Turkey’s goal to become major arms manufacturer is complicating row with US

Erdogan’s government regards Turkey as a rising regional power pursuing its own strategic interests that can differ from those of its partners.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Lofty ambitions. Turkish Air Force jet fighters escort the plane of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives at the new airport in Istanbul, last September. (AP)
Lofty ambitions. Turkish Air Force jet fighters escort the plane of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives at the new airport in Istanbul, last September. (AP)

ISTANBUL - A strategic goal by Turkey to become a major arms manufacturer is a complicating factor in the country’s row with the United States over a missile defence system.

Washington told Turkey it would cut off Ankara’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets if the Turkish government buys the Russian S-400 missile defence system, ratcheting up what has been a lengthy dispute between the two NATO allies.

Russia said it plans to deliver the S-400 to Turkey in July. If Ankara accepts delivery, that would trigger US sanctions that could prolong Turkey’s economic recession and prompt a re-evaluation of its 67-year membership of NATO. Turkey said a US House of Representatives’ resolution that condemned the S-400 purchase and urged sanctions was threatening.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey will not revisit the decision to buy two S-400 batteries for a total of $2.5 billion. Turkey said it could buy the US Patriot system as well if the United States substantially improves its offer to Ankara.

“Turkey has already bought [the] S-400 defence systems. It is a done deal. I hope these systems will be delivered to our country next month,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan said he wanted to talk about the issue on the phone with US officials before he meets with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan June 28-29.

Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou and Tom Waldwyn, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, said US worries about the Russian system were at the core of the dispute.

“The US has repeatedly urged Turkey to cancel its S-400 order due to concerns over Russian access to the system’s radar and particularly its performance against Turkish and allied F-35 aircraft,” the West’s most advanced fighter jet, Efstathiou and Waldwyn wrote in response to questions. The United States has suspended F-35 training for Turkish pilots in a warning to Erdogan’s government.

Turkish officials dispute Washington’s arguments against the S-400. Ankara is also irked by Washington’s refusal to grant technology transfer to Turkey as part of a Patriot system purchase. Turkey says Russia has agreed to transfer technology.

Erdogan’s government regards Turkey as a rising regional power pursuing its own strategic interests that can differ from those of its partners. Gaining independence in military matters is an important factor in implementing that world view.

“We have three fundamental criteria,” Erdogan’s spokesman and foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin said earlier this year about the purchase of a missile defence system. “One is price, the second is delivery date and the third is technology transfer and co-production.”

It is unknown how much technology transfer Russia has promised.

“Because of this, it is unclear how much Turkey will be able to use the S-400 procurement in the development of any future indigenous systems,” Efstathiou and Waldwyn wrote. “Russia has long sought to bolster its defence industry through exports and has a long history of transferring technology and even production or licence assembly as part of sales.”

Turkey, once dependent on its Western partners for weapons, is meeting 65% of its defence needs through its own industry, Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay said in March. He said Turkey was involved in 600 defence projects.

Ankara has made serious progress as an arms exporter. Last year, Turkey agreed to deliver Atak combat helicopters to Pakistan and the Philippines. In January, private company Baykar Makina said it would deliver six military drones to Ukraine. Two months later, Qatar signed a deal to buy up to 100 Turkey-made Altay battle tanks.

The IISS said Turkey sold hundreds of Kirpi patrol vehicles to Tunisia and Turkmenistan and sent Cobra armoured personnel carriers to Bahrain, Bangladesh, Mauritania and Rwanda.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report released last December that arms sales of Turkish companies rose 24% in 2017.

“This significant increase reflects Turkey’s ambitions to develop its arms industry to fulfil its growing demand for weapons and become less dependent on foreign suppliers,” Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with SIPRI’s Arms and Military Expenditure Programme, said in a statement.

SIPRI’s ranking for 2017 listed Turkish companies Aselsan and Turkish Aerospace Industries in the top 100 world arms-producing and military service companies.

Turkey plans to boost annual defence exports to $25 billion by 2023 from the current amount of around $2 billion. “Achieving its daunting goal by 2023 seems unrealistic,” Efstathiou and Waldwyn said.

Turkey’s economic crisis and problems in relations with the United States and European countries are additional complications.

“Turkey’s economic downturn and its strained relations with allies may make it increasingly difficult to obtain and afford crucial foreign subsystems to equip its platforms and those it is trying to export. The emigration of skilled industry workers is also likely to have a negative effect,” Efstathiou and Waldwyn pointed out.

“Nevertheless, Ankara has made significant progress and those signed over the past 12 months reflect the growing sophistication of the Turkish defence industry.”

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