Turkey has been decisively investing in its defense industry over the past decades. Indeed, achieving a high degree of self-sufficiency on armaments and defense technology has been one of the top strategic objectives for the Turkish government under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Erdogan.

The Under-secretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) has been the official branch for the tactical development of the Turkish defense infrastructure. Even though this institution was established back in 1985, it was not put to use until the early 2000s – the AKP formed its first government in 2002 – when SSM started consolidating its strategic vision, playing a critical role across the sectors of Turkish defense and economy. In 2018, SSM was rebranded as the Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) and was moved under the direct control of the Turkish President, highlighting the importance of this organization for Erdogan.

Strategic Plan Materialized: Self-Sufficiency and Defense Exports

The aim of defense self-sufficiency has been achieved, to an extent, for all three branches of the Turkish Armed Forces. The wide range of Otokar Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), the BORA/KHAN missile systems (Roketsan), and the BMC Kipri armored vehicles are some examples indicating Turkey’s expanding home-built equipment for its land forces.

The ever-increasing Turkish unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities underscore the prospects of its defense industry.

The Milgelm National Ship Project highlights the strategic plans for domestic production of its defense systems, expanding into the Turkish Navy, while the T129 ATAK and the GÖKEY helicopters – both developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TUSAS) – further reveal how Ankara has heavily invested in the autonomy of such products. On top of that, the ever-increasing Turkish unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities underscore the prospects of its defense industry.

Furthermore, while working towards the goal of domestic defense production for self-sufficiency, Turkey has simultaneously been aiming to boost the volume of its defense exports. As displayed in the graph, the size of Turkish defense exports grew by approximately 650 percent, between 2005 and 2019. The 2020 downtick is attributed to the Covid-19 crisis and has not substantially affected the overall trend.

Turkish exports 2005 2020 graph

The vast majority of those exports have not been directed – until recently – to NATO or EU countries. Azerbaijan and Qatar have been among the traditional customers of Turkish weapon systems. Though lately Ankara has been aggressively seeking its share of defense sales  to other Asian and African countries, spanning from Tunisia and Kenya to Pakistan, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Advantages of Turkish Drone Technology

If one could distinguish an aspect of the Turkish defense industry for its impact on a global scale, then it would definitely be the drone technologies developed by Ankara. In all three conflicts where Turkey has been militarily involved recently, its domestically-built drone systems have played a crucial role towards the outcome in the field. In Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh in particular, the Turkish drones have literally shifted the situation on the ground in favor of the side Turkey was backing.

The developments in those recent conflicts pointed to the Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as one of the most successful and cost-efficient options, with the landmark Bayraktar Tb2 spearheading the exceptional Turkish drone capabilities and reputation.

Bayraktar Tb2 is manufactured by Baykar, the leading Turkish company in unmanned warfare. It should be noted that President Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, is serving as the Chief Technology Officer of the company and has been a key figure in the research and development of its drone programs. During 2020, Baykar generated revenue of approximately US$360 million from exports of armed UAV systems.

In late May 2021, during his visit to Ankara, the Polish Defense Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, signed a deal for the purchase of 24 Bayraktar TB2 with his Turkish counterpart. The deal is reportedly worth US$270 million.

Turkey drone diplomacy

Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Polish President Andrzej Duda with their respective Foreign Ministers, Hulusi Akar and Mariusz Blaszczak, at a signing ceremony for a recent arms deal, in Ankara, May 25, 2021. (Photo Anadolu Agency)

Yet, aside from the financial gains, there are much more significant benefits for Turkey. This could be perceived as the first substantial deal of the Turkish defense industry with a NATO and EU country both in financial and operational terms. As previously mentioned, Turkey has been heavily investing in its defense industry throughout the AKP rule, to achieve the objective of becoming a prominent exporter of defense technologies.

However, until now, this export strategy has been fundamentally based on countries in Asia and Africa, where Ankara has been seeking to build relationships, by not only providing cost-effective defense solutions, but also through soft power techniques, including political and religious common grounds.

The unique nature of the Poland deal is that it indicates Ankara is ready to expand its exports and influence across an essentially new market, with serious political and strategic implications. In this context, the recent visit of the Latvian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Artis Pabriks to Turkey, in early June, can be interpreted as an additional sign, confirming the planned Turkish expansion. The Latvian top official openly expressed his interest in the Turkish drone systems, signaling a potential deal with the Latvian Ministry of Defense in the near future.

According to unconfirmed sources from Baykar, countries such as Hungary, Belarus, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic could follow suit and purchase Bayraktar TB2 UAVs soon. This would indeed add to the Turkish agenda of securing additional clients with strategic weight, due to their international status and memberships or geographical position.

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From Poland to Ukraine: Geopolitical Implications of Defense Exports

The timing of the aforementioned deal between Turkey and Poland, and possible similar agreements in the near future, is anything but incidental for Ankara. Turkey has been under heavy pressure from the US, regarding the acquisition of the S-400 air defense missile system from Russia. In this sense, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to consolidate Turkey’s regional position by increasing his leverage towards key NATO allies to secure the Turkish capacity for independent decisions in the fields of defense and foreign policy.

With the US priorities in the Middle East significantly limited under Biden, compared to the 2000s, and the perception of Russia as a threat being the new normal in Washington, Erdogan is looking to adapt the Turkish strategy accordingly. The emergence of Turkey as a considerable regional player, which could potentially function as a counter-balance to Moscow, has certainly more strategic prospects than the current role of a simple local military and logistics base.

Ankara peddled a number of Bayraktar TB2s drones to Ukraine through a partnership established in 2019 that has been steadily growing ever-since.

Prior to the deal with Poland and the talks with Latvia, Ankara also had peddled a number of Bayraktar TB2s drones to Ukraine  through a partnership established in 2019 that has been steadily growing ever-since. While Kyiv is striving for EU and NATO membership—an action perceived as one of the root causes of the “2014 Ukrainian Revolution” and the ensuing Russian intervention in Ukraine, Turkey is looking to capitalize on the current opportunity.

Here again, by combining hard and soft power projection and utilizing political, religious, and cultural correlations to expand its influence, Ankara is reaching to yet other geopolitical spheres.

The Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority of Turkic ethnic origin which is reportedly suppressed under the current Russian-controlled regime in the Crimea Peninsula, have garnered Turkish attention. By boosting the defense capabilities of Ukraine in its struggle to reclaim Crimea, Ankara could emerge as a benefactor of a repressed local population with common roots.

The export of Turkish drone technology to countries which constitute a zone of unique strategic significance for Moscow – Poland, Baltic states, Ukraine, and possibly Belarus – would give Ankara a considerable edge over any negotiations with the US and other NATO allies.

Conclusions and Prospects

Hence, the establishment of a robust Turkish defense industry with multi-purpose capabilities can be understood through three strategic directions:

First, the financial benefits which can be derived through the domestic defense industry are substantial. This finding should not be assessed only as a result of Turkey’s growing defense exports to third countries, but most notably as cost and resources saving on defense expenditure, since the domestic production has extensively substituted a large amount of high-priced foreign defense contracts.

Second, the research and development on niche technologies, where Turkey is rising as an expert, and the sizable volume of its defense exports, are favoring Erdogan’s key objective of Turkish international expansion and the consolidation of Turkey as a key regional actor.

Through an autonomous domestic defense industry, Ankara will no longer be completely reliant on major global players.

Third, and most importantly, through an autonomous domestic defense industry, Ankara will no longer be completely reliant on major global players, such as Russia, the US, or leading EU countries. Therefore, Turkey will be able to develop a fully independent foreign policy, supported by its own national defense capabilities. Thus, any Turkish strategic moves in the international arena could not be dictated or blocked by other parties.

In this respect, the long-term objective for self-sufficiency and increased exports capability of Turkish defense technology constitutes a critical parameter for the fulfilment of Turkey’s strategic goals for regional and geopolitical growth. These aims were set by President Erdogan from the first years of the AKP rule and have been clearly demonstrated by Turkish maneuvering since then.