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Turkish National Defense Sector Pushing Drone Technology

Over the last decade Turkey has moved to supply its own armed forces domestically; now the country is eyeing drone development

Tuncay Kayaoglu

Turkish Air Force is about to gain a new generation drone, Karayel (northwest wind) after an earlier one, Anka (Phoenix) which was produced by Turkish Aerospace Industries – TAI – in 2010. Karayel is being developed by Vestel, a private Turkish company.

Vestel announced last month that Karayel passed a crucial test flying with an electro-optical camera and a total payload of 51 kilograms. “The Karayel drone is ready to enter the Turkish army’s inventory,” the company said.

The private firm has developed the drone with its own resources. It has invested $30 million in the program, which started in 2005.

Apart from Anka and Karayel, there is an additional drone project – Bayraktar – developed by Istanbul-based Baykar. TAI has also been developing a more advanced version of Anka which can fire missiles.

For many Turks, such locally produced drones are a source of national pride. The drones also attract foreign interest; the Egyptian government in 2012 was in talks with a Turkish company to buy Anka before two countries’ relationships soured.

Bahrain has also reportedly showed interest in an attack helicopter, ATAK (Attack), another domestically developed defense project.

These projects point to recent successes by Turkish defense companies. Turkey has stepped up its military expenditure and export of military products in recent years. A quick look at data from the Turkish Undersecretary for Defense Industries shows that the defense sector is developing new battle tanks and attack helicopters, among other products.

Turkey's defense industry has grown economically. Total turnover increased to US$5 billion in 2013 from $1.8 billion in 2006. On the export side, Turkish companies have raised their export to $1.6 billion in 2014 – that figure was below a billion dollars just three years ago.

Surprisingly, the U.S. was the largest importer of Turkish defense hardware, with a total of US$547 million in 2014. Thirty-three percent of exports were to North America while 23% were to European countries.

Malaysia was a second major market with $109-million worth of Turkish imports, followed by the United Arab Emirates with $87 million.

“We export one-third of what we produce. In recent years the defense industry has gained considerable momentum in exports. Our products have been in demand in global markets,” Latif Aral Alis, chairman of Turkey’s Defense and Aerospace Industry Exporters’ Association, representing at least 400 firms, said in February.

Although “these figures are important,” says Metin Gurcan, a defense expert and a former Turkish army captain whose articles regularly appear on foreign news websites, he also notes that the Turkish defense sector has focused on low-value assembly processes rather than high-value R&D.

Yet the rise of the Turkish defense industry cannot be ignored. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, a think tank on armaments and arms control, has recognized Turkey’s presence in the defense market and included the country with emerging arms producers like South Korea, Singapore, Brazil and India.

“Turkey’s Aselsan (the country’s leading defense system producer) continues to increase their respective positions in the Top 100 following their first appearance in the 2011 rankings,” SIPRI reported in its 2014 study on the world's top 100 defense companies.

Aselsan jumped 22 places, to 65th in 2013 from 87th in 2012.

A similar list prepared by U.S.-based Defense News magazine in 2014 shows that Aselsan ranked 67th in the world’s top 100 defense firms. TAI has also risen to 80th in the list.

Although the exact number of Turkish people employed in the industry is remains secret, at least 500 firms thought to operate in the sector.

Turkish companies are hungry for more. “We have two companies among the top 100 but our objective is to have seven in the list,” Alis says. Turkish defense producers aim to boost exports to $2 billion in 2015 and to $25 billion by 2023.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher from SIPRI, believes that the change lies in the country’s ability to integrate foreign-sourced technology into its own weapon systems. This hybridization has allowed Turkish companies to reach international markets, he told The Anadolu Agency.

Atilla Sandikli, a former army colonel and now Associate Professor of International Relations at Istanbul-based Halic University, stresses the government’s support for the industry. A “game-changer” in the sector, Sandikli believes, was the government’s move to insist on co-production and technology transfer in defense tenders.

That priority has delayed purchase of long-range missiles. Turkey, a NATO member state since 1955, announced in 2013 it had decided on an FD-2000 missile defense system – worth US$3.4 billion – from China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp. rather than the defense systems of Italian, French and American companies.

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