Turkish military industry becomes launchpad of Ankara’s regional ambitions

An attempt by Turkey to buy Israeli drones ended in frustration.
Sunday 29/03/2020
The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone at Gecitkale Airport in Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). (AFP)
Militarised polices. The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone at Gecitkale Airport in Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). (AFP)

ISTANBUL - The deployment of modern Turkish military drones in combat missions in Syria and Libya put a spotlight on a growing military industry sector that feeds Ankara’s regional ambitions.

The Turkish government said drone strikes in north-western Syria in February played an important role in stopping Syrian government troops and their allies who were advancing in the area.

In Libya, Turkish drones have become a key asset in the fight of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, a Turkish-Qatari ally, against the forces of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Egypt, Russia and other foreign powers.

“Turkey cannot be the regional power it wishes to become without deterrent military force,” Ali Cinar, president of the Turkish Heritage Organisation, a pro-Turkish US think tank in Washington, said via e-mail.

Once reliant on weapons supplied by its NATO allies, especially the United States and Germany, Turkey has spent billions of dollars developing its defence sector. The investment has paid off in growing self-sufficiency in military matters and in booming sales to other countries.

A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) ranked Turkey 14th among the world’s top arms exporters. Turkish arms sales from 2015-19 rose 86% from the previous 5-year period, SIPRI said.

Ankara has set its sights on even bigger goals. “The export target of Turkey for 2023 in the defence and aviation sector is $10.2 billion” from $2.7 billion in 2019, Cinar said. “So Turkey wants to be in the defence premium league and sell many defence products globally.”

Military drones are the showcase of Turkey’s ambitions.

Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London and an expert on drone warfare, said Turkey invested a great amount of time and money to develop its military drone programme.

One goal of the programme was to get an edge in the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group that has been fighting against Ankara since 1984, Franke said by telephone. The PKK’s ability to strike Turkish targets with small groups of militants has been reduced by the deployment of Ankara’s military drones.

Another reason for Turkey to manufacture its own drones was that the United States refused to sell armed drones to Ankara. An attempt by Turkey to buy Israeli drones also ended in frustration.

“The US and Israel used to be the leading nations in drone technology but Turkey and China have poured a lot of money into that field,” Franke said. “Today, this technology allows Turkey to survey a battlefield and to identify and hit targets.”

Baykar Makina, a private Turkish drone maker whose chief technology officer, Selcuk Bayraktar, is a son-in law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the prime example for the defence industry boom.

“Baykar group's unprecedented technological advance in designing and developing various drones, including armed ones, was a game changer in two ways,” said Burak Bekdil, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, a think-tank in Philadelphia.

“This company’s commercial and technological success made itself a role model for other private-sector players and investors. It also gave pace to drone efforts by state-controlled companies like Tusas Turkish Aerospace Industries.”

Growing defence sales could help the Turkish economy as a whole, Bekdil said by e-mail. “Defence exports, if they rose exponentially as hoped for, could cure Turkey's chronic current account deficit problem,” he said.

Top buyers of Turkish weapons are Turkmenistan, Oman and Pakistan, SIPRI said. Turkey has also sold drones to Tunisia and Ukraine.

Cinar said a more robust defence sector would strengthen Turkey’s ambition to become a regional player committed to Western allies in Europe and the United States while also pursuing ties with the East.

“The goal of defence companies is to get completely rid of foreign dependency in Turkish defence industry by 2023,” the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic, he said.

Modern weapons systems also serve Turkey’s foreign-policy priorities. Under Erdogan, Turkey has become more assertive in conflicts around the region and is not shying away from confrontation.

“Using critical systems to increase leverage on other state actors is another goal” of Turkey’s defence programme, Bekdil said. “The past decade is full of examples to show how hard power has become an inseparable part of Turkey’s foreign-policy calculus.”

“Turkey’s geostrategic parameters require increasing doses of hard power in addition to soft power,” Bekdil added. As examples, he pointed to Turkey’s cross-border operations into Syria, raids on targets in northern Iraq and military tensions around a hydrocarbon dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey on one side and Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt on the other.

However, even top-notch weapons, such as drones, offer no guarantee of securing lasting military or political advantages.

Franke said, although reports about the military success of Turkey’s drones in fighting in Syria’s Idlib province were credible, many were downed by Syrian air defence as clashes went on. “Apparently the Syrians are finding ways to deal with them,” she said.

“Drones are not a military panacea,” Franke said. “They are not a strategic game-changer. It’s not a technology that gives total dominance to the armed forces of a country.”

She said anti-drone technologies were being updated and might eclipse the military advantages created by Turkey’s drone programme.