x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Turkey takes steps to strengthen its military

The Ankara government is bolstering its military strength by scaling back on foreign weapons and by investing in home-grown technology.

Turkey is concerned that violence will spill over from Syria, such as on the Ceylanpinar-Ras Al Ain border.
Turkey is concerned that violence will spill over from Syria, such as on the Ceylanpinar-Ras Al Ain border.

ISTANBUL // Sometimes, a political symbol can weigh 60 tonnes.

Days after Turkey showcased its first self-produced battle tank, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, served notice that his country's armed forces were gaining further strength by increasing its ability to produce its own military hardware.

His announcement this week came at a sensitive time for Turkey, which already has the second biggest fighting force in Nato, as the conflict in Syria threatens to spill over the border.

"We will prepare for war in the best possible manner to live in peace, freedom and independence, to strengthen our armed forces and our defence industry," Mr Erdogan told legislators from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara.

He added that Turkey hoped it would not be forced to make use of its weapons and this week the country also asked Nato to provide anti-missile batteries to fend off possible attacks from Syria.

This month, Mr Erdogan witnessed the roll-out of the Altay battle tank, named after a Turkish general famed for his role in the war against Greece in the 1920s. The Altay - which has a crew of four, weighs 60 tonnes and was designed by Turkish companies with input from South Korean and German experts - is to be tested for a year before going into production in late 2013, according to the prime minister.

The Altay is the latest example of Turkey's ambitious programme of designing and producing modern military technology.

Lale Kemal, the Ankara bureau chief of the independent Taraf newspaper and an expert on the Turkish defence sector, said the Erdogan government decided in 2004 to boost the defence industry to reduce its dependence on military help from the United States, European Nato partners such as Germany, and from Israel.

Mr Erdogan said that Turkey had succeeded.

Among other things, Turkey has produced military surveillance drones and attack helicopters. Self-produced Firtina howitzers were in action last month when they fired on positions of the Syrian armed forces within Syria in response to Syrian shelling of a Turkish border town.

A reconnaissance satellite for military use, the Gokturk 2, is scheduled to be shot into orbit on board a Chinese rocket next month, Mr Erdogan said. The prime minister added that Turkey had started to become an arms exporter.

According to Turkey's Defence and Aerospace Industry Exporters' Association (SSI), a business group, the country's arms exports from January to October this year were worth about US$1bn (Dh3.67bn), up from $661m in the same period last year.

Nations in the Middle East received about 30 per cent of Turkey's arms exports this year, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE accounting for about 8 per cent each. SSI says it wants to raise Turkish arms exports to $2bn a year by 2016.

Compared with the world's biggest arms exporter, the US, which sold weapons worth $66bn last year, according to the US Congress, Turkey's role is still minimal on a global scale.

But Kemal said Ankara was determined to expand the sector and had earmarked $600m for research and development in the defence industry for the coming year.

Egypt has shown an interest in buying 10 Turkish-made surveillance drones.

Kemal Kaya, a former Turkish defence ministry official who is an adviser to the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), a think tank in Ankara, said the arms sales in the Middle East were "another side of Turkey's rise and its soft power" in the region. He added national pride and economic interests were also involved.

Mr Kaya said Gulf nations were buying armoured vehicles, among other military products from Turkey.

But Kemal said the development of the defence sector was held back by the many Turkish companies in the field still controlled by the Turkish armed forces.

"They are not transparent and accountable," she said. "That is slowing down progress."