The Turkish military hopes to place its first orders for the indigenously developed Altay in 2014 as it faces threats from Iraq and Syria. (File)
ANKARA — Building an indigenous battle tank to counter conventional threats and transforming NATO’s second largest Army from conscript to professional drive Turkish efforts to strengthen ground warfare, according to officials and analysts.
“As we perceive the country’s south and east re-emerging as a conventional security threat, these efforts will gain prominence,” a senior military official with training and doctrine division said. “Of course, other modernization programs, most notably one for attack helicopters, will support efforts for better combat readiness with a particular view to our southern and southeastern borders.”
A London-based Turkey specialist agrees.
“Turkish ground forces have been primarily engaged in asymmetrical warfare against Kurdish insurgents over the past couple of decades,” he said. “Now they face an emerging conventional threat from Syria and northern Iraq.”
To respond, Turkey will need new generation battle tanks. Murad Bayar, Turkey’s chief procurement official, said performance tests for the Altay, the country’s first indigenous battle tank, would be completed by the end of the year.
“We will place the first order beginning of 2014,” Bayar said. “The serial production will see a large gathering of players, from local companies to military factories. This will be a cooperation work,” Bayar said.
The major player will be the local, privately owned armored vehicles manufacturer Otokar, which has produced four Altay prototypes.
Under the contract, Otokar will sell to the Turkish military four tranches of 250 units each. The Army operates 720 German-made Leopard 1 and 2s, 930 American M-60s and 1,370 M-48s, most of which are Cold War era tanks and need replacement.
The 65-ton Altay is similar to the 400 M1 tanks in the Saudi inventory. Both have a 120mm gun, composite armor and high-end electronics.
Otokar designed and unveiled the Altay with top government officials promising that the program would be completed “one or two years” ahead of time. In 2008, Otokar signed a US $500 million contract with the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) procurement office.
The SSM selected South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem for overall technical support. Turkey’s Aselsan was chosen as the subcontractor for the fire control system and the command, control, communications and information system. State-owned MKEK was selected as the subcontractor for the 120mm primary weapon and Roketsan will provide the armor.
But modern gear and weapons require a professional Army for best performance, according to the London-based Turkey specialist.
“I think it is a wise decision for the Turkish government to gradually switch to a professional Army,” he said.
The Army said on Oct. 4 that it was discharging several hundred thousand soldiers as part of an agreement between the General Staff and the government to shorten the compulsory military service of male citizens from 15 to 12 months. Some 40,000 soldiers will be immediately released while the remaining 240,000 will be discharged gradually.
As of October, the Turkish Armed Forces comprised nearly 600,000 soldiers, of whom 208,923 are professional and 379,352 are conscripts, according to the Army’s website.
The minimum term of service is 15 months, creating an ongoing requirement to equip, train and sustain new recruits. If the plan is enacted before the new year, nearly 280,000 of the 379,352 soldiers in the Army will benefit from an early discharge, as per the new regulation.
In 2012, Turkey’s General Staff began to implement a system to fight terrorism by forming and assigning only special teams of professional soldiers to conflict areas. A capacity of 50,000 soldiers is allowed for these positions — but only 1,500 professional border troops were appointed due to the low level of applications.
Refusing obligatory military service due to conscientious objection is illegal in Turkey.
Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bagis said in October that the government was considering eventually scrapping conscription and hinted at intentions to build a professional-only Army.
Attack Helicopters Are Key
Another weapon system critical to the Army’s modernization is the attack helicopters that will soon enter its inventory.
“The light and agile T-129 is the best solution for an Army that could fight both conventional and asymmetrical warfare,” Bayar said.
The initial batch of six T-129 attack helicopters Turkey has acquired from AgustaWestland, part of Italy’s Finmeccanica, are going through acceptance tests. The six T-129A EDHs (early delivery version of the T-129) are part of a batch of nine that Turkey ordered in November 2010, increasing its total order to 60. The original order was for 51 helicopters.
An agreement between Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and AgustaWestland came into force in 2008 to co-develop and produce the attack helicopters based on Agusta’s A-129 Mangusta International. Known as ATAK, the T-129 would be assembled in a plant near Ankara owned by TAI. The deal was worth $3.2 billion. TAI would develop an indigenous mission computer, avionics and the weapons systems.
Tusas Engine Industries would manufacture the LHTEC CTS800-AN engines under license. Under the co-production agreement, Turkey also has full marketing and intellectual property rights for the T-129 platform.
But when the Turkish Army became bogged down in 2012 in its war against Kurdish separatist insurgents, it needed a stop-gap solution to sustain its firepower. In October 2012, three AH-1W Super Cobra choppers were provided by the US Marine Corps in line with an agreement made in 2011. Turkey operates another six Super Cobras and around 20 earlier models of the Cobra family.