Is the US out as Turkey’s top Western arms dealer?

ANKARA, Turkey — Britain may replace the U.S. as Turkey’s major Western weapons supplier, as the two European nations are set to take a “strategic” turn in an already growing defense relationship.

Turkey and Britain have been negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement in anticipation for the latter’s exit from the European Union.

According to a British diplomat in Ankara, the two NATO allies agree on the importance of “doing the maximum in their capacity in the field of defense.”

“Both partners have a long-term, strategic view of their cooperation on defense technologies,” he said.

A Turkish presidential aide said both countries agree “a significant part of the [post-Brexit] trade deal will involve defense technologies and cooperation on several systems.”

Defense cooperation was a major part of government-to-government talks during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s state visit to London on May 15. Turkey’s top procurement officer, Ismail Demir, was, among other senior officials, in Erdogan’s delegation.

“There were several rounds of discussions between officials and company executives,” said one Turkish procurement official who was in Erdogan’s delegation. “There will be follow-on meetings before new programs and their partnership modalities mature.”

Britain is the only European heavyweight with no occasional rifts with Turkey’s Islamist strongman, Erdogan, over Ankara’s increasingly visible democratic deficit. Instead, according to a London-based Turkey specialist, Britain is focused on trade and transactional relations with the country. “That keeps the Turks happy and trade ties prosper,” he said.

A senior Turkish diplomat noted that “Turkey is one of Britain’s most strategic post-Brexit trade partners. In turn, we view the kingdom as a reliable partner in sensitive defense technologies.”

Industry gets involved

During Erdogan’s London visit, three Turkish companies signed a deal with Mira, a British specialist in vehicle test systems and autonomous vehicles. The Turkish companies in the new venture are Katmerciler, a privately owned armored and anti-riot vehicles manufacturer, and electronic systems producers Savronik and Delta. Katmerciler says it wants to specialize in unmanned land vehicles.

The four-company agreement aims to bolster cooperation in the field of unmanned technologies. It involves co-development programs, production in Turkey, and sales to Turkey, Britain and other countries.

Katmerciler most recently produced and tested its remote-controlled UKAP firing platform, mounted with the SARP remote-controlled stabilized gun system that features satellite communications. The SARP was developed by military electronics specialist Aselsan, Turkey’s largest defense company.

Mira, based in Midlands, Britain, provides various testing, product design and development research services, including next-generation transportation technology to the automotive, aerospace, railway and other industrial sectors. In July 2015, HORIBA acquired Mira to expand its vehicle development and testing business, as well as contribute to the development of next-generation mobility such as autonomous vehicles. The HORIBA Group, made up of 48 companies in 27 countries, provides analytical and measurement systems.

Turkish and British officials also have agreed to give pace to a joint landmark program. “The TF-X program will soon gain remarkable pace,” said the Turkish procurement official from Erdogan’s delegation, referring to the effort to develop and produce Turkey’s first indigenous fighter jet.

Russian industry has shown interest in developing an engine to power Turkey’s TF-X. (bodrumsurf/Getty Images)

Under a $125 million agreement, BAE Systems is providing know-how for the program’s conceptual design phase. On April 26, two Turkey-based contractors of the TF-X program, Aselsan and Turkish Aerospace Industries, signed a memorandum of understanding to share work on the planned aircraft, including a national radar, electro-optical systems, mission-control systems and integration of these systems to the future aircraft.

Earlier this year, the Turkish government earmarked an initial investment of 4.817 billion liras (U.S. $1.016 billion) on the conceptual design phase. The investment plan has been taken under a government incentive scheme.

Congress gets involved

The deepening of defense cooperation in general and the co-production effort for TF-X comes in the wake of a U.S. Congress bipartisan bill would prevent the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and keep the country from establishing a maintenance depot for the stealth fighters.

Turkey is one of six prime F-35 partner nations and has ordered 116 stealth fighters.

The bill is in retaliation to a Turkish decision to acquire the Russian-made S-400 long-range air and anti-missile defense system. This would be the first S-400 system ever deployed on a NATO member country’s soil.

“In a way, what we see here is Britain emerging as Turkey’s new major Western weapons supplier, moving ahead to replace the historic U.S. role,” a London-based Turkey specialist said. “I can see that the Turks are giving a message to the U.S.: ‘You no longer are a sole-source supplier, and we can easily replace you with other Western suppliers.’ ”

Russia’s S-400 air-defense systems ride through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Potentially further bolstering co-production efforts for TF-X, Rolls-Royce has offered Turkey its EJ2000 engine to power the aircraft in the making. The EJ200 is a collaborative engine between Rolls-Royce, MTU, Avio and ITP.

The consortium established EUROJET Turbo GmbH in the late 1980s. Rolls-Royce says the technology of EJ200 makes it both smaller and simpler in layout than current engines of a similar thrust class, while giving it lower fuel consumption and an unprecedented power-to-weight ratio.

In 2015, Rolls-Royce signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkey’s state scientific research institute to open an “advanced manufacturing technology center” in Turkey.

But a Turkish firm, state-controlled Tusas Engine Industries, also wants to design and build an engine for the TF-X. In addition to TEI, most recently, a Russian defense company executive said his firm, Rostec, would propose an engine co-production plan to Turkey.

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