Turkey is one of the world’s up-and-coming arms exporters and wants to expand its status as a regional power – with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and despite the economic crisis.
Speeches in front of representatives of the domestic arms industry should bring joy to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish economy is in deep crisis – but promises can still be made in this industry. “We will continue to give the defense industry any support,” said Erdoğan in November at an event organized by a Turkish arms company. According to an assessment by the peace research institute Sipri, Turkey is one of the world’s up-and-coming arms exporters. The massive expansion of the arms industry is part of a larger strategy – and part of an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.
One aspect: the immensely increased spending on their own military. According to figures from the Science and Politics Foundation, spending rose by 69 percent between 2015 and 2019. The armaments industry’s turnover has grown from a billion in 2002 to 11 billion in 2020.
Turkish weapons are exported to virtually every continent
Turkish industry manufactures a wide range of products – and the links with the government are obvious. The most popular combat drone, the Bayraktar TB2, is produced by a company owned by a son-in-law Erdoğan. Another important player, according to Hürcan Asli Aksoy, deputy head of the Center for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at the Science and Politics Foundation, is the Sadat company. Your boss is a former adviser to the president.
Turkish weapons and Turkish know-how are exported to virtually every continent, according to Hüseyin Bagci, professor at the Institute for International Relations at the University of Odtü in Ankara. The coast guard in Nigeria, for example, patrols with Turkish equipment, and those in Somalia also receive training and equipment from the Turkish military.
Conflict zone Syria: Armored military vehicles of the Turkish armed forces drive along the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. (Source: Maya Alleruzzo // dpa)
But what makes the goods from Turkey so popular? “Price and quality,” says Bagci. Turkish drones, for example, are significantly cheaper than those from the USA – and in contrast to Israel, for example, Turkey has test fields for its weapons. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the South Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the war in Libya brought invaluable experience to those involved in the Turkish military industry, says Can Kasapoglu from the Edam Center for Economic and Foreign Policy in Istanbul.
Since 2016, Turkey has actively intervened in the civil war there with several military offensives in northern Syria. On January 2, 2020, the Turkish parliament then voted for a military operation in Libya – eight years after the start of the civil war. Ankara is supporting the internationally recognized government of Fajis al-Sarradsch there – with military equipment and personnel. Turkey is concerned with influence in the region, but also with natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean.
Turkey is still dependent on German weapons
Successes in the conflicts are at the same time self-promotion: The Turkish intervention in Libya has significantly influenced the balance of power in Al-Sarradj’s favor, in Syria Turkish combat drones pushed back government troops, and in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war it is assumed that Turkish drones in particular are part of the brother state of Azerbaijan “helped to win. Aksoy says that Turkish foreign policy is becoming increasingly aggressive. Bagci, on the other hand, sees the Turkish strategy as a natural reaction to regional conditions.
The country is not yet self-sufficient when it comes to weapons. One is particularly dependent on Germany, says Bagci. With a view to the Navy, Berlin is an important partner. Last year, Turkey received war weapons from Germany for 344.6 million euros – that is more than a third of German war weapons exports.
“In the long run this is not economically sustainable”
The importance of a strong Turkish Navy is particularly evident in the conflict over natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Here Turkey is at odds with Greece and Cyprus over border issues. Her research vessels are symbolically escorted by warships.
But how does this expansion go together with a deep economic crisis? “The overstretching is there,” says Bagci. “In the long run it is not economically sustainable,” says Aksoy. “In Libya, for example, the military sells weapons, where Turkey earns money. But in northern Iraq or northern Syria it is expensive because Turkish troops are deployed here.” Even so, Aksoy believes Turkey is becoming “a more dangerous actor”.
In any case, Erdoğan recently made his priorities clear again: “The defense industry is not a sector that can tolerate stagnation. We have to keep going in order to develop even better products.”