ISTANBUL - Turkey’s ongoing military offensive against a Kurdish militia in Syria's Afrin enclave is showcasing the growing prowess of the Turkish armaments industry. In recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to dramatically reduce his country’s dependency on imported arms.
“Almost all of the armored carriers (operating) in Afrin are domestically produced. I thank our friends who produced them,” said Erdogan Wednesday at a meeting at his presidential palace. The Turkish military, alongside allied Syrian rebels, is seeking to seize Afrin, a Kurdish enclave, from the control of a Kurdish militia that Ankara accuses of being a terrorist group linked to an insurgency inside Turkey.
Erdogan went on to blame the deaths of Turkish soldiers fighting in Afrin on the failure of countries to sell Turkey sophisticated weapons, including armed drones. He did not name the countries to which he was referring.
Last year, Erdogan issued a presidential decree putting Turkey’s armament industry directly under his control. The government has poured billions of dollars' worth of investments into expanding the defense industry. Further investments are on the way. “A total of 55 projects worth $9.4 billion were evaluated,” according to a presidential statement in January at a meeting of Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries.
“In the past there was no money, but now there is a lot of money slushing around, and the AKP has the vision to realize this project. This is a success story of the AKP,” said political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, referring to the ruling party. “We used to procure 80 percent of our (armament) needs from abroad; now we are producing our own rifles, simple drones, armored vehicles. It saves foreign currency, it develops an industry which has some export potential and reduces foreign dependency.”
Trimming foreign dependency on imported weapons is a key priority of the Turkish government. The current Afrin operation has served as a reminder to Ankara of the vulnerability of such dependency. Germany is currently blocking a key upgrade of Turkish-owned, German-made Leopard tanks because of their use in the Afrin operation.
But the Afrin campaign is also showcasing Turkey’s armaments industry.
“There are many new military technologies. Turkey has developed armed drones, helicopters, smart munitions and for the first time, they are all being tested in action abroad,” said defense analyst Metin Gurcan, who also served in the Turkish military. “I am sure all these new systems will be tested and after that, upgraded accordingly. Systems that are combat proven result in their prices going up,” Gurcan added.
Along with developing strategic arms independence, Ankara has an eye on the lucrative international arms market. Analysts suggest Turkey is unlikely to try and compete with the world's major players, but rather will try and find a niche. “Turkey has been trying to become a very important player in the arms exports market, in the region of the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa,” said Gurcan.
“Turkey is very flexible, ready to accept proposals for technology transfer joint production, also at a cheaper price, than the normal market prices. I think Turkey's arms industry is emerging as a new exporter that can provide, more efficient, low cost, battle tested, and less problematic for arms buyers,” he said.
Gurcan points out Ankara is using close diplomatic ties, with central Asian countries and Qatar, to secure several arms contracts.
Turkey’s defense industry, however, may be approaching a ceiling in reducing its dependency on arms imports.
“Turkey does not produce its own microchips, not even the general use chips. So anything that requires specialized circuitry you have to buy from abroad,” points out analyst Yesilada. “If you are producing a guided missile you can’t (in Turkey) because you don’t have a similar domestic industry where you can draw on their experience.”
The Turkish defense industry says it has started to produce so-called smart bombs, but analysts suggest they fall short of the capability of munitions imported from the United States and Europe. Turkish forces are relying heavily on such specialized munitions in their ongoing Afrin operation, with hundreds of air sorties already carried out. A Western diplomat with knowledge of the subject says Ankara is starting to reach out to allies to replenish its stocks of such weapons.
Bridging the technology gap is a priority for Ankara. It has made technology transfers a key demand for purchases of sophisticated weapons, particularly its efforts to buy a surface-to-air missile system. Several bids, including from the United States, of its Patriot missile system broke down in part because of disputes over technology transfers. Such failings are reasons given by Ankara for its controversial decision to buy an S-400 missile system from Russia. Turkey's NATO allies had warned against doing so, citing compatibility issues.
“It's (a deal) already done. Turkey paid 40 percent of it and the rest is given as a credit by Russia, and the first delivery is by 2020,” said international relations expert Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technology University.
It remains unclear whether Moscow has met Ankara’s technology transfer demands and the details of the deal remain unclear. Bagci suggests that Turkey’s defense industry has hit a ceiling for now.
“Turkey is buying big jet fighters, smart bombs, etc., and is selling small munitions, artillery, etc. Turkey is definitely not yet a giant of weapons production; it is not,” Bagci said.