ANKARA, Turkey — For decades, Turkey was simply the buyer and market for foreign-made weapons systems and manufacturers. In the last decade or so, however, it rose to being the buyer, producer, co-producer and partner of countless systems that it used to purchase off the shelf.
The country now aims to achieve near-full self-sufficiency in line with its regional and global ambitions for more political clout. But some of its indigenous programs may be more time-consuming, difficult and costly to prosper than it hopes.
Progress has been substantial. In 2002, Turkey's local industry met 24 percent of the country's procurement requirements. That ratio is now at an impressive 64 percent, although experts disagree over how this number can be objectively calculated in a complex industrial system where local and imported subsystems can easily get mixed up.
Nonetheless, Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik said that Turkey aims to attain 80 percent self-sufficiency in the near future. Echoing that view in a speech in April was Ismail Demir, Turkey's top procurement official and head of the Undersecretariat for Defence Industries, or SSM:. "By 2023, we aim to do away with any dependency on foreign systems and subsystems.
The rationale for such self sufficiency is as much pragmatic as it is ambitious, as Turkey's requests for certain military systems from allies have been met by delays or refusal. Demir pointed to a recent incident of a U.S. manufacturer denied a request to sell gun towers to Turkey, citing political deliberations. "Such restrictions cause delays in our procurement programs," said Demir, who in the past pointed to delays in requests for armed drones from the U.S. as spurring domestic development. "But in this particular case, we shall be able to produce that system locally in a span of six months."
In the last 10 years or so, Turkey set out to design, develop and produce a lengthy number of indigenous systems, from corvettes and frigates, to missiles, a new-generation main battle tank, drones, fighter and trainer aircraft, and fleets of armored vehicles of different types.
SSM presently administers a portfolio of more than 460 programs worth $35 billion.
Some of these programs have matured, some progressed slowly, some have faced technical snags, some have encountered costing programs and some have faced major delays. But all programs have remained active and moving — slow or fast.
"I believe the progress of Turkish defense sector shall become more apparent once more of these products shall be available for the export market," said Faik Eken, CEO of military electronics specialist Aselsan, Turkey's largest defense company. Aselsan exports to more than 60 countries, and its annual sales are more than $1.2 billion.
The local industry is already quite self-sufficient in land systems, and efforts to develop an indigenous tank provide the opportunity to "complete the picture," in the words of Turgut Senol, CEO for RBSS, an armored vehicles venture between Turkey's BMC, Germany's Rheinmetall and Malaysia's Etika.
Progess is being made in other markets as well. In 2016 alone, state-controlled missile maker Roketsan qualified four products. In the next seven years, the company plans to move on from missile and rocket systems with a height of 2 meters to those with 7 or 8 meters, said Selcuk Yasar, Roketsan general manager. The Hurkus, a basic trainer aircraft developed by Tusas Turkish Aerospace Industries, was recently equipped with L-UMTAS — a laser-guided, long-range, anti-tank missile developed by Roketsan — and was showcased at a firing test field in central Turkey.
"Turkey's efforts to further develop national systems will progress at full speed in line with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policies," which strongly support domestic defense manufacturing, Senol said.
Indigenous programs seem to have given a visible boost to exports. Turkey's defense and aerospace exports have nearly doubled from $883 million in 2011 to $1.68 billion last year. Exports in 2016 saw a more modset bump from $1.65 billion in 2015, posting a rise of only 1.4 percent. Among the more lucrative deals came in February, when Turkish armored vehicle maker Otokar signed a deal in the United Arab Emirates worth $661 million for the production of 400 eight-wheel drive armored vehicles.
It's a notable success for Otokar, the maker of the prototypes of what will become the first indigenous Turkish main battle tank, the Altay. In 2016, Otokar submitted its best and final offer for the serial production contract under the Altay program, which involves an eventual production of 1,000 units. The Ankara government will decide this year whether to accept it or launch a competition.
Hurdle to self-suffiency
One major challenge Turkey's local industry has faced in enhancing indigenous programs over the past several years is the lack of a credible engine option for military platforms, including the Altay and the TF-X, the Turkish fighter jet in the making.
RBSS' Senol said that there are efforts to develop a local engine to power aerial, land and naval systems in the future. But he concedes the lack of engine technology, and failed development attempts, is a problem for local industry.
Turkey's months-long negotiations with Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for the joint development and production of an engine for the Altay failed in 2014. In 2015, Tumosan, a privately owned Turkish engine maker, signed a €190 million (U.S. $206.35 million) contract with the government to design an engine for the Altay, claiming its engine program would end Turkey's dependency on foreign-made engines for military vehicles. Tumosan then signed a deal with Austrian firm AVL List for technical and integration support of the power unit of the Altay, only to terminate the contract recently due to unresolved disputes over export licences.
Now Turkish bureaucracy and industry are mulling Ukrainian know-how for research and development activity, which they hope will eventually build a "national" Turkish engine for the Altay.
Burak Ege Bekdil was the Turkey correspondent for Defense News.