ANKARA, Turkey — A seemingly lucrative defense architecture is flourishing on both shores of the Black Sea as neighbors Turkey and Ukraine vigorously cultivate procurement relations.
Most recently, state-controlled Ukrainian company Ukrspecexport and privately owned Turkish drone specialist Baykar Makina signed what they view as a strategic cooperation deal. The agreement involves development and production of “sensitive technologies in defense and aerospace.”
Ukrspecexport has produced firearms and ammunition since 2011, and the company is known to trade in excess parts inherited from the Soviet armed forces. Its parent company, the state conglomerate Ukrboronprom, operates five divisions: aircraft products and maintenance; precision weaponry and munitions; armored vehicles, automotive equipment, engineering and special equipment; shipbuilding and marine facilities; and radar, radio communications and air defense systems.
“The deal aims to enhance both countries’ capabilities and serial production of the systems they need,” a Turkish procurement official said.
At the heart of the agreement, however, is the planned development and production of advanced drone systems, both armed and unarmed. “One immediate project may involve a high-altitude drone system with high altitude and rapid mobility capabilities specializing in obtaining detailed flight reconnaissance input,” according to the Turkish official. “Future programs may involve drone systems with attack capabilities.”
Ukraine’s newly elected president, Vladimir Zelenskiy, visited Baykar’s production and research and development units during a visit to Turkey in August.
According to a Ukrainian diplomat, the defense cooperation initiative aims to transfer ballistic missile capabilities to Turkey through Ukrspecexport’s parent company.
“The intention is to boost drone capabilities, as both Ukraine and Turkey will in the future need more drone systems with strategic capabilities,” the diplomat said. “Other potential areas of cooperation may also include helicopter gunships.”
A Turkish state aerospace company, Turkish Aerospace Industries, produces the T129 attack helicopter under license from the Italian-British firm AgustaWestland.
The emerging Turkish-Ukrainian defense cooperation has not gone unnoticed in Washington and Moscow.
“We strongly support this initiative between two allied states,” a U.S. diplomat in Ankara told Defense News.
For its part, one of Russia’s diplomats in Turkey said Moscow is keeping an eye on the "bigger picture,” referring to the delivery of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system to Turkey. Ignoring Western concerns, Turkey said it would sign a follow-up deal for more S-400 systems in the near future.
In response to the S-400 deal, the U.S. removed Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Since then, Turkey has expressed interest in procuring or co-producing a Russian-made fighter jet. Industry sources say Russian-made alternatives to the F-35 could include the Su-37 or the more advanced Su-57.
An Ankara-based expert of Turkish defense trade with former Soviet states said the drone market is an optimal starting point if Turkey and Ukraine are serious about collaborating on materiel production. “Various drone models may soon come into [the] production stage as geostrategic and military requirements of Ukraine and Turkey match,” he said.
Earlier this year, Baykar Makina won a $69 million contract to sell six Bayraktar TB2 UAVs along with ammunition to Ukraine. The company is the most prominent of a new of line Turkish drone makers penetrating the domestic and foreign markets. In a 2017 deal, the firm sold a batch of six TB2 drones to Qatar.
Turkey’s military operates 75 TB2 drones, mainly in its fight against Kurdish militants in Turkey and across the Iraqi and Syrian borders.
The Bayraktar TB2 is a medium-altitude, long-range tactical UAV system. It was developed by Kale-Baykar, a joint venture of Baykar Makina and the Kale Group. The UAV can perform reconnaissance and intelligence missions. Recently, Baykar Makina launched a naval version of the TB2.
In 2011, Kale-Baykar won a contract for serial production for the drone from Turkey’s procurement office. January 2012 saw the development and serial production of the Bayraktar Block B (which was named TB2). It completed its first flight in April 2014. The first acceptance tests of the drone occurred in November 2014, and six of the UAVs were delivered to the Turkish Land Forces by the end of 2014. A second batch of six locally made TB2 drones was delivered to the Turkish Land Forces in June 2015.
“Turkish-Ukrainian defense cooperation will potentially go beyond drone systems,” the Ankara-based expert forecast. “Promising businesses could be armored vehicle modifications and, most notably, the Altay.”
The Altay is Turkey’s first indigenous new-generation main battle tank in the making. BMC, a Turkish-Qatari partnership, last year won a contract for the serial production of an initial batch of 250 units of the Altay. The program is expected to produce 1,000 units in total.
The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come under criticism for transferring a military-owned tank factory to BMC under a 20-year lease contract. BMC’s Turkish partners include Ethem Sancak, a close business confidant of Erdogan and former board member of the president’s ruling Justice and Development Party. Opposition politicians called the transfer “an example of cronyism.”
In another politically controversial deal, the government plans to provide Baykar Makina with up to 600 million liras (U.S. $105 million). Government directive No. 1504 said such incentives will help bolster the company’s financial outlook in the next eight years. Tax benefits are also among the incentives, but not government purchase guarantees.
Baykar Makina’s chief technical official is Selcuk Bayraktar, one of Erdogan’s two sons-in-law.
Burak Ege Bekdil is a Turkey correspondent for Defense News. He has written for Hurriyet Daily News, and worked as Ankara bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-e television. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum and regularly writes for the Middle East Quarterly and Gatestone Institute.