Sanctions and export restrictions imposed on Turkey's ambitious defense industry have taken a toll on the development of sophisticated military hardware, which suffers from the lack of domestically produced components, in particular critical engines and transmission systems.
In a recent interview with a Turkish TV station on September 4, İsmail Demir, head of the Presidency of the Defense Industry (Savunma Sanayii Baskanligi, SSB), Turkey's top defense procurement agency, admitted that the agency has faced challenges in developing power packs including engines and transmissions for various defense projects.
It's not only the parts but also a shortage of qualified engineers that is hindering progress, he stated.
"The engine issue is a known [problem]. As for trained personnel and expertise, we also don't have extensive experience. There are a limited number of experts [in Turkey]," said Demir, who was sanctioned by the US over Turkey's purchase of the Russian S-400 long-range missile system.
Turkey has a number of national aircraft and tank projects, but they suffered a setback because of the difficulty in finding engines and transmission systems to power this equipment. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invested heavily in manufacturing engines domestically, with limited success thus far in the testing and integration stages.
The country's national fighter jet the TF-X lacks a domestically developed turbofan engine, and the SSB is hoping to get the help of British engine maker Rolls Royce, which has a joint venture with Turkish company Kale under the name of TAEC. Although Turkey experienced problems with the supply of engines from Rolls Royce in the past, and TAEC's earlier experiments in launching engine production had failed, the Erdoğan government hopes a new initiative will prompt TAEC to respond to a new tender for engine production that was announced by the SSB in July.
Demir said Turkey's ultimate goal is to rely completely on domestically produced power systems and that Tusaş Engine Industries (TUSAŞ Motor Sanayii A.Ş., TEI) and TRMotor, two engine makers, are working to realize that goal. The main contractor in developing a national fighter jet is Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), a state-owned enterprise.
President Erdoğan often boasts about Turkey having its first national combat jet in the air during election campaigns and slams the United States, a NATO ally, for failing to deliver the fighter jets that Turkey has been requesting for some time.
Another defense project, the development of a utility helicopter called Gökbey, also hit a snag over problems in developing a domestically produced engine. The prototypes were powered by a pair of LHTECs and CTS800 4-AT turboshaft engines that were manufactured by a joint venture between Rolls-Royce and Honeywell.
TEI has been working on developing an indigenous engine and finally manufactured one called the TS1400, but the testing and integration phases have not yet been completed. In other words, Gökbey still does not have a Turkish engine to power it, and it's unclear when it will.
That also means more problems and delays in supplying domestic engines for the Atak combat helicopters Turkey produces since the turbo engine for this type of chopper requires further capabilities and reliability in all weather conditions. For the time being, it uses the same imported engines as the Gökbey.
Tank power units are another problem that the Turkish defense industry faces. After failing to manufacture engines and transmission systems for Turkey's indigenously developed battle tank Altay, main contractor BMC, which has a contract with the SSB to supply 250 Altay tanks to the Turkish army, turned to South Korea to power the Altay. The first power unit arrived in March of this year and was integrated into the tank in May.
But Demir expressed skepticism about this power pack, saying the transmission is actually manufactured in Germany and that the South Koreans also failed to manufacture a completely indigenous power unit to run their own national tanks. He said Turkey cannot rely on foreign partners and would eventually finalize its project of producing both the engine and the transmission system domestically.
The Erdoğan government's array of problems with the West, especially with the US, has grown in recent years since Turkey has developed closer ties with Russia, China and Iran and has undermined Western sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Anti-Western diatribes and anti-NATO remarks have become routine for Turkish officials, negatively impacting Turks' perception of the West.
In December 2020 the US sanctioned the SSB and its senior officials over the purchase of S-400 long-range missiles, a deal worth $2.5 billion, from Rosoboronexport (ROE), Russia's main arms exporter. The US stated that Turkey willfully engaged in a significant transaction with Russia and therefore was subject to sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
As part of the sanctions, the US designated Demir and three other SSB officials: Faruk Yiğit, SSB's vice president; Serhat Gençoglu, head of the SSB's Department of Air Defense and Space; and Mustafa Alper Deniz, program manager for the SSB's Regional Air Defense Systems Directorate. Turkey had previously been removed from the global F-35 Joint Strike Fighter consortium in which the Erdoğan government had invested $1.4 billion and expected to generate $11 billion in export revenue.
The sanctions on the SSB prohibit granting loans, credits and US export licenses and authorizations for any goods or technology transferred to the Turkish entity as well as loans or credits from US financial institutions totaling more than $10 million in any 12-month period. The US government would also oppose any third-party engagement with the SSB and try to block any loan that is likely to be extended to the SSB by international financial institutions.
The US started implementing sanctions on the SSB in April 2021, while President Erdoğan and SSB president Demir brushed them off, claiming that the restrictions would motivate the Turkish military and defense industry to produce more domestic arms and defense materiel and export more equipment worldwide.
Several other NATO allies such as Canada and Germany have also applied restrictions and in some cases sanctions on the export of defense products to Turkey.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.