ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish procurement and military officials as well as teams from a private manufacturer have been negotiating with a South Korean company to recover a program riddled with delays for the production of the country's first indigenous new-generation main battle tank.
"This program has faced major delays due to failed access to significant components like the engine, transmission and armor," a procurement official told Defense News. "I am not in a position to give a date for the start of serial production. All I know is we are trying hard to get it moved ahead."
In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office included the Altay tank as part of the military's 2020 inventory in a government document. In an October 2019 speech, Ethem Sancak — a senior shareholder in BMC, which makes the Altay — said the tank would be fielded within 24 months.
It now appears that prediction was too optimistic. The presidential office's 2021 investment program, released earlier this month, does not even mention the Altay, let alone the tank entering service.
According to a source with knowledge of the Altay program, BMC has been in talks with Hyundai Rotem to solve problems surrounding missing foreign technology for the Altay, which Turkish officials often portray as a fully national, indigenous Turkish tank. The South Korean company previously built public transportation and Bosporus crossing systems in Istanbul, Ankara and Adana as well as light rail systems in Istanbul and Izmir.
"We are hoping our talks will eventually sort out the problems regarding the power pack — [the engine and transmission — that] we will use in the serial production cycle," the source told Defense News. "We are probably talking about another couple of months of talks before we know which way we are headed."
He added that BMC is in indirect talks, through Hyundai Rotem, with two South Korean defense technology concerns: engine-maker Doosan and S&T Dynamics, which produces automatic transmissions.
"Ideally a Doosan-S&T power pack will power the Altay if we can iron out differences and licensing issues," he said.
South Korea has experienced similar problems with its program for the mass production of the K2 Black Panther tank. Its deployment by the Army faced delays due to problems concerning the engine and transmission.
The first 100 units were built with a Doosan 1,500-horsepower engine and an S&T Dynamics automatic transmission. Under a second contract, tanks began to be delivered in late 2016. But after S&T Dynamics' transmission failed durability tests, South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration announced the second batch would have a "hybrid" power pack consisting of the locally developed engine and the German RENK transmission system.
"How the Turks can make use of a proven engine and a failed transmission remains to be seen," said a London-based Turkey expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Turkey had hoped to power the Altay with the German MTU engine and RENK transmission, but talks with German manufacturers over the past couple of years failed due to a federal arms embargo on Turkey. Germany is one of a number of European governments that have limited exports to Turkey over its involvement in the Syrian civil war.
A similar problem concerns the Altay's planned armor. Turkey was hoping a French armor solution would continue to be available following an initial batch of 40 units. But recent political tension between the two countries over hydrocarbon explorations off Cyprus has put this in jeopardy.
The source with knowledge of the Altay program said the armor will now be locally produced under a public-private partnership.
The Altay program dates back to the mid-1990s, but it wasn't until November 2018 that the Turkish government awarded the tank's multibillion-dollar contract to BMC. In a competition, the firm defeated Otokar, which had already produced four Altay prototypes under a government contract.
The contract involves the production of an initial batch of 250 units, life-cycle logistical support, and the establishment by the contractor of a tank systems technology center and its operation. As part of the contract, BMC will design, develop and produce a tank with an unmanned fire control unit.
The contract said the first Altay tank is to roll off the assembly line within 18 months. Opposition parties in parliament have slammed the government over delays, but procurement officials claim the 18-month clause will apply after the first unit's production begins.
The Altay program is broken into two phases: T1 and T2. T1 covers the first 250 units, and T2 involves the advanced version of the tank. Turkey also plans to eventually produce 1,000 Altays, to be followed by an unmanned version.
The deal has proved politically controversy, particularly after the Erdogan administration leased for free a military-owned tank and turret factory by the Marmara Sea to BMC for a period of 25 years.
The move prompted cries of nepotism, as BMC shareholder Sancak was a senior member of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party at the time.
Ozgur Eksi, an independent defense analyst, questioned the choice of assigning a factory by the sea for tank production. "In the event of war, the Altay factory could be an easy target for the enemy fire," he said. "This program could have been much better planned from a strategic point of view."
Nevertheless, Eksi added, "there is a political determination to get the Altays into the Army's inventory. Sooner or later, production will start."
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.