From Client to Competitor: The Rise of Turkey’s Defence Industry

defence industry

Turkey’s defense industry has experienced significant changes over the past 50 years, and the country has transformed into a significant defense exporter. 

Turkey’s defense sector stands at an impasse, and decision-makers need help with its future direction. On the one hand, Turkiye’s persistent desire to build a self-sufficient defense industry has resulted in significant development in the industry and enhanced the strategic autonomy of Ankara by decreasing its dependence on foreign companies. 

However, continuing goals to achieve self-sufficiency will be increasingly difficult and expensive, especially with the increase in sophistication, the scale of modern weaponry, and the number of new players entering the market. While this is a reason for greater industrial cooperation, the growth of Turkey’s defense industry has historically depended on its response to Western arms embargoes. 

Moreover, Turkey’s decision-makers are conscious of the vulnerability of defense cooperation to influence from abroad.

 Turkish Industrialization Of Defense

International systems have offered opportunities and obstacles for Turkish industrialization of defense. 

But, to comprehend the process and the elements that will influence the future of Turkish defense, it is essential to examine the impact of domestic factors like the leadership’s attitudes and a desire for strategic autonomy, and the development of the nascent Turkiye industry have influenced its course.

Political leaders like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1930s and 1920s, Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, Turgut Ozal in the 1980s, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the year 2000 have left impressions on Turkey’s defense industry. 

Changing Structure Of International Relations

As a result, they have considered and reacted to the changing structure of international relations, starting with acceptance and dependence on American defense products in the early years throughout the Cold War to a growing realization that Turkiye required its defense sector in the early 1960s. 

This was confirmed following the 1974 Turkish operations in Cyprus when Turkish allies were able to enforce declared and undeclared arms embargoes to Ankara. This led to a rethinking of Turkey’s defense-industrial capabilities.

Private Sector Companies in Defense Sector

Alongside restructuring the nation’s defense industry, the shift from import-driven industrialization to export-driven permitted the large-scale involvement of private sector companies in the defense sector. 

Defense companies, established from beginning to finish in the 1980s by private sector investors, were urged to collaborate with foreign partners to acquire skills and capital. This strategy led to the rise of joint ventures that appeared to be an excellent method to ensure technology transfer. 

Its Undersecretariat for Defence Industries (named initially The Defence Industry Development and Support Administration Office and then as known as the Defence Industry Agency since 2022) was a crucial element in the development of the industry for defense following the reorganization of most sectors under the umbrella of the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation ( Turk Silahli Kuvvetlerini Guclendirme Vakfi) in 1987.

Various Dependencies

Turkish decision-makers have come to recognize that absolute autonomy is virtually impossible. While the indigenization process of weapons systems allows for various liberties, it also creates various dependencies. 

Additionally, Turkey’s top-down method of establishing its defense-industrial base, which goes down the platform level to components and technologies, is also a source of criticism, primarily due to inadequate prioritization and the absence of a consistent procedural strategy.

Arms Exports

To offset the expenses, Turkish defense industrialization has heavily depended on arms exports while it continues to indigenize and develop military-related technologies. 

Despite the booming exports and turnover, this sector is still facing future challenges, such as the development of new competitors in the market and an improvement in the “brain drain,” particularly in the latter half of 2010.

Decision-Makers Are In A Dilemma

In this context, Turkey’s decision-makers are in a dilemma. 

While Turkiye prefers to cooperate with Western allies, it is also telling to collaborate with other collaborators because dependence at different levels on suppliers from other countries could hinder Turkiye in its pursuit of national interests, mainly if the policy and priorities of Ankara and its major suppliers aren’t in line.

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