develop this aircraft, we will become the fourth ranking country in this field. TUSAŞ will collaborate with BAE Systems for the initial stage of the project. We are planning to have the first flight in 2023 and employ the aircraft by 2029.”
In fact, President Erdoğan’s will for the development of national defense industry allowed the sector to become what it is today. He enforced an approach that relied on local solutions and national power to ensure security and stability. In this respect, it was decided to minimize external dependencies with all kinds of incentives and support for the domestic the defense industry. While the rate of domestic resources being used to meet security needs was 24% in 2002, it rose to 41.6% in 2007 and 54% in 2011. Today, it is around 68%. Having 80% locality in terms of the defense industry, which is seen in developed countries, is what Turkey aims to achieve in the shortest time possible.
Fighting against terrorist organizations like the PKK/PYD and Daesh in recent years, Turkey once again observed the necessity of a local defense industry in its struggle for power with regional and global actors. The US’ strategic armament support to the YPG, and Western countries enforcing a direct or indirect arms embargo on Turkey as a tool during times of strained relations are now frequent occurrences. European countries are either not delivering the promised products or doing whatever they can to delay the delivery. Meanwhile, the systems that are being developed entering the inventory to ease Turkey’s anti-terror strategies and extraterritorial operations are necessary for building up a military power capacity. Looking at the transformation in anti-terror operations due to the use of UAVs is a telling enough sign.
Müjdat Uludağ of the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) stated the following: “The tensions between countries are undoubtedly affecting defense industry cooperation negatively. Especially countries with powerful defense industries are enforcing an industrial policy which aims to prevent new actors from emerging, just to protect their own positions. Turkey’s priority is to establish a completely independent defense industry. Yet, Turkey is also open to cooperation in the defense industry with allied countries; because the real threat is common issues faced by countries, like global terrorism. Common threats require common resolutions.
Keeping this in mind, our institution continues to have bilateral and multilateral cooperation with many countries around the world. We have ongoing cooperation projects with the countries of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Asia-Pacific countries with developed technological infrastructure, South American countries and allies in the Middle East. Turkey will maintain its win-win policy in these defense industry cooperation strategies. In this respect, we expect more active support from our NATO allies against all terrorist activities that pose a threat to Turkey.”
Nevertheless, it is important to make this a goal not only championed by the political establishment, but also by the bureaucracy. Universities and research centers must be engaged in this process and collaborate with the defense industry. This will ease the development of the defense industry and allow its value to be understood by the public. It is obvious that there are certain deficiencies in the cooperation between the defense industry, universities and research centers in our country, especially when compared to other countries. However, according to Kotil, there are hopeful developments in this field:
“The interest in developing technologies in the universities, innovation, intellectual and industrial property, and entrepreneurship has increased in the recent years, showing a parallel with the diversification of support and incentive programs. In this respect, we can say that industrial cooperation both in our firm and country is rapidly developing. With a proactive approach, various policies are being developed and mechanisms created to strengthen the ties with universities. With the implemented applications, strategic cooperation with universities is expected. In this context, TUSAŞ has R&D cooperation protocols with 25 universities, KOOP (long-term internship) with two universities, integrated education program with three universities and Program for Training Defense Industry Researchers (SAYP) protocol with sixteen universities. As a part of these protocols, we are sharing certain information with university staff in engineering departments and research centers about our technological road map and how to conduct projects together. On the other hand, we are working on cooperation protocols regarding research and education with many other universities. A holistic view of Turkey suggests that the country has more potential in developing cooperation between the universities and the industry. For this reason, we try to understand the expectations of universities. We want to improve our cooperation with mutual trust, long-term common goals and win-win principles.”
Therefore, these kinds of cooperation will have positive outcomes in the future. Providing figures will clarify the importance of the subject: today, only at Teknopark Istanbul, there are 170 R&D firms and their 2,750 R&D personnel started around 600 national projects up to today. Moreover, the numbers of firms, personnel and projects are increasing by the day.
Beside its political and strategic yields, the defense industry also has important economic outcomes. Especially with the incentives for exporting and the development of products that can compete on the international market, the defense industry contributed to the economy of the country. Around $196 million in defense and aviation exports in 2004 skyrocketed to $1.673 billion in 2016. The total defense and aviation turnover of $1.855 billion in 2006 is now around the $6 billion mark. As the figures suggest, the capacity and the income of the sector were at lower levels thirteen years ago. Yet, it still lags behind powers that focus on this sector.
Uludağ evaluated the situation in his following statement:
“Our defense and aviation exports are sevenfold when compared to the 2002 data. While the said rise shows that our defense industry is improving in terms of competence, it also indicates to a huge potential waiting to be tapped. As platforms, we have achieved important exports in land vehicles in the past. We are aiming to reach high figures in exports in the global markets in parallel with our business development plans for ship and helicopter platforms along with UAV systems. To reach this target, we are working in coordination with certain public institutions in providing long-term loans for products by the defense and aviation industry that have high strategic value. Meanwhile, the platforms and systems we produce are being used by TSK and our security forces; this will prove to be an advantage for the firms. Yet, our firms focusing on the international markets and strategically prioritizing their efforts with a holistic outlook is also crucial for reaching higher figures in exports.”
Therefore, it could be said that the defense industry may build up a momentum with steady steps and cling onto the international markets. A $25 billion export target has been set for 2025. While this target may be deemed as impossible in the short-term, it is quite possible with the value-added that will be provided by nationalized production of software and hardware. According to the 2016 report of SSM, SSM has approved 269 projects which amounted to TL123 billion. Looking at the distribution of the projects, it could be seen that 47.58% is for domestic development, 8.18% for domestic direct procurement, 20.07% for R&D, 8.5% for joint production projects, and 10.78% is for foreign direct procurement. Therefore, support for projects that are more local than others will bring the desired economic value with it.
Turkey is the world’s sixth largest armament importer and fifteenth largest armament exporter. According to SIPRI data, Turkey spent $15 billion on its defense budget in 2016. Transitioning from a procurer of weapons to producer of weapons contributed to our exports. Turkey’s leading export partners in terms of the defense industry are the US, Germany, Malaysia, the Gulf countries and Azerbaijan. 34.3% of the exports were done with NAFTA members, 23.7% with the EU, 18.5% with Middle Eastern countries, 8.6% with Far Eastern countries, and 7.5% with CIS countries.
There are many steps to be taken for Turkey to have a defense industry that can compete globally; however, looking at the efforts, we easily can say that Turkey is on the right track. The more independent its military technology, the more powerful Turkey will be. In this respect, the private sector has to contribute more and take the initiative.
Turkey is fighting against multiple security threats in a region mired in conflict. To not have any vulnerabilities in its fight, Turkey has to increase and consolidate its military capacity. In this sense, the defense industry has to adopt the network-centric warfare doctrine and shape its efforts accordingly. On the other hand, there are certain risks that obstruct the national defense industry. The Gülenist Terrorist Organization’s (FETÖ) activities serve as a break for certain crucial projects. Similarly, embargoes enforced by Western countries bring the risk of slowing down these projects. However, the most important risk is that immense efforts to improve the defense industry may be halted by bureaucratic procedures. Despite all the hardships and challenges, Turkey must continue developing its national defense industry and seek ways to accelerate even further.