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Reducing Its Dependence on Foreign Arms Suppliers, Turkey Enhances Its Strategic Autonomy

Richard Weitz

Turkey is rapidly expanding its military forces by domestically producing many weapons and importing many more. The country is currently the world’s fourth largest arms importer, but the Turkish government is vigorously seeking to reduce its dependence on foreign arms suppliers while still retaining the capacity to wage conventional warfare in cooperation with its NATO allies. Turkish companies have also begun to assume the position as leading international arms sellers, making Turkey the world’s twenty-eight largest national arms exporter. In 2008, Turkish defense companies spent 228 million US Dollars on research and development. If continued, this trend will further reduce Turkey’s need to purchase foreign arms, and enhance Ankara’s strategic autonomy.

BACKGROUND: Overall, Turkey spends about $5 billion on arms procurement annually. The Turkish Armed Forces need modern conventional weapons to maintain interoperability with NATO and EU allies as well as to meet the changing demands of countering asymmetrical threats from terrorists and guerillas. Ever since the 1947 Truman Doctrine designated Turkey as a key U.S. ally, the United States has been the Turkish military’s main foreign arms supplier, providing billions of dollars in foreign assistance to enable Turkey to purchase U.S.-made weapons. After the Turkish military intervened in northern Cyprus in 1974, the U.S. Congress amended the Foreign Assistance Act and imposed an arms embargo—a traumatic event that spurred Turkish planners to seek ways to reduce their dependence on American-made weapons in the future. In 1978, Congress lifted the embargo, and in 1980, the two countries signed the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA), which facilitated further arms transfers while allowing for continued U.S. access to bases within Turkey. The DECA has been renewed numerous times. During the early 1990s, the volume of Turkey’s arms imports from the United States reached record highs. Deliveries included aircraft, missiles, helicopters, battle tanks, and ships, and other items.

Turkey’s subsequent alleged use of U.S.-made weapons in human rights abuses against its Kurdish citizens constrained further sales of U.S. attack helicopters to Turkey. In the late 1980s, the Congress phased out military aid for Turkey (and Greece) on the grounds that these countries’ economic development had “graduated” them from grant aid and direct loans. Furthermore, the war in Iraq that began in 2003 substantially weakened Turkish-American security ties and brought about a precipitous collapse in Turks’ previously favorable opinion of the United States. Even Turkish military commanders traditionally close to Washington criticized U.S. policies for creating an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq that Turkish analysts believe has facilitated Kurdish-linked separatism and terrorism in Turkey.

Nonetheless, Turkey has continued to buy sophisticated weapon systems from American companies that Turkish firms cannot yet manufacture domestically. In 2000, Turkey ordered 145 King Cobra helicopters, worth $4 billion, from Bell Helicopter Textron. In 2005, Ankara purchased S-70 Seahawk helicopters from Sikorsky. In 2009, Turkey announced its readiness to buy U.S. Cobra Whiskey AH-1W Super Cobra (“Whiskey Cobra”) attack helicopters. In general, the decline in the relative importance of the Turkish-U.S. arms trade has just as much to do with Turkey’s own burgeoning defense industry as it has with strained U.S.-Turkey relations.

The Turkish Armed forces have purchased some weapons from European countries that it might earlier have bought from the United States. Turkey has become a leading importer of German-made arms. In 2009, fourteen percent of Germany’s arms exports went to Turkey. Another important purchase from Europe in recent years has been the Casa CN 235 helicopters acquired from Spain. Yet, Turkey has increasingly sought joint ventures rather than turn-key sales with European firms in order to acquire valuable defense technology. In 2007, the Italian company AgustaWestland gave Turkish Aerospace Industries the technology for the T-129 ATAK helicopter. Turkey plans to domestically manufacture as many as one hundred of these helicopters by 2013, some of which may be exported to Pakistan, Malaysia, or the UAE.

As with Washington, human rights issues have also constrained Turkey’s defense industrial ties with Europe. The enactment in several EU parliaments of resolution marking the “Armenian Genocide,” which Turkey denies have occurred, has made Turkish officials fearful that European governments would try to impose unacceptable conditions on arms sales to Turkey, such as requiring changes in Ankara’s policies towards Armenia or Turkey’s Kurdish minority. They also would worry about EU-imposed arms embargos in response to some future Turkish action opposed by EU members. These considerations have led Turkish policy makers to seek out new defense suppliers outside of NATO.

IMPLICATIONS: Starting in the 1990s, Turkey developed an important arms supply relationship with Israel. The value of these transactions has exceeded one billion dollars in some years. The Turkish government awarded Israeli defense firms $700 million worth of contracts to upgrade about one hundred Turkish F-4 and F-5 fighter jets as well as provide rockets and electronic equipment to the Turkish Armed forces. In 2002, Turkey gave Israeli Military Industries another $700 million contract to modernize 170 Turkey M60 tanks. Israel Aerospace Industries partnered with Turkish firms in a joint venture that in 2005 won a contract worth almost $200 million dollars to supply Turkey with 10 unmanned aircraft and related surveillance equipment.

Although the AKP government initially continued the close Turkish-Israeli defense relationship, political relations between Turkey and Israel were severely strained after the Gaza war in late 2008, with the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly lambasting the Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic forum in Davos.. These tensions have adversely affected the weapons trade between Turkey and Israel. In April 2010, the Israeli government suspended the sale of advanced military platforms to Turkey except on a case-by-case basis. The strained bilateral relationship has not impaired the long-delayed sale of Israeli Heron unmanned air vehicles, four of which were delivered in March 2010. Turkey threatened to pursue international arbitration if Israel sought to invalidate this already signed contract. The state of the Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated further—indeed came close to the point of a rupture—when Israel used force to intercept a flotilla sailing from Turkey to Gaza, killing eight Turkish nationals and one American citizen of Turkish origin. It seems likely that Turkey will seek to manufacture at home more of the weapons systems that its armed forces previously imported from Israel. Turkey might also seek to acquire the systems from another foreign supplier. Other NATO countries, including the United States, provide an obvious source, but so does Russia, whose defense companies have launched a vigorous campaign to expand their military sales to Turkey.

During the 1990s, Turkey began purchasing Russian arms, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers for use against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in southeastern Turkey and in northern Iraq. These initial purchases were not seen as a great success. The Turkish military complained about the inferior quality and shoddy maintenance of the Russian weapons. For example, the Russian suppliers did not provide sufficient spare parts or after-sale service for the Russian-made BTR infantry vehicles and M-17 helicopters that they sold Turkey.

Nonetheless, the Turkish government has demonstrated renewed interest in buying Russian arms in recent years; the bilateral relationship has indeed flourished, especially in the energy realm. In September 2008, Turkey purchased 80 laser-guided anti-tank missile systems from Russia for US $70 million, the first Russian weapons sale to Turkey since 1997. More recently, the Turkish government has expressed particular interest in buying Russian combat helicopters, notably the Mi-28 (useful for fighting Kurdish insurgents), and Russia’s most advanced air defense system, the S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler). The Growler is considerably more capable than the S-300 systems that Israel and its allies are trying to prevent Moscow from selling to Iran. According to its stated specifications, the S-400 can destroy airborne targets within a 400-kilometre radius, over twice as far as the S-300PMU-2.

CONCLUSIONS: Nonetheless, several factors limit the potential growth of future Russian-Turkish arms sales, as well as Turkey’s purchase of arms from other foreign countries. Like other foreign arms sellers, the Russians are reluctant to sell Turkey the S-400 and their other most advanced systems for fear that Turkish firms can use the newly acquired technology to become more formidable competitors and improve their own defense exports. The Turkish government is eager to obtain weapons from indigenous defense firms rather than from less reliable foreign suppliers. In September 2008, Prime Minister Erdoan stated that, “We have set as our primary target meeting the requirements of the Turkish Armed Forces from national industry and thus minimizing their dependence on other countries.” Until 2004, about 85 percent of the weapons in service with the Turkish military were acquired from foreign sources. By 2009, the share of domestically produced systems had risen to 42 percent. The target for this year is 50 percent.

Turkey’s defense industries and government are also aggressively seeking to increase their own share of the world’s arms market. With over 200 defense firms and 1,000 subcontractors engaged in $3-4 billion worth of business, Turkey ranks as the world’s 28th largest national arms exporter. The majority of Turkish arms exports since 1995 have gone to Malaysia, Iraq, and Pakistan. Most of the items have been armored vehicles, but naval products are becoming increasingly important. Turkey’s largest export deal to date is an agreement to sell 250 armored personnel carriers to the Malaysian Army. The United Arab Emirates is also testing this vehicle as a prelude to a possible purchase. Turkish defense companies are increasing their spending on research and development in order to develop superior systems for export as well as possible domestic use. In 2008, Turkish defense companies spent 228 million US Dollars on research and development. If continued, this trend will further reduce Turkey’s need to purchase foreign arms, and enhance Ankara’s strategic autonomy.

This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

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