Aykan Erdemir / Ryan Brobst
Turkish weaponry is helping Ukrainian troops fight off the Russian invasion of their homeland. The chief of Ukraine’s air force called the Turkish-built TB-2 drones “life-giving” as he confirmed they had struck Russian targets. Time magazine called the TB-2 “Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Against Russia.” Yet Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yavuz Selim Kiran underscored that Ankara did not provide these drones to Kyiv as military aid, saying, “They are products Ukraine purchased from a private company.” Ankara’s delicate balancing act between Moscow and Kyiv is partly a result of its ongoing attempts to find alternatives to NATO weapons systems by developing an indigenous defense industry, tapping into Ukrainian defense technology, and purchasing the S-400 air defense system from Russia.
Turkish weaponry has also shaped the outcomes of several recent clashes in the Middle East and beyond. In Syria, the TB-2 helped defeat a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive in Idlib in 2020. In Libya, Turkish arms helped turn the tide against an offensive by the self-styled Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar. In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkish drones contributed to a decisive Azerbaijani victory. Turkey’s ongoing effort to launch fixed-wing drones from its first multipurpose amphibious assault ship, the TCG Anadolu, has the potential to bring Turkish drones into action in other conflicts. Given their combat record and substantial interest from international buyers, Turkish arms will continue to play a role in combat in multiple theaters of interest to the United States and NATO.
However, there has been a backlash in response to civilian casualties resulting from the use of Turkish drones, as well as Ankara’s lack of concern for how buyers use its weapons. For example, Turkish drone strikes in northeast Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, which left children dead or injured, have drawn criticism. In January, following a Turkish drone strike in northeast Syria where a 4-year-old boy lost his leg, Nadine Maenza, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, called out Ankara’s “drone attacks on civilians” as “destabilizing.” Similarly, Ethiopia caused a global outcry in February with its use of Turkish drones in strikes that killed nearly 60 civilians in a displaced people’s camp in the country’s northern region of Tigray.
The potential roles Turkey’s defense industry can play, both in strengthening NATO by deterring its adversaries and in undermining NATO and its values through trade and partnerships with the alliance’s adversaries, require a concerted transatlantic strategy in relations with Ankara. Over the last few years, the appetite of Western countries to sell weapons systems and components to Turkey has diminished as Ankara’s egregious human rights abuses at home and belligerent policy abroad have strained ties with its NATO allies. Many Western governments, including the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, and Austria, have instituted certain export restrictions on Turkey. These restrictions have incentivized Ankara to find alternate suppliers and to build a domestic arms industry capable of producing advanced weapons.
Turkey currently relies on alternate suppliers as a stopgap measure and as a source of technology while building up its domestic arms industry over the long-term. Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system and its interest in Moscow’s Su-35 fighters reflect Ankara’s shift to new defense partners. Turkey has been reasonably successful at reducing its dependency on arms imports, decreasing them by 59 percent in the five-year period of 2016-2020, as compared to 2011-2015. The government hopes that Turkey’s move toward self-sufficiency will eventually enable the country to pursue a foreign and security policy less restricted by its transatlantic allies.
The expansion of Turkey’s domestic arms industry is rooted not only in external factors, but also in domestic political concerns. The domestic production of advanced weapon systems has significant propaganda value, allowing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to claim he is restoring Turkey to great power status, reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire. While Ankara often announces breakthroughs and new systems and then fails to deliver them, building a potent domestic arms industry may allow that propaganda to become reality.
A strong domestic arms industry could also help lift Turkey’s struggling economy by boosting exports. The Turkish defense sector’s total exports from 2016 through 2020 increased by 30 percent compared to 2011 through 2015. Exports also provide much needed foreign currency in light of Turkey’s depleted net international reserves.
To date, the Turkish defense industry remains dependent on importing key inputs. The inability to produce engines is a major bottleneck that Ankara seeks to overcome. Turkey’s indigenous arms industry is heavily reliant on importing engines for drones, armored vehicles, and ships, which Ankara then exports as complete systems. Ukraine is the most promising partner for defense cooperation with Turkey. Open-source data indicates significant cooperation on engine manufacturing.
At the same time, Turkey is heavily reliant on the United States and Germany for engines that it puts into armored vehicles. In developing its Altay main battle tank, Ankara tried to source an engine from German tank manufacturer Rheinmetall, but was stymied by an unofficial German embargo following Turkish incursions into northern Syria. Turkey then turned to South Korean manufacturers Doosan and S&T Dynamics to supply Altay’s engine and transmission. Yet engine production remains a key vulnerability for the Turkish defense industry.
This report tracks recent trends in the Turkish defense industry and identifies the policy challenges it presents for the United States and its allies. Erdogan’s policies not only provide NATO’s adversaries with opportunities to exploit tensions within the transatlantic alliance, but also could lead to the proliferation of advanced capabilities to state and non-state actors that seek to challenge the United States. By wielding a mixture of positive and negative incentives and engaging with Turkey’s quasi-state defense industries to the exclusion of Erdogan’s loyalists, Washington can help deter Ankara from deepening its defense industry partnerships with Russia and other NATO adversaries. This could represent an important step toward bringing Turkey back into the NATO fold following a potential opposition victory in 2023.