By Assad Bhuglah

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For several decades Turkey, by being a Western ally, has been too dependent on NATO’s defense system for its security. If that had worked during the Cold War, recent events have shown that Turkey cannot trust its allies when in real trouble. At the height of the Syrian crisis, Turkey’s repeated demand for a no-fly-zone over Syria to avoid the humanitarian disaster was ignored. In this context, Ankara has endeavoured to change the mind-set on missile defense that was solely based on her conventional security cooperation with NATO and is now adhering strictly to her new strategy of eliminating ‘security deficit’ by overcoming one-sided dependency. Transformation of Turkey’s strategic landscape and the emerging threats has introduced several factors which has compelled Turkey to rethink her national security and defense strategy in the near future.

According to a Turkish political analyst, Turkey has been in need of a long-range missile defense system since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Twenty-six years have passed since Turkey directed a request for the purchase of the Patriot missile systems to the United States. All this time Ankara has waited for its allies in NATO to create a long-range missile defense system, he explained. But Washington has apparently been in no hurry to accommodate this request. "It has become evident that neither NATO, nor the United States is committed to helping Turkey create its own missile defense system," the analyst noted. Nor do they want to transfer technologies to Turkey, he said.

Turkey is motivated by the desire to build a systemic and high-tech integrated national air-missile defense system against perceived risks and potential threats. It is an undisputable fact that Turkey is surrounded by tactical and strategic ballistic missile depots and is under a significant potential threat. This focus for the defense and aviation industry of Turkey will strengthen the military readiness of the Turkish Army which is especially crucial during the current turbulent era in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. Successful test launches have already been conducted for the low and medium altitude air defense missile systems ‘HİSAR’ and the long range surface-to-surface missile system ‘BORA’, national products designed and developed indigenously by Turkish defense companies. BORA is the third phase of joint missile systems production which has been accomplished with Chinese cooperation, after the first phase ‘KASIRGA’ and the second phase ‘YILDIRIM’. In the last decade critical projects have been initiated and developed through national R&D in order to increase the country’s competitiveness in the world defense market and to reduce dependency on external sources in the procurement of high-tech products and services.

In the field of submarine, construction of the 'hidden' giant is going at full speed. Turkey's Defense industry plans to deliver the country's first indigenous submarine to Turkish Armed Forces by 2023. The project would cost a total of 2.7 billion dollars, to be provided by a domestic fund. The new type submarines would be capable of producing their own energy automatically using a mechanism of the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen tanks in the underwater giant. This system allows the vehicle to stay under water without atmospheric air for long periods of time. According to the project, Turkey's domestic submarine can make a round-trip journey from Turkey to the US without refuelling. It can stay as long as 15 days under water. According to Turkey's Under secretariat of Defence Industries (SSM), the project aims to maximize local content. It also aims to acquire knowledge and experience in submarine construction, integration and systems.

The Turkish government has embarked on an “aggressive” campaign to give a boost to local industry’s exports to existing and new markets. Turkey’s exports have been on a steady rise since 2011 when the government decided to “nationalize” weapon systems and launch several indigenous programs, including helicopters, drones, frigates and corvettes, tanks, missile systems, and a fighter jet. In 2016, Turkey’s top export market was the United States, with $587 million worth of business, almost a third of all Turkish exports. Other top markets were Germany ($185 million), Malaysia ($99 million), Azerbaijan ($83 million), Saudi Arabia, Britain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia.

The first deliveries of the Anka-S, the armed version of Turkey’s first indigenous drone, have been scheduled for 2017. The Anka-S can fly with a payload of 200 kilograms at a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet for a duration of 24 hours. The Satcom-compatible Anka-S features a high-definition day and night vision camera.

Turkey has good chances to penetrate in or grow in markets wary of Western companies’ embargoes and severe restrictions in technology transfer. Taking into account that the Western companies behave like conventional suppliers who view business as mere markets, Turkish companies want to offer their clients various forms of partnerships, including work share, local development, co-production opportunities and technology transfer.

It is land warfare equipment where Turkey has been able to make significant inroads into self-sufficiency. Four Turkish companies now have the capability to design, develop, produce and test a number of armoured vehicle designs. Most impressive of all is Turkey's plans to develop and build its first-ever main battle tank (MBT), codenamed Altay. The new Altay is destined to replace many of the older tanks still in service like the Vietnam-era M48 Patton. As a potent symbol of land warfare, the Altay MBT is a flagship project for Turkey. The Altay is itself the product of a technology transfer agreement between Turkey and South Korea's Hyundai Rotem, manufacturers of the K2 Panther tank. While some technical support and assistance has been provided by Hyundai Rotem, most of the parts and subsystems have been developed by Turkish companies. Turkey's aggressive pursuit of technology transfer agreements and indigenous capabilities has also led to some awkward political confrontations with NATO allies.

So while Turkey's defense industry has clearly made huge strides over the last decade, there are challenges that persist. The question remains whether these issues can be overcome, especially if they risk alienating allies and suppliers in the US and Western Europe. Despite this, flagship programmes like the Altay tank demonstrate a clear intent for Turkey to become an even bigger player in the future, no matter what it takes to get there.