Turkey’s growing defense industry boosts its global influence


A Turkish man is seen during a presentation at the Lithuanian airbase in Siauliai, Lithuania July 6, 2022. Lithuania on July 6, 2022 displayed a crowd-funded Turkish-made military combat drone Bayraktar TB2 that she plans to send to Ukraine to help the war-torn country fight off the Russian invasion.

Petras Malukas | AFP | Getty Images

In the first weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a Musical clip surfaced online.

It featured clips of Russian missile launchers and tanks in the sights of a drone, while deep-voiced men chanted the words in Ukrainian: “The occupiers came to see us in Ukraine, with uniforms and vehicles brand new military, but their inventory has turned to steel… Bayraktar!”

The last word comes as an explosion annihilates a Russian target.

The video quickly went viral, the song written in tribute to the powerful Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone that helped Ukrainian forces devastate Russia’s initial offensive. The now-famous drone is produced by Istanbul-based defense firm Baykar Makina – whose chief technology officer is the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Drones aren’t the only thing elevating Turkey’s status as a growing player in the global defense industry. The large number of international agreements concluded by the country’s defense companies in recent years reveals a rapidly increasing demand, major investments in R&D and a growing source of leverage for Turkey’s foreign relations.

Record defense exports

In 2022, Turkey hits a record $4.4 billion in arms exports – a figure higher than the annual defense budgets of some European countries. After surpassing its export target for the year, the Turkish government aims to increase that figure to $6 billion in 2023. The country’s defense industry turnover as a whole last year was from $10 billionaccording to the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries.

Overseas defense export revenues increased by 42% between 2020 and 2021, with foreign contracts accounting for up to 90% of revenues for some Turkish companies – such as Baykar, the Atlantic Council reported in December. Turkey is home to some 2,000 companies in the sector.

A vessel claimed to be a Russian Raptor boat is destroyed using a Turkish-provided Ukrainian Bayraktar drone near Snake Island, Ukraine, in this screenshot obtained from social media video May 2, 2022.

Courtesy of Ukrainian Naval Forces

The transformation has its roots in the early 2000s, when Ankara set out a strategy to build a modern, self-sufficient defense sector and encourage domestic investment. Erdogan’s two-decade-long project, which continues to benefit from heavy state investment in local businesses, is bearing fruit as arms sales bolster Turkish influence abroad.

And while Turkey’s military manufacturing footprint is still small compared to major players like the United States, Russia and China, it has attracted outsized attention for the performance of its weapons like the Bayraktar drone, which was used in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan. Armenian conflict besides Ukraine.

Maintain external relations

Sales of arms and technology, including drones, “have helped [Turkey] improve ties” at the international level, writes the Atlantic Council, in particular with “states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, and even establish new ties with various other countries such as Poland, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia”.

The sales also strengthen Turkey’s influence in the Gulf States and Europe. At IDEX, the largest arms fair in the Middle East held in February in Abu Dhabi, the presence of Turkey was unavoidable. Huge Turkish-branded pavilions showcased everything from armored trucks and drones to assault rifles, tactical gear and laser-guided missiles.

The Ukrainian-Russian war has created a huge demand, even countries not participating in the war are stocking up. We are already doubling our manufacturing capacity just to keep up with demand.

Emin Oner

Chairman of the Board, Assan Group

“There is a large international demand from the Middle East, Asia, Europe. Also, with the war in Ukraine, Turkey is trying to do its best to support equipment, including with drones and land platforms,” Alper Öziblen, president of Turkish defense company Pavo Group, told CNBC at IDEX.

“It shows us that Turkish products are mature enough to be used on battlefields,” he said. “Our customers, our partners are very happy.”

Tulpar, a Turkish heavy infantry fighting vehicle designed by Sakarya-based automaker Otokar, on display during the 16th International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 21, 2023.

Photo by Mohammed Zarandah | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Supply to NATO, Ukraine and beyond

A view from the Turkish ASSAV Defense Company stand during the 16th International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on February 21, 2023.

Mohammad Zaranda | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“The Ukrainian-Russian war has created a huge demand, even countries not participating in the war are stockpiling. We are already doubling our manufacturing capacity just to meet the demand. [from NATO countries]Emin Öner, chairman of the board of Turkish defense firm Assan Group, told CNBC.

“All manufacturers are reserved for at least five more years,” Öner said. He said his company was full of orders for the next few years, with 24-hour shifts – despite the fact that Assan does not currently manufacture products for Ukraine. He would if the Turkish government requested it, he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (C) and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (R) pose during a joint press conference after their meeting in Lviv, Ukraine, August 18 2022.

Metin Atkas | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Not all Turkish defense companies supply weapons to Ukraine. Of those who do, some, like Baykar, do not publicly comment on it. The Turkish government is playing a careful balance between Ukraine and Russia to act as a mediator between the two, and has maintained relations with Moscow, providing a new home for many Russians fleeing sanctions.

For Pavo Group’s Öziblen, however, his company’s supply of defense equipment to Ukraine is a source of pride.

“Whether [Ukraine] needs know-how, knowledge, for specific systems, we transfer it to them for free,” he said.

“It’s a kind of responsibility,” Öziblen added. “It’s more than business for us, actually. Ukraine is more than business.”

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