by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
In 2017, Turkey’s Ministry of Defence released its latest five-year Strategic Plan, which identifies the priority procurement programs for that country’s military. With defence expenditures in 2019 estimated at 1.89% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – just below the 2.00% threshold that only nine of Turkey’s fellow NATO members currently meet – these procurement programs hold global significance. However, how applicable is the Strategic Plan to Turkey’s current strategic context? Could some recalibration be necessary ahead of the introduction of the next Strategic Plan next year? After all, since 2017, ISIS has lost its territory, and Turkey has shifted its attention to Bashar al-Assad’s Russia-backed forces. Turkey also was kicked out of the F-35 program because of the four batteries of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, which have been delivered to Turkey over US objections.
The Strategic Plan identifies the following as priority projects: the delivery of new radar systems for Coast Guard Command in 2018, the delivery of 15 new Altay main battle tanks (MBTs) in 2020 and 20 in 2021, completion of design work in 2020 to indigenously build frigates, delivery of operative and tactical drones with imagery intelligence capabilities between until 2020, the delivery of the first aircraft with standoff jammer (SOJ) capabilities in 2020, and the delivery of the first portable electronic warfare (EW) radar system in 2021.
Certainly, the Turkish exit from the F-35 program complicates some of these, such as obtaining SOJ capabilities and portable EW radar systems. However, in March 2019, Turkey accepted delivery of two Bombardier Global 6000’s on which the domestically designed Hava SOJ is to be installed, and the delivery of an additional two of these aircraft was expected later the same year. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) has already released the Anka-I series of drones for use by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) of Turkey. The Anka-S variant, which is capable of facilitating satellite-controlled airstrikes, has already seen extensive combat in Syria over the past two years. TAI’s drone program has seen so much recent success that the Pakistan Navy has expressed serious interest in acquiring several Anka-S units.
Design work on the aforementioned new frigates for the Turkish Naval Forces will be informed by the Istanbul-class, for which construction is already underway on the first of these vessels with intended commissioning in 2021. Reportedly, these new frigates represent, in turn, some modest improvements over the Ada-class corvettes that have been operating since 2011. For example, the Istanbul-class will hold twice the number of anti-ship missiles and sport a larger hull (for example, a displacement of 3,000 tonnes versus the Ada-class’ 2,400 tonnes). This has allowed the Istanbul Naval Shipyard to incrementally improve upon its shipbuilding techniques and technologies, given that previously the Turkish Naval Forces relied upon decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates from the US and vessels manufactured by Germany’s Blohm+Voss to fill out its surface combatant fleet.
The timeline for the Altay MBT, however, is less clear. In November 2018, a contract was signed with Turkish vehicle manufacturer BMC to produce 250 of the tanks, eventually expanding to 1,000 over more than 20 years. It may be too ambitious to expect that the first 35 of these tanks will be delivered before the current Strategic Plan expires. When Hyundai Rotem signed a contract in March 2011 to produce the K2 Black Panther, a similar MBT design, for the Republic of Korea Army, it took nine years to complete delivery of 206 tanks and work continues as of this writing on the manufacture of the remaining 54 units in that order. BMC may be able to avoid some of the pitfalls Hyundai Rotem experienced. For example, the initial batch of Altay MBTs will use a 1,500 hp engine from German manufacturer MTU, which was also what Hyundai Rotem ultimately used in the initial batch of K2 Black Panthers to address reliability issues with Korean-made power packs.
Again, the Turkish defence industry has attracted interest from potential international customers: Qatar is rumoured to have placed an order for 100 Altay MBTs, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have expressed interest in obtaining units, while Azerbaijani and Omani officials have also apparently considered the Altay MBT for future force modernization and expansion efforts. Interestingly, there has been much less interest among international customers in small arms and light weapons manufactured in Turkey. This has not been for lack of trying on the part of Turkish arms manufacturers: for example, the MKE MPT-76 has been adopted as the standard-issue assault rifle of the Turkish Land Forces, replacing the Heckler & Koch G3. Despite the improvements the MKE MPT-76 offers over the H&K G3, which is used by many of those same countries interested in purchasing the Altay MBT, only Somalia is confirmed to have MKE MPT-76 rifles in use, having received a shipment of 450 from Turkey as military aid in 2017.
All in all, it would seem Turkey is ahead of the curve in the implementation of its current five-year Strategic Plan. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the need for improved airstrike capabilities in Syria has fostered a faster-than-expected pace of development in Turkey’s drone and SOJ programs. The Syrian conflict may also be blamed for the slowdown in Altay MBT production. As Turkey committed ground forces to the fight against al-Assad, BMC was tasked with upgrading some of Turkey’s current Leopard 2A5s to include explosive reactive armour on the sides of these tanks and around their turrets, as well as slat armour around the turret and an Active Protective System. This work could certainly have drawn resources away from the Altay MBT program.
In any case, the new Strategic Plan expected in mid-2021 will offer valuable insight as to how Turkish defence planners understand the country’s strategic environment and how they intend to build upon the momentum generated in the domestic industry from successful programs like the Anka-I and Anka-S drone series, the Hava SOJ installation, the Istanbul-class frigates, and just possibly the Altay MBT rollout.