The New Face of the Turkish Defense Industry
Much ink has been spilled lately around the S-400 crisis, as academics and analysts seek to explain the rationale behind what seems to be a reckless Turkish foreign policy. However, this claim might be rather inconsistent with the carefully planned long-term strategy of the AK party; a strategic plan that has been strictly followed since the moment that the party rose to power. A series of major political and economic changes led to the re-emergence of Turkey as a considerable geopolitical player, in a position of questioning the US demands, and ready to work alongside long-time foes of the States. Those political-economic changes and the ensuing correlation with the ever-growing Turkish defense industry will be examined in this article.
Economic growth and political reshuffling
The starting point of our analysis should be traced back to the 2000s, when the newly formed AKP emerged as the ruling party in Turkish politics and formed its first government, in 2002. The former Mayor of Istanbul and party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would be officially appointed to the Presidential Office with some months delay, due to obstructions ensuing from a recent conviction, for provocation of religious hatred. It is worth noting that this clearly politically motivated charge had practically boosted Erdogan’s popularity within Turkey and the new Prime Minister would slickly capitalize on his gains. The new government, immediately, started materializing a long-term calculated economic program of reforms, with ultimate purpose the stimulation of the country’s suffering economy, following the 2000-2001 crisis. Since the AKP came into power, Turkey has been experiencing a steady annual growth of an impressive 7% average each year, while the government debt has been reduced by almost three times. The unprecedented growth, that has been noted in Turkey under the AKP rule, skyrocketed Erdogan’s approval and entrenched his position as the Head of State, consistently until today.
Erdogan’s power grip has not been an easy task, though; The Turkish President had to implement a plethora of political reforms in order to consolidate his reign. While AKP ideologically has been quite close to the neo-Ottomanism doctrine –albeit Ahmet Davutoglu has denied this designation- AKP managed to secure the support of MHP in 2018 and formed a coalition, the People’s Alliance, that granted them the victory in the last elections. Apparently, Erdogan’s political tacticism achieved a political alliance of two diametrically opposed entities, considering the traditional Kemalist nature of MHP. Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the government has enforced several measures to drastically reduce the role of the armed forces in the political life of the country, while the constitutional referendum expanded and strengthened further the authorities and capabilities of the President.
This political “flexibility” of AKP and its well-planned balancing between Islamism and secularism, enabled Erdogan and his close allies to proceed in repositioning Ankara within the international arena. Since the mid-2010s, Turkey has been steadily putting in question the decades-long narrative of being an unquestioned stronghold of the “Western Bloc”. The reemergence of Turkey as a regional guarantor of the Muslim countries and a major global geopolitical player brought turbulence to the relations with the US and realigned the interests with traditionally anti-Western powers, like Russia and Iran. Elements of this deviant policy can be found within several parameters of Turkish foreign policy. For instance, Ankara has not only been fiercely supporting Qatar -a fellow Muslim nation and a close economic partner- since the 2017 diplomatic crisis but the Turkish military presence in Doha, as a part of the Qatar-Turkey Combined Joint Force Command, is about to expand. Same goes for Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric against Israel and the open support to Palestinians or the gradual coordination with Iran and Russia over the Syrian conflict. On the top of that there is a worrying friction with the US, the tipping point of which has been the US talks for the establishment of an internationally recognized Kurdish state entity in the Turkish border and further escalated with the Brunson case, the alleged role of Fethullah Gullen in the 2016 attempted coup attempt and the continuous requests for extradition and apparently the latest acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia.
The promising Turkish defense industry under the AKP Rule
The progressive growth of the country’s defense industry is a critical parameter related to the overall progress in Turkey and tightly connected to the economic and political developments, that have been discussed so far. The defense industry has been significantly contributing to the domestic economy directly, through the exports of weapon systems and cost-effectiveness in the defense budget and indirectly through the creation of numerous new vacancies both in the public and the private sector. There is a set target for Turkish defense exports to reach $25 billion per annum by 2023. Considering that Turkish defense exports recorded an impressive 17% annual growth in 2018, which can be translated in $2.035 bn, the $25 billion target might seem far from possible; however, the notable revenue that Turkish defense industry is bringing into the country cannot be overlooked. We should not be looking at the annual earnings to understand the strategic significance of the ever-expanding Turkish defense industry, though.
The most important aspect –and the one closely related to the S-400 acquisition- could be found in Erdogan’s long-term plan to shape a context, where Turkey will not be relying exclusively on the major powers to cover the permanent needs in weapon systems but will be capable of achieving a relative autonomy. For the time being, a considerable amount of the domestic demand in lightly-armored and armored vehicles is already being covered by the Turkish defense industry; the Cobra APC and Altay tank, two of the most recognizable Turkish weapon systems, are both designed and produced by Otokar (as the main contractor) within Turkey.
Simultaneously, there have been remarkable developments in the Air Defense and Airspace Industry. The T129 ATAK Multirole Combat Helicopter has been a joint project of Turkish Aerospace (TA) – former Turkish Aerospace Industries or TAI – and Leonardo Helicopters – former Italian AgustaWestland; TA has also developed the T625 Multirole Helicopter, the first Turkish indigenous helicopter, expected to go into mass production by 2021. Also, a promising project, the Turkish Fighter Experimental (TFX), has been ongoing since 2015, when Turkey started developing a fifth-generation combat jet. Turkish defense industries Undersecretariat (SSM) has engaged TA for the initial phase of research and design, while BAE Systems was chosen after a bid for strategic cooperation and overall support of the project. The research and development for the engine of the widely known as Turkish Fighter (TF) has been overtaken jointly by Rolls-Royce and the Turkish Kale Group in 2017. Even though there have been serious concerns, over intellectual property issues and Rolls-Royce might step down of the deal,according to a Janes report, the Turkish Air Force plans the TF to enter service in 2029 and eventually replace the current F-16 fleet; SSM is looking at a total production of 150 TFs by 2039, which could potentially be exported abroad.
Turkey’s participation in the S-400 program should not be perceived as an unexpected event that caught everyone by surprise. Over the last two decades, Ankara has been methodically and patiently laying the foundations that the “refurbished” Turkish state would be based upon. The AK party, and especially Erdogan’s inner circle, have proved that the political will to bring groundbreaking changes within the country is a fact. This has triggered the gradual isolation from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the alignment with “anti-Western” powers – or vice versa. Erdogan has been steadily investing in Turkey’s geopolitical fortification, through progressive economic growth, the build-up of a robust domestic defense industry and an aggressive foreign policy; now that these conditions have been fulfilled, it’s time for him to earn the high returns of this stake.