Turkey’s relations with the West have been tense since the July 15 military coup attempt. In the wake of the coup, the ongoing state of emergency, detainments, arrests, and shutdown of media outlets have evoked strong European criticisms of Ankara. Turkey views these criticisms with distrust, considering American and European leaders’ willingness to provide asylum to accused coup perpetrators and reluctance to condemn the coup at the time of the event. On November 24, relations worsened when the European Parliament advised the European Union to suspend Turkey’s accession process. The Austrian Parliament’s simultaneous adoption of an arms embargo against Turkey added further tension. As a result, Turkish decision makers have increased efforts to develop Turkey’s independent arms capabilities.
In this context, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented on the need to break Turkey’s dependence on foreign countries, speaking after the launch of Turkey’s intelligence satellite, Göktürk-1, from the French Guiana. In a similar vein, Turkey’s defense minister, Fikri Işık, criticized Austria’s embargo decision, calling it a motivation builder for Turkey’s arms industry. To provide background, the US embargo that followed Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974 gave birth to Turkey’s leading weapons manufacturer, Aselsan. Currently, Erdoğan’s and Işık’s statements signal the adoption of a more independent arms policy in Ankara. In fact, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) election manifests in 2011 and 2015 show that for the party, an independent, self-sufficient weapons manufacturing industry was already considered central to transforming Turkey into a prominent player in regional and world politics. As a result of Turkey’s foreign policy goal, the country’s most important defense contractors, including Aselsan, Tübitak, Roketsan, Havelsan, Tusaş, Tümosan, and Meteksan, were tasked with developing indigenous weapons and defense systems.
Turkey’s ambitious Milgem Project - which produced its first national warship, TCG-Heybeliada, in 2011 - constitutes the most concrete example of this policy. The TCG-Heybeliada is also known as “the ghost ship” due to its capacity to go off radar. Having seen TCG-Heybeliada’s success, the project began mass production. In 2013 and 2016 respectively, TC-G Büyükada and TC-G Burgazada entered the Turkish Armed Forces’ (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri – TSK) inventory. Aside from addressing its own needs, Turkey also seeks to use the Milgem Project to become an active weapons supplier. For Turkey, Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, are important arms markets. Additionally, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are also potential markets for Turkish defense contractors selling maritime and non-maritime weaponry.
Beyond improving its maritime warfare capabilities, the Erdoğan’s government has also developed weaponry for its land forces. Using TSK’s inventory of Western weaponry as models, Turkish engineers have developed indigenous weaponry. For example, the country produced its first national infantry rifle, called the MPT-76, similar to the M16. In May 2016, the MPT-76 went into mass production for TSK. TSK is also producing heavy weaponry, like its Fırtına howitzers, which are frequently used against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat - PYD) at the country’s Syrian border. While this weapon increased TSK’s range and firepower capacity to 40 km, it also highlighted the army’s need for a long-range missile. Observation of Iran’s Shihab-3 missile capabilities has pushed Turkey to develop its Yıldırım ballistic missiles, extending its missile range capacity. While Yıldırım-1’s range is limited to 150 km, Yıldırım-2 is capable of reaching up to 300 km. With Yıldırım-3, Turkey seeks to expand its missile range to 900 km. Eventually, with Yıldırım-4, Ankara will seek to develop medium-range ballistic missiles, with a range of 2,500 km. TSK also launched a national tank project called Altay. Although this project is portrayed as exclusively Turkish, German and South Korean contributions to the tank’s engine and cannon must be noted. Altay went into mass-production in August, and TSK will receive 250 Altay tanks in the next five years.
Likewise, the Turkish Air Force is also in the process of developing weaponry. In 2011, TSK developed its own Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, responding to frequent dogfights with the Greek air force on the Aegean Sea, such as those that took place in March and December 2015, and the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara flotilla case, which cast Israel as a possible adversary. Until 2011, Turkey had been using NATO’s IFF system, which did not allow Turkey to redefine NATO’s default friendly states. With its new Turkish manufactured IFF, Ankara acquired the ability to define its own friends and foes. In terms of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), the friction between Jerusalem and Ankara persuaded the Turkish decision makers to end their dependence on Israel. In 2008, Turkey bought 10 Heron UAVs from Israel for 183 million dollars. By developing armed Bayraktar UAVs, in 2014, Turkey became an independent UAV manufacturer. Additionally, by developing Atak, a Turkish attack helicopter, TSK further strengthened its position in its asymmetric war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK).
While relying on helicopters and UAVs in its war against the PKK, Turkey seeks to control its mountainous border regions with high-resolution efficient intelligence space satellites. The Göktürk-2 satellite was launched into space in 2012, and recently, the Italian Telespazio launched Göktürk-1, a more complex satellite. Despite the success of the Italian launch, President Erdoğan stated his intention to end Turkey’s dependence on foreign countries.
In addition to producing its own weapons, Turkey seeks to enrich its arsenal by diversifying its weapons imports from non-NATO countries, ending its dependence on NATO weapons. In the long run, this step would weaken NATO’s influence over Ankara, and produce greater maneuverability for Turkish foreign policy. That being said, Ankara’s effort to acquire a Chinese anti-ballistic system was blocked by strong NATO pressure.
In light of tensions between Turkey, the European Union, and the United States, Ankara’s desire for closer relations with Moscow and Beijing is a clear warning to the West. With its ambitious arms projects, Turkey is seeking to give an impression that it should no longer be seen as the West’s “default” traditional Cold War ally, dependent on international protection. As Ankara redefines its relations with the West, security may no longer define the relationship. Instead, it appears that Turkey will emphasize economic and commercial relations, and chart a more independent course in terms of state security.
Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) – Tel Aviv University. He serves as Turkey analyst for the Doron Halpern Network Analysis Desk’s social media watch bulletin, Bee Hive and is editor of Turkeyscope. hayeytan[at]tauex.tau.ac.il
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