Why does President Erdogan want the appearance of a self-sufficient defense industry more than the actual existence of one?
Defense autarky—self-sufficiency in arms production—has long been the holy grail of Turkey’s modernization efforts, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is bent on being the person that made it happen. Two years ago, Erdogan declared that “our goal is to completely rid our defense industry of foreign dependency by the Republic’s centenary in 2023,” along with quintupling annual defense exports to $25 billion.
Early last month, these ambitions were in full display at the launching ceremony of TCG Kinaliada, the fourth and last Ada-class anti-submarine warfare corvette produced under the first stage of the country’s MILGEM naval indigenization program. At the ceremony, Erdogan also formally began construction on the second batch of MILGEM warships: the TCG Istanbul, the first of four I-class multirole frigates built to an improved Ada design. MILGEM’s planned third stage will produce the TF-2000 class of anti-air frigates.
Erdogan’s ambitions reach beyond corvettes and frigates. “Even the projects that are the peak of this field, such as the aircraft carrier, are not a faraway dream for us anymore," he said in July. More concretely, Turkey has a deal with Germany’s HDW for six air-propulsion independent Type-214 submarines that will be 80 percent locally produced. It also recently granted a Spanish-Turkish consortium the final contract to design and develop an amphibious assault ship, TCG Anadolu, based on the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos I, built by Navantia. Originally planned as a landing helicopter deck, the ship is now slated to handle up to 12 short-takeoff/vertical-landing F-35Bs — even though Turkey has announced plans only to buy conventional-takeoff F-35As.
MILGEM is perhaps the most successful program in Turkey’s defense industrialization effort. It plays on the strength of the country’s shipbuilding industry and incorporates indigenous products such as Havelsan’s combat management systems, Aselsan’s electronic warfare countermeasures, and Roketsan’s anti-ship missiles. It has already made strides in the export markets. In June, Turkey finalized a $1 billion deal to sell four Ada-class corvettes to Pakistan. Turkey was also in talks with Saudi Arabia for the export of two I-class frigates, valued at over $1 billion. It was recently reported that the deal collapsed in the wake of Riyadh’s diplomatic crisis with Qatar, but Ankara denied those reports.
Yet Turkey’s defense indigenization program is not quite what it claims to be. Just 60 percent of MILGEM production is local, and a similar pattern is seen in other products. The Altay main battle tank is copied almost verbatim from South Korea’s K-2 tank. In all critical areas like armor, firing system, hydro-pneumatic suspension systems, and track assembly, manufacturer Otokar has been receiving help from K2 maker Hyundai-Rotem. The tank’s power pack is entirely German-made, though Ankara says future models will get a Turkish version.
The T-129 Atak helicopter is based on AgustaWestland's A129 Mangusta. As with the Altay, the Turkish model makes a few changes to the base model, including an improved drive train, redesigned rotors, better engines, and a reinforced airframe. Again, Turkish officials say that future models will showcase local industry. The second batch will carry Turkish-made mission computers and Aselsan AselFLIR-300T nose-mounted targeting turrets, while the third batch will replace Thales’ helmet-mounted cueing system with Aselsan’s AVCI system. Armaments are to get a Turkish twist as well, with the U.S.-made Hellfire II and Israeli-made Spike-ER air-to-surface missiles making way for Roketsan’s Mizrak-U and Cirit.
The same holds true of Turkey’s much-touted airplanes. The National Regional Passenger Aircraft, or TRX, is practically the German-made Dornier 328. The Sierra Nevada Corporation owns the right to the model; its co-founders—Turkish emigres Eren and Fatih Ozmen—are the prime movers behind the TRX. As was the case with Altay and Atak, the TRX relies on foreign-made components in all critical systems: engines are supplied by Pratt & Whitney, core avionics and multi-scan radars are from Rockwell Collins. The TF-X fighter jet program is an even more interesting case: the planned double-engine, single-seat, stealth-capable fifth-generation fighter jet has many similarities to the revamped JAS 39 Gripen NG. The Gripen was jointly developed by Sweden’s Saab and UK’s BAE Systems, which also happens to be Ankara’s TF-X partner.
Certainly, Turkey has readily apparent motives for defense autarky. The country still relies on materiel that has been phased out of most NATO militaries, such as M48/M60 Patton tanks, M110 howitzers, UH-1 utility helicopters, and F-4 fighter-bombers. Its fleet consists partly of Cold War-era hand-me-downs like French D’Estienne d’Orves-class Aviso corvettes and U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. Ankara’s aspirations to gain access to advanced military technology—like Predator drones and Patriot missiles—are rebuffed by its Western allies. And, with the recent downward spiral in relations, things are getting even worse. In 2015, the U.S. Congress blocked the transfer of two Perry-class guided missile frigates to Turkey. Since November, Berlin has rejected 11 arms shipments to Turkey, after blocking just eight between 2010 and 2015. If it were to indigenize its defense industry, Turkey would be spared the economic cost and political burden of trying to procure weapons from abroad. It would also be well-poised to reap profits on arms exports, particularly to the Muslim world and other Turkic-speaking countries.
But looking at Ankara’s false promises, unrealistic ambitions, and financially irresponsible choices that does its defense industry more harm than good, one cannot but conclude that Turkey is primarily interested in the appearance of an indigenous defense industry than the actual existence of one. Progress on the TCG Anadolu, for example, has been delayed with Ankara revising its plans to include a longer flight deck so that it can operate F-35Bs it doesn’t even have. The TRJ passenger jet has no market; even the state-owned Turkish Airlines is not buying it for its regional service, AnadoluJet. Had Ankara been serious about building an indigenous defense industry, such white-elephant projects would have been a much tougher sell.
The Turkish case belies the realist viewpoint that reduces the ambition for defense autarky to relative gains and zero-sum games. If capabilities were all that mattered, why would any country feel the need to invent such an elaborate fiction to boast that its tanks are produced here, not there? The answer lies in techno-nationalism, a phenomenon that Richard Samuels and Richard Bitzinger identified in their studies of arms production in East Asia. Countries view the number, variety, and sophistication of their weapons systems as an element that determines their place in the pecking order. This pecking order exists on the world scene: military heft can—and does—put one country above another. Yet, it also operates on the domestic level: the ability to deliver on large-scale modernization can affect where an elite group’s stands in a country’s domestic pecking order. Indeed, this was the anchor to the autonomy of Turkey’s military-bureaucratic establishment—which kept Islamists like Erdogan out of politics for decades. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in his 2007 book, Ruling But Not Governing, Turkey’s military-bureaucrats viewed themselves as a "great modernizing force—the vanguard of society— imbued with organizational capacity and the technology of the West.” This “praetorian” perception also underpinned their claim to political autonomy: "Only those with the type of specialized skills [required for high modernism]—that is to say themselves—had a mandate to exercise political power.”
That is the primary instinct behind Erdogan’s ambitions for defense autarky: proving that the “civilizing mission” is not the secular-modernizers’ exclusive domain—that the Islamists can do it, too, and they can do it even better. It doesn’t matter if Islamists really can do it better—all that matters for the people to believe that they can; not just for the bragging rights but also as a matter of survival: if Turkey’s military-bureaucrats are not the only ones capable of ushering in Turkey’s modernization, their claim to autonomy is much less tenable and Erdogan’s hold on power is even stronger.