Turkey's Gokturk-2 satellite launches into orbit from Jiuquan, China, in December. Some nations fear Ankara could use its planned satellite launch center to fire long-range missiles as well as satellites. (Turkish Aerospace Industries)
ANKARA — Turkey has approved construction of its first satellite launching center to cater for the country’s mushrooming satellite programs.
But Ankara’s western allies worry that the Turks intend to use their own launching pad to fire the long-range missiles they hope to build in the medium- to long-run.
Turkey’s procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM), in early July signed a contract with the country’s national missile manufacturer, Roketsan, to build the Turkish Satellite Launching System (UFS) for pre-conceptual design work.
Under the contract, Roketsan will design the UFS to be capable of launching, initially, satellites into low earth orbit (500 to 700 kilometers) through a launching center the company will build and the Turkish Air Force will operate.
“We intend to end Turkey’s foreign dependency on launching military and [civilian] communications satellites,” one Roketsan official said. “We also think Turkey may launch other nations’ satellites with its own system in the longer-run.”
An SSM official familiar with the program said one reason for the UFS project was that Turkish planners are aiming toward a compact space program, including a national launcher. “The government and military planners think that any space road map without an indigenous launcher would be incomplete,” he said.
But diplomats and analysts think that the Turks may have other reasons for their desire to have their own satellite launcher.
“Some of Turkey's NATO allies fear that Ankara could in the future use its satellite launcher also as a launching pad for its intended 2,500-kilometer-range missiles,” said one western ambassador in Ankara.
A defense attaché from a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) embassy in Ankara said: “It is puzzling for us to observe whether Turkey intends to use the planned [satellite] launcher for its missile ambitions. I think Turkey, if it intends to develop a long-range missile, would face other difficulties, such as problematic access to necessary equipment, other than a need to have its own launcher.”
The SCO member states are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkey in 2012 won the dialogue partner status at the SCO.
In 2011, Turkey announced plans to develop a missile with a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers, not revealing whether it would be ballistic or cruise. Although little information about the program has been released, a Turkish cabinet minister in January confirmed that Turkey possesses capabilities to produce a missile with a range of 800 kilometers.
TUBITAK-Sage, an affiliate of state scientific institute TUBITAK, has been awarded the development contract and has indicated that it intends to test a prototype within the next two years. However, independent analysts say this development plan appears to be overly ambitious.
Right now, the Turkish military’s space-based assets are geared more toward ISR missions, but Turkey has so far been dependent on other nations to launch its satellites.
A Turkish earth-observation satellite named Gokturk-2 was launched from Jiuquan, China in December. The satellite designed and built by TUBITAK’s space technologies research unit, TUBITAK-UZAY, in cooperation with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). Gokturk-2 is Turkey’s second national satellite following RASAT, which also was developed by TUBITAK-UZAY and launched from Russia on Aug. 17, 2011.
In early 2013, Turkey’s Defense Industry Executive Committee approved contract negotiations with TAI for domestic development of a synthetic aperture radar spacecraft dubbed Gokturk-3. And Turkey plans to launch Gokturk-1 in the next few years. Gokturk-1, under construction under a deal with Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space, is a larger and more powerful optical imaging spacecraft capable of sub-meter resolution that is similar to the French Pleiades earth observation satellites built by EADS-Astrium.
According to a government road map for military and civilian satellites, Turkey plans to send into orbit a total of 16 satellites until 2020. A space industry expert based here said the next five years’ satellite contracts could amount to $2 billion.
The Roketsan official said that the government would invest about $50 million in the planned UFS’ infrastructure, and another $50 million for the its electronics systems.