At a London seminar at the end of June, a senior British diplomat responded to Al-Monitor's questions about the implications of Prime Minister Theresa May’s unexpected visit to Ankara in January 2017 and other overt signs of rapprochement between Britain and Turkey. He started off by saying, “History repeats itself,” and continued, “Just as in 1580s, when England and the Ottoman Empire entered into economic and security cooperation against the Catholic bloc in continental Europe, today the same dynamics stimulated the cooperation between Turkey and England.”
Defense, the aerospace industry and security are the most visible fields of cooperation between the two countries. May, who on Jan. 28 became the first high-level European leader to visit Turkey after the July 2016 coup attempt, witnessed the signing of a critical 100 million-pound ($135 million) contract between the British defense and aerospace company BAE Systems and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TUSAS). The two companies will cooperate in developing the engine, avionics, radar and software for the fifth generation TF-X Turkish stealth warplane project.
Turkey has never before developed and manufactured a warplane. Lacking the experience and human resources for such a monumental project, Turkey needs an experienced partner.
With a budget of $7 billion, Ankara will develop the TF-X at the TAI-TUSAS plant near Ankara that previously worked on F-16s. Planning for the TF-X will be completed by 2019. The first prototype will be available in 2023 and the planes will start flying for the Turkish air force after 2030. In the long tern, the plan calls for production of 250 planes for Turkey and then marketing them to third countries, primarily in Europe.
Defense analyst Arda Mevlutoglu said defense and security cooperation between Turkey and Britain has advanced substantially without much publicity over the past few years. “The most critical element of the TF-X project is its engine. We know that British Rolls Royce has entered into partnership with Turkey’s Kale Company for joint engine production,” he said.
Defense analyst Hakan Kilic told Al-Monitor that Turkey had first thought of developing Swedish Saab’s JS 39 Gripen 5 model as its fifth-generation warplane but had turned to Britain instead. He said, "Today, apart from China’s J-20 and J-31, the US F-22 and F-35 and Russia’s T-50 and Japan’s X-2, there are no other fifth-generation plane projects on the drawing board. When Turkey realized that it couldn’t cope with production of a fifth generation by itself, it started looking for partners and Britain emerged as the most acceptable candidate. I think Britain feels that if the TF-X succeeds, then it could be promoted as the European fighter and draw in France and Italy to jointly produce an EF-2000 Typhoon that excludes Germany.”
In reality, Turkish-British defense and security cooperation has thrived because of deteriorating relations between Germany and Turkey in these fields.
Representatives of British and Turkish defense industry and aerospace firms gathered at a reception held by Turkey’s EU Minister Omer Celik at Turkey’s London embassy on Sept. 11. Both the minister and Britain’s Ankara ambassador Richard Moore, who has a significant number of Twitter followers in Turkey, tweeted about the developing ties between two countries.
London has been closely monitoring the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt and expressing solidarity with Turkey while other European countries remained aloof. Most of the success of this public diplomacy is attributable to the personal efforts of Moore, who is popular in Turkey with his active use of traditional and social media and his witty messages in Turkish, and his staff. Currently the British Embassy's staff in Ankara is the only European diplomatic staff that can appear in pro-government publications and give interviews, while diplomatic envoys of other European countries refrain from such public statements.
The presence of Vice Chief of Defense Staff Lt. Gen. Gordon Messenger at the Turkish Embassy reception also attracted notice. London wants to assist in developing Turkey’s newly established National Defense University, such as helping in the curriculum design and starting undergraduate and graduate student exchanges between the two countries. Over the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of Turkish generals visiting the UK, while British generals have frequently visited Ankara seeking solutions for the Turkish military education system,
The trade fair Defence and Security Equipment International 2017, held in London Sept. 12-15, was another milestone. More than 30 Turkish companies participated in the fair, the highest-ever participation by Turkish companies in a defense industry fair abroad. An address by Turkey’s Deputy Defense Minister Suay Alpay on the opening day emphasized the developing cooperation between the two countries and Britain’s support for Turkey's efforts against terror and the Fethullah Gulen movement.
Talk of Turkish-British cooperation on the Altay tank engine is also circulating in Ankara. Turkey's 2016 decision to buy the engine from Austria’s AVL was scrapped because of political impediments. The next effort to jointly develop the engine with Ukraine’s official defense corporation UkrOboronProm also fell through. According to reports in Ankara corridors, with Britain’s encouragement, Caterpillar-Europe's Perkins Engines, which manufactures Britain’s Challenger 2 tank’s engine and transmission, made a presentation to Turkish companies about potential cooperation in Altay tanks.
In a nutshell, despite the conspiracy theories that generally place Britain as Turkey's most sinister enemy, defense-aerospace projects and military/security cooperation are burgeoning by the day. The progress must be attributed to London’s skillful analysis of the political and diplomatic realities in Ankara, as well as the political rupture between Turkey and continental Europe, and London's adeptly filling the vacuum, just as it did more than 430 years ago.