ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, secured another election victory June 24 when he won 52.5 percent of the vote in presidential elections. The election result gives Erdogan, who has been in power since 2002, mandate to rule until 2023.
Erdogan’s closest presidential rival, social democrat candidate Muharrem Ince, won only 31 percent of the national vote.
Erdogan is widely known for his ambitions in indigenous defense and aerospace capabilities in line with his efforts to increase Turkey’s regional and global political clout.
Current indigenous programs include the TF-X fighter jet, the new-generation battle tank Altay, attack and utility helicopters, several armed and unarmed drones, unmanned land and naval vehicles, frigates and corvettes, satellites, and numerous armored vehicle models with strong export potential.
Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, failed to win parliamentary majority in Turkey’s 600-seat house, but its right-wing partners, the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, won enough to lift the Islamist-nationalist alliance to 345 seats, a comfortable majority in the legislation.
The alliance means Erdogan’s AKP will have to share power with MHP by potentially giving smaller, nationalist allies a vice presidency and/or some Cabinet seats. MHP has thus become a de facto coalition partner.
In an April 2017 referendum, Erdogan won new, sweeping powers for what he called an executive presidential system. The amendments simultaneously made him head of state, government and the ruling party. The referendum also endorsed minimal, if any, checks and balances on the president.
Under the new system, the defense procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defence Industries, or SSM, which previously reported to the defense minister, will now solely report to Erdogan under a new “presidential department,” the Defence Industry Executive of the Presidency.
The head of this new department will be equipped with semi-ministerial powers, reporting directly to the president. A defense minister in charge of national security matters will serve in the Cabinet.
After Erdogan is sworn in at a parliamentary ceremony in the weeks ahead, the parliament will convene to pass laws endorsed in the April 2017 referendum, including the new administrative structure for defense procurement.
“It will take some time before we administratively restructure the SSM,” a senior SSM official said. “I guess by autumn we will be fully up and running as usual.”
Government sources speculate that SSM‘s chief, Ismail Demir, will continue on as chief defense procurement official after the restructuring, although Erdogan can decide to replace him with another AKP bureaucrat or politician. “Demir remains the likely candidate,” a source said.
The SSM official said that most major procurement programs will continue with business as usual after the bureaucratic restructuring.
“Erdogan remains keen in boosting major programs and thus multiplying the capabilities the local industry has won over the past several years,” the official said.
On the international front, the new procurement bureaucracy will struggle to prevent a U.S. bill that would block Turkey from getting the F-35 fighter jet until the U.S. Defense Department sends Congress a report on how to strip Turkey from the F-35 program. The language is in the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which has not yet become law.
Turkey is a member of the Joint Strike Fighter consortium that builds the F-35 and has committed to buy 100 of the stealth fighters, with a follow-on option to buy 16 more.
There is also language that the Senate Appropriations Committee’s State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee added to its spending bill that would block Turkey from getting the F-35 until Turkey agrees to no longer purchase the Russian-made S-400 air and missile defense system.
The S-400 deal would make Turkey the first NATO member state to deploy the system on its soil.
Finalizing the S-400 deal will be one of the new administration’s priorities, according to presidential sources. “This will be Turkey’s sovereign decision,” one source said. “It is not negotiable [with NATO or the U.S.]”
Meanwhile two state-controlled companies, Aselsan and Roketsan, are in talks with Franco-Italian group Eurosam for the co-development and co-production of an indigenous long-range air and anti-missile defense system.
Turkey will also be in a critical round of talks with two British companies, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, on their future role in the TF-X fighter jet program. Under a January 2017 contract, BAE is the foreign know-how supplier for the preconceptual design for the Turkish fighter in the making. Rolls-Royce wants to co-produce an engine that will power the TF-X.
Burak Ege Bekdil is the Turkey correspondent for Defense News.