Facing Sanctions, Turkey's Defense Industry Goes to Plan B

4 MINS READNov 7, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
The pilot of a Turkish F-16 greets the crowd after performing at the Teknofest Istanbul Aerospace and Technology Festival in Istanbul on Sept. 22, 2019.

The pilot of a Turkish F-16 greets the crowd after performing at the Teknofest Istanbul Aerospace and Technology Festival in Istanbul on Sept. 22, 2019. Turkey is well-placed to ride out the storm from Western embargoes on its arms industry.

(ISLAM YAKUT/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
  • Turkey is facing significant arms embargoes from its Western partners as a result of its military incursion into northeastern Syria. 
  • But while Ankara's increasingly acrimonious relationship with the West will hurt the Turkish defense sector, it will not cripple it.
  • In the main, Turkey will weather the storm because it is better placed to rely on its growing domestic defense industry for its military needs and because it will search for alternative defense partners. 

Turkey's defense industry has taken a blow, but it's certainly not down and out. Ankara's relationship with the European Union and many of its fellow NATO members has hit a new low following Turkey's military incursion into northeastern Syria. Outraged at the Turkish operation, a large number of Western states, including key arms exporters such as France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, suspended their arms exports to Turkey. Meanwhile, the United States, which supplies around 60 percent of Turkey's total arms imports — the most of any country — could also turn off the taps if Congress passes a series of anti-Turkey motions. The Turkish defense sector's current pain notwithstanding, the country is not bereft of options, suggesting it will ultimately manage to push through the tough obstacles by turning to alternative exporters and relying even more on its own defense industry.

The Big Picture

Located in an area of high strategic importance, Turkey is increasingly at odds with its Western allies. The degree to which Ankara ultimately overcomes Western sanctions and, potentially, turns away from the West will have significant implications in Europe and the Middle East alike.

The Spark for a Domestic Industry

Because the Turkish defense industry uses many Western subcomponents to produce its own equipment, the current suspensions and embargoes will sting. But the Western measures won't just deprive Turkey of new equipment, as long suspensions will also exhaust Turkey's preexisting stockpiles. This will be detrimental to the maintenance, upkeep and modernization of some key weapons systems that Turkey relies on, including F-16 fighter jets, Leopard and M-60 tanks, and other major equipment that Turkey has purchased from the West. 

But despite the inevitable pain from Western arms embargoes, Turkey has alternatives to deal with the problem. First, Turkey has weathered a number of NATO arms embargoes and cutoffs over the last 50 years; each time, Ankara has sought to learn from them. Most seriously, Turkey experienced an embargo from 1975 to 1978 after it intervened in Cyprus in 1974 in response to a Greek-supported coup. Unable to access much-needed U.S. equipment and weaponry during the 42-month-long embargo, Turkey was forced to begin developing its own nascent defense industry.

Turkish Arms Imports As a Share of Its Military Spending

Since the 1970s, the Turkish defense industry has grown markedly to the extent that Turkey is now a major exporter of defense-related equipment. Turkey even claims that its local industry already meets 70 percent of its military requirements, up from 20 percent 15 years ago. Thus, while Ankara finds itself in the relatively familiar position of facing arms bans, it is significantly better prepared to survive the current problems given its experience with such embargoes and the more developed state of its domestic defense industry.

For Russia, the opportunity to land a major arms sale that could help deepen the rift within NATO is an opportunity too good to pass up.

Looking Farther Afield

But beyond moving more toward self-reliance, Ankara could also look elsewhere for weapons suppliers. Turkey has already expanded its defense ties with countries like South Korea, Ukraine, Belarus, Pakistan, China and, most notably, Russia. In fact, Turkey was already facing possible U.S. sanctions even before its military incursion into northeastern Syria due to its purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Turkey is likely to turn further toward these countries as a means to alleviate some of the bottlenecks stemming from the Western arms embargoes. Ankara, in fact, has already purchased Russian ammunition after running low earlier in its operation in Syria. This shift away from the West is likely to continue, as Ankara is already in advanced negotiations with Moscow to purchase Su-35 fighter jets. Naturally for Russia, the opportunity to land a major arms sale that could help deepen the rift within NATO is an opportunity too good to pass up.  

In the end, Turkey cannot completely avoid the pain of Western arms embargoes, especially if they last for several months. Domestic defense industry projects that rely on Western components will inevitably face delays, and existing Western-sourced weaponry will be harder to modernize and maintain without access to Western spare parts. But with domestic and alternative suppliers to fall back on, Turkey's military stands a good chance of riding out the storm.

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