On January 23, Turkey officially launched its first domestically-produced frigate. During the launch ceremony in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphasized the importance of developing a domestic arms industry which would guarantee the country’s independence, pointing to recent U.S. sanctions as evidence that the current leading arms manufacturing nations exert too much influence over emerging powers like Turkey. Erdoğan outlined some ambitious projects, including a domestically-produced aircraft carrier, designed to lift Turkey into a small group of arms-producing nations. But the question is if Turkey is really ready to dive headlong into the arms manufacturing game at a time when it is still developing economically and politically. What are the costs to this pursuit of hard power dominance?
Adnan R. Khan: These are some advanced pieces of machinery Turkey is trying to develop. Why does it feel the need to go in this direction?
Ilter Turan: One can partly justify the desire for domestic armaments by the fact that the world order set up after WWII is changing. Turkey wants to be somewhat more autonomous and less dependent on arms suppliers that have an interest in influencing Turkish foreign policy. The most recent case in point here is the missile defense system Turkey does not have and its decision to purchase the Russian S-400 when Americans showed reluctance to sell Patriots. Let us begin by admitting that these military wares are extremely difficult to develop, even for countries with much more resources than Turkey possesses. As a result of dependence on others, most of Turkey’s armaments projects are behind schedule, the Altay tank and the Turkish fighter jet offering easy examples.
With that said, there are also certain aspects to developing your own weapons systems that should be considered before embarking on such a resource intensive task. First of all, there is a wide range of military hardware a nation needs for its security. No country can produce everything it needs, so it has to exercise some discretion as to what is important to build and what is secondary. Second, there is a high degree of interdependence in the world. Even major producers like the U.S. acquire some of their weaponry from other countries. In Turkey’s case, this reliance on external suppliers tends to be rather significant. There have been successes in domestic production – in unmanned aerial vehicles, for instance, but those, we should remember, require imported engines. Another example is Turkey’s domestically-produced Atak helicopter. As it so happens, the engines for these helicopters come from Europe, but it is an American-licensed product. Turkey is failing to deliver the helicopters it promised to sell to Pakistan because of issues regarding permission to acquire the engines. We’ve had similar problems in other areas. The Altay tank was supposed to be equipped with an engine from an Austrian- German supplier. But the Austrian and probably German governments are withholding them because they don’t approve of some of Turkey’s policies. So, the project is delayed.
Turkey is trying to build its own fighter jets. Well, again, the engine will have to come from someplace else. Of course, there are attempts to build engines locally but unless you are willing to spend the resources to not only develop the engine, but also market it globally and maintain the R&D to keep it technologically relevant – a very expensive endeavor – the project will be difficult to sustain.
Adnan R. Khan: Developing a viable arms industry is, as you suggest, extremely resource intensive. Resources are, of course, not limitless. So, what does Turkey lose in the process of pursuing a domestic arms industry?
Ilter Turan: There are both economic and political losses. On the economic front, the answer is reasonably clear: Whatever you spend on developing your defense industries, you take away from developing other areas of your economy and society including infrastructure, industry, education, health and so on. I’m not suggesting that you avoid developing these expensive technologies; what I’m suggesting is that you choose them such that they are internationally marketable and economically sustainable.
In political terms, the reliance on instruments of hard power is a problem because the international system operates on the principle that the exercise of hard power is a measure of last resort. If you are investing too much in the development of hard power and, because of limited resources, neglecting developments in the field of soft power, then this leads to several problematic outcomes. First, you limit your ability to wield influence in international affairs, where the employment of soft power is the rule. Second, you may invite others to also develop or enhance their instruments of hard power because they are concerned about you. You can get into a spiral. In fact, I’m tempted to think that the Greek investment in 18 Rafael fighter jets is an entertaining example of this.
Adnan R. Khan: Looking at Turkey’s foreign policy, it’s quite ambitious, and quite reliant on hard power, particularly in the Middle East. But it hasn’t been very successful. How can Turkey better utilize the limited resources it has?
Ilter Turan: You’re absolutely right that Turkey’s military engagements are not paying dividends. The focus in Libya at the moment is on a political solution. Turkey’s projection of military power, however, was important in stopping Haftar from taking over the government. So, in this case, the use of hard power brought some dividends as also in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But such hard power always needs to be followed up by effective soft power. What we see is that by engaging in hard power, Turkey has alienated its neighbors. It is running into problems in Syria. It is running into problems in Iraq. It is now also running into problems in Libya. It has very bad relations with Egypt, which is a key country in both in the Arab world and as a gateway to Africa.
My humble opinion is that Turkey needs to focus more in developing instruments of soft power. The fact that Turkey is out of the Eastern Mediterranean gas arrangement is a good example of how hard power politics has marginalized it in an area where it needs to be present. soft power. The fact that Turkey is out of the Eastern Mediterranean gas arrangement is a good example of how hard power politics has marginalized it in an area where it needs to be present. Turkey is also not able to penetrate some of the most promising markets in its region, especially in areas like construction, where it has a competitive advantage, again because of its reliance on hard power or, by corollary, its lack of competence in soft power.
Adnan R. Khan: Soft power is really about building alliances. Cycling back to the beginning of this discussion, you mentioned the changing world order and Turkey’s desire to pursue a more independent path. But is the emerging new world order going to be about independent nations all competing for their own interests or will it be about building new alliances?
Ilter Turan: Well, maybe in the long run it will be about new alliances, but during the transition period, it appears that everybody is in it for themselves. And as the eventual new order begins to take shape, the stronger you are, the greater influence you shall have in shaping it.
Adnan R. Khan: So is Turkey taking the prudent path by bulking up militarily, or should it be focusing more on bulking up diplomatically?
Ilter Turan: I would say both. But at the moment, it seems that the military aspect is being favored over the diplomatic and the economic sides, and this is a problem.