Theresa May visited Turkey in January 2017, months after the abortive coup. On the agenda was an over £100 million deal in which the UK would ostensibly help to build Turkey’s first domestically-produced jet fighter, known as the The TAI TFX – a twin-engine aerial superiority fighter jet that could work in all weathers.
On the surface, this may seem like nothing new for Turkey – in reality, it’s highly significant. The program, if all goes to plan, would significantly reduce Turkish dependence on foreign suppliers for its armed forces, especially America and Britain. Indeed, Turkey plans to have the TFX replace all its F16s – a US design – by 2030. The lynchpin of the airforce is currently the US F-16. That is, if the UK will let it go to plan, which history shows is unlikely.
Nevertheless, these plans are part of a widespread trend in Turkey – and even in Azerbaijan – of an effort to create an independent arms industry that would reduce (and possibly even eliminate) Turkish dependence on the west and Russia for its defence capabilities.
The deficiencies of the current Turkish military machine were made apparent ever since the ongoing Syrian war erupted in 2011. Lacking a long-range missile system of its own, Turkey was forced to request that NATO station Patriot batteries along its Syrian border to intercept stray missiles that may land in its territory (which remains a very real threat).
In 2016, Operation Euphrates Shield was launched and the Turkish army swept towards al-Bab, expecting a quick victory. The operation did not go well. Concealed Da’esh fighters inflicted heavy losses on Turkish and FSA units, spectacularly destroying and capturing several German-made tanks and routing often superior Turkish units before voluntarily retreating from the town in February of this year.
All these instances clearly pushed the Turks into speeding up the modernisation of the army – and it hasn’t stopped at planes. In December 2016, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık announced that Turkey had begun to produce its own Hisar-O missile, a joint effort between Turkish defense firms Roketsan and Aselsan.
“Turkey has to achieve and develop critical technologies in both air and missile defense systems,” Işık said. “Turkey actually has made considerable progress despite its late start.” His aim, he said, is for current developments to “get faster”.
Turkey has even begun to build its own basic infantry weapons, in the form of a domestic version of the standard NATO AR-10 battle rifle to replace the outdated Heckler & Koch G3A7s currently in use. The MPT-76 entered service this January and was constructed by MKEK (a Turkish state-owned small arms manufacturer) alongside KaleKalip. Praised by soldiers, $20 million has been invested and it’s currently the official rifle of the Turkish ground forces.
Turkey is also developing its own tanks. In November 2016, Koç Holding’s Otokar said it was able to begin mass production of the Altay tank within 18 to 22 months (see above). The first batch would consist of some 250 vehicles and the plan seems to be to gradually replace the 700 German-made Leopard 1 and Leopard 2s, as well as the obsolete American M-48 and M-60 Pattons, 2000 of which are still in service. The embarrassing performance of Turkish tanks in Syria probably inspired this move.
At sea, Turkey is currently expanding plans to develop the “Istanbul Frigate” – also in January. The vessel would be armed with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles and wield a 76-millimeter gun. Weighing some 3000 tons, these ships will be the first of their kind in the history of the Turkish state.
“It is one of the top priorities of our government to enable our military to have a strong navy equipped with locally made arms, as three of Turkey’s sides are surrounded by the sea.” – Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık
No domestic opposition has been voiced in response to these measures – indeed, the most vocal concern in the past has come from NATO and other foreign forces, most of whom would be grieved to both lose Turkish business and the advantage that their monopoly on weaponry has granted them.
Many eyebrows were raised when Turkey seemed on the verge of buying a long-range Chinese clone of the Russian S-300 surface-to-air system to provide Turkey with self-sufficient missile defences. NATO sent out a carefully-worded statement claiming the system risked being incompatible with their own defences.
European and American defence firms were quick to jump in to warn that any purchase of these missile systems would damage cooperation “in certain fields” – a clear warning to Ankara to back off. A spooked Turkey dutifully cancelled the plan, but continues to float the possibility of buying missiles from other sources, Russia included.
Turkey has often been forced to choose between taking independent paths and risking the anger of its erstwhile allies, or permanently depending upon their support at cost to their own sovereignty. Historically, Turkey has always done the latter. After the abortive coup, and the lukewarm western response to its defeat, Turkey seems to be tentatively looking to the former.
The strained ties between Turkey and the west (namely the United States) has pushed Turkey further towards Russia and lessened the fear of western sanctions or reprisals. The United States recently threatened to withhold delivery of the new F-35 fighter jets should Turkey purchase an S-300 missile system. For Erdoğan, it’s a moment of truth.