Skip to main content

Turkey flirts with Asian arms suppliers

Turkey looks east for alternatives to NATO arms markets.

When fighter aircraft from NATO-member Turkish and Chinese air forces conducted their first joint air exercises in Turkish airspace in September 2010, few people guessed that could be the beginning of a broader defense and security relationship. Four years later, the big three in Asia are on a determined course to replace some of Turkey’s traditional ties with NATO allies.

The breakthrough came from South Korea in 2001 when Turkey signed a $1 billion contract for the acquisition of the T-155 self-propelled howitzer. Six years later, the Korean aerospace powerhouse KAI won a nearly $500 million Turkish contract to sell a batch of KT-1 basic trainer aircraft, followed by a few years of silence. But presently they are seeking ways to find a slot in Turkey’s indigenous fighter jet program, the TFX. If they do, that will automatically reserve them a seat in the TX, a parallel program designed to develop trainer aircraft for the TFX.

In recent months, Japan, despite its pacifist constitution, came into the picture. Since the mid-1990s, Turkey has been looking for a suitable engine for the Altay, a new generation battle tank the Turks have been developing over the past several years; and, luckily, Japan announced in 2008 that it would manufacture its own tank — and an engine to power it — to protect its homeland against a North Korean invasion. Ironically, the technical support contract under the Altay program had gone to another Asian player, South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem. Turkey and Japan are now in declared talks, with the end goal that Japan shares its engine technology to power the Altay under a “joint development” program.

Nice idea if Mitsubishi Heavy Industries powered the Altay, but the reality may not be so nice. “We have no idea if, technically speaking, that engine could be suitable,” one senior Turkish defense procurement official said. “There is more. We are not sure how many and how tight the Japanese restrictions on export licenses would be. We don’t want to be caught by a Japanese thunderstorm while running away from German rain.”

But if the Turkish-Japanese plan goes ahead, it will mark a historic departure from Turkey’s traditional engine supplier, MTU of Germany. Sources say the Germans have been reluctant in powering the Altay and sharing critical engine technology, as they also ponder what to do when the Turks knock on their doors for export licenses that will probably cover countries Berlin may not be eager to supply arms to.

Then there is the curious case of China: more noteworthy than the Turkish air force’s 2010 joint exercises with the Chinese air force was Ankara’s Sept. 26 decision to open contract negotiations for a highly-sensitive military program with a Chinese manufacturer that happens to be on a US list of sanctions.

Defeating US, European and Russian rivals, China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp. (CPMIEC) won a first right to open contract negotiations with Turkey to build the NATO ally’s first long-range air and anti-missile defense structure. In the three months since then, Turkey has been subjected to immense pressure from its NATO allies, especially the United States, who have said that if Turkey chooses to eventually award the $3.44 billion contract to the Chinese company it thinks has breached the Iran, North Korea, Syria Non-Proliferation Act, it would be deprived of a capability to make that system interoperable with NATO and US air defense assets stationed on Turkish soil — they make up more than half of Turkey’s entire air defense structure. That would not be the full cost.

Any Turkish defense company to take part in the Turkish-Chinese program would also be subject to punishing US sanctions. To illustrate how serious Washington is on nonproliferation, US investment bank Merrill Lynch pulled out of a consortium hired to advise Turkish military specialist Aselsan for its second public offering because “this company was a potential partner of CPMIEC in the proposed air defense program.” The Turks look defiant but are privately worried. The Chinese are content because this is a big leap forward if they wanted to penetrate into NATO markets. But they are nervous about the possibility of a Turkish retreat in the face of US pressure.

Space is a longer-term but prospective area for future Turkish-Chinese cooperation as China reports remarkable advance in space-related programs and Turkey is keen to develop its own – with help from a reliable mentor.

Last December, a Turkish earth-observation satellite, Gokturk-2, was launched from Jiuquan, China. Gokturk-2 successfully passed the Defense Ministry’s acceptance tests on June 28. Turkey has plenty of other satellite programs — even a plan to build satellite launching systems and a testing center to cater for mushrooming satellite programs. According to a government road map for military and civilian satellites, Turkey plans to send into orbit a total of 16 satellites until 2020. Space industry experts say the next five years’ satellite contracts could amount to $2 billion.

“Turkey closely watches China's lunar exploration programs,” Onur Haliloglu, a space technology director at Turkey’s state scientific research institute TUBITAK, told China’s official news agency, Xinhua, on Dec. 4. And according to Celal Sami Tufekci, an assistant professor of mechatronics engineering at Istanbul’s Yildiz University, Turkey could even develop a partnership with China in designing astronaut programs. “Turkey needs an astronaut program and in the near future the two countries could expand their cooperation with the aim of sending astronauts to space,” he said.

Howitzers, trainer aircraft, fighter jets, tank engines, air defense systems, satellites and space programs were all ambitions the Turks would in the past look to their Western allies to develop. Now they look to the east for all.

“One reason for that is Turkey does not have any political problems with any of the (Asian) countries it wishes to cooperate with (in defense),” explained one senior diplomat in Ankara to Al-Monitor. But that hardly explains the entire picture.

A Defense Ministry official told Al-Monitor, “Turkey is increasingly wary of technology transfer and licensing problems that have emerged in several weapons programs with Western manufacturers and their governments.”

It will be a difficult choice. “I am not sure if Turkey could take the risk of ruining cooperation with conventional allies for the sake of going east in a few controversial programs,” said one London-based Turkey specialist.