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Aerospace & Defense

Turkey turns to South Korean companies to help build battle tank

Ankara seeks new partners in arms production as the West and Japan block sales

A prototype of the Altay tank for which Turkey is hoping to develop and build with the help of South Korean companies.    © Anatolia Agency

ISTANBUL -- Turkey is seeking new defense suppliers and partners in countries from South Korea to Ukraine to overcome "tacit and implicit embargoes" from allies in the West.

Defense News reported that Turkey's armored vehicle producer BMC, which is developing a project to build the Altay battle tank, has signed preliminary deals with South Korea's Doosan Group and S&T Dynamics to buy their engine and transmission system.

The Altay tank project has been significantly delayed by a lack of critical technology such as the engine and transmission systems. Turkey had previously contacted South Korean companies to provide such technology to no avail then.

Ankara had also approached Germany's MTU for engine supplies and RENK for transmission systems but failed to clinch a deal due to Berlin's restrictions on arms exports to Turkey on account of its military intervention in Syria.

Defense News reported that to circumvent Germany's restrictions on exports to the country, South Korean companies will localize production of some of the South Korean power pack system, which includes German parts.

In 2013, Turkey also approached the Japanese government and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to help it develop the Altay tank.

However, Turkey insisted on retaining rights to export the tank to friendly countries such as Azerbaijan and Pakistan, which would breach Japan's principles on defense equipment exports, and as such, negotiations ultimately ended in failure.

Turkey has the second largest army in NATO after the U.S. and the country is becoming increasingly assertive in its foreign policy and is not afraid to wield its military power. Its army has been engaging in Syria, Libya, Iraq and more recently in the Turkic state of Azerbaijan through the supply of heavy arms and military training. Ankara's navy is also facing off European Union member states Greece and Cyprus over maritime boundary disputes.

Furthermore, Turkey is increasingly at odds with its NATO ally the U.S. due to Ankara's decision to procure the advanced Russian missile defense system, S400s, after abandoning a Chinese option.

The U.S. slapped minor sanctions in December on Turkey's top defense procurement and development body, the Presidency of Defense Industries, and its top executives. At this point, Washington had already kicked Turkey out from its stealth fighter jet program, for F-35s, over the same matter.

Since 2018, the U.S. has also been blocking engine exports to Turkey over its $1.5 billion deal to supply Pakistan with military helicopters that it had jointly developed with an Italian defense company.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin told Bloomberg this month, "This (U.S. blocking) will probably cause the tender to be won by China and U.S. will be the loser."

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told local media at the end of February, "Allies and friends insist on somehow not to give us the material which we already paid for."

According to defense industry analyst Arda Mevlutoglu, U.S. sanctions will have a large impact on the Turkish defense industry.

"Now there is a risk that Western defense companies might refrain from doing business with Turkey," Mevlutoglu said. "It might not be easy to find alternatives in the short run... The sector will face serious damage."

Bloomberg also reported this month that Turkey is in talks with Pakistan to cooperate on manufacturing fighter jet and missile defense systems, using Chinese designs. It is unclear if the talks had advanced to the point of seeking Beijing's consent to use its defense technology.

After the U.S. denied the sale of military drones to Turkey, Ankara developed its own versions which are now used in Libya, Syria and in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. Ankara has also recently sold those drones to Ukraine, a move that has ruffled the feathers of Russia.

Ukraine has a Soviet legacy of producing helicopters, aircraft and cruise missile engines. Turkey is also counting on Ukrainian cooperation on engine and transmission production for its defense projects.

Turkish unmanned aerial vehicle producer Baykar Defense will deliver to the army this year its next-generation armed drone equipped with Ukrainian twin turboprop engines, a significant upgrade of its existing model.

Due to the use of Turkish drones in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict last year, the Canadian government has announced the suspension of export permits for drone-related components to Turkey. Canadian companies have been providing engine, drone optics and laser targeting systems.

Can Kasapoglu, security and defense program director at Turkey's Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said: "As seen in the Canada case, Turkey is facing unacceptable reaction from its NATO allies, so the country is turning to alternatives to generate technology transfer and co-production options. Yet, high-end defense technology transfer is a geopolitical issue with critical importance and there is no easy way forward."

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