Innovation key to ‘breakthrough’ in Turkish defense industry

Innovation key to ‘breakthrough’ in Turkish defense industry

Burak BEKDİL Hürriyet Daily News
Innovation key to ‘breakthrough’ in Turkish defense industry

An indication that the government is serious about innovation in defense industry is its decision to allocate funding for R&D programs, said the defense minister. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

One optimistic view holds that Turkey’s local defense industry has made remarkable progress in the past decade. Cautious optimists say this is an exaggeration. Pessimists think the Turkish industry remains too distant from building key systems and innovative work.

Turkey’s own industry has jumped from a few tens of millions of dollars’ worth of exports a decade ago to nearly $1.5 billion this year. Today it meets nearly 55 percent of the requirements of the Turkish Armed Forces whereas the military almost exclusively bought off-the-shelf from foreign suppliers in the mid-1990s.

Today, Turkey is talking about building domestic drones, trainer aircraft, tanks, warships, missiles, air defense systems and even light helicopters and a fighter jet. Not all “Turkish” systems are Turkish, with many foreign components embedded, but there is comparative success in most of these ambitious programs.

Yet innovation is where Turkey should intensify governmental efforts if Ankara is serious about serious Turkish defense equipment in the future, officials and experts agree.

In a November interview with the U.S. weekly Defense News, Turkey’s procurement chief, Murad Bayar, complained of little technological advancement and indicated that future efforts would be designed to boost innovation.

“I cannot say that we have successfully supported [the local industry] with major R&D programs. Developed countries allocate 5 to 15 percent of their defense budgets to R&D activity. Today the Turkish industry can develop ships, tank and other land vehicles, but we cannot talk about a serious level of system engineering and technology and product development,” Bayar said.

New hi-tech investments ahead

Hence, several efforts to boost innovative capabilities of Turkey’s thriving defense industry.

For instance, the government is hoping to give impetus to plans to establish a “qualified” defense industry site in Kazan, near Ankara. That site will house hundreds of local and foreign defense and aviation companies. The construction will take off in 2014 and a total investment of $6 billion is planned, according to Lokman Ertürk, Kazan’s mayor. He said 30,000 personnel would be employed in an area of 3 million square meters.

A defense procurement official said Kazan was part of a broader plan to boost innovation in the industry and therefore achieve greater self-sufficiency. “There is, of course, a big export potential if we achieve these goals,” he said.

There are other efforts for innovation too. Military electronics specialist Aselsan, Turkey’s biggest defense company, plans to finish a plant for that purpose next year. The $200 million investment in Gölbaşı near Ankara will see a plant that specializes in R&D, electronic warfare, long-range radar systems, intelligence systems, systems design and jammers.

“We hope that plant will work like Turkey’s hi-tech laboratory, especially in electronic warfare and radar systems,” an Aselsan official said.

Separately in July, Turkey approved the construction of its first satellite launching center to cater for the country’s mushrooming satellite programs.

Bayar’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) has signed a contract with the country’s national missile manufacturer, Roketsan, to build the Turkish Satellite Launching System (UFS) for pre-conceptual design work. Under the contract, Roketsan will design the UFS to be capable of launching, initially, satellites into low-earth orbit (500 to 700 kilometers) through a launching center the company will build and the Turkish Air Force will operate.

In a related move, Turkey in 2014 would have its own satellite assembly and integration center that would work in line with a satellite test center.

‘Most innovative zone of Turkey’

An indication that the Ankara government is serious about innovation in defense industry is the government’s decision to allocate funding for R&D programs, according to Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz.

He said in a budget speech that between 2014 and 2016, the government would directly sponsor 27 R&D projects in the defense industry while a state scientific research institute, TÜBİTAK, would finance 45 R&D programs in defense and space.

Meanwhile, a different, ambitious project for innovation in the defense industry is nearing its launch. In November, a total space of 62,000 square meters (out of a total planned 950,000 square meters) of innovation office zone was allocated at Teknopark Istanbul, a $5 billion hi-tech investment in Turkey’s biggest city.

“Teknopark Istanbul will be Turkey’s most innovative zone of excellence for defense and aviation,” said Turgut Şenol, Teknopark Istanbul’s general manager.

He said an aviation repair and maintenance center, as part of the technopark, is almost fully operational. The center hosts Turkey’s national airliner THY’s maintenance unit, THY Teknik, a partnership among THY, Pratt and Whitney and My Technic, all of which will cater to both civilian and defense aviation, according to Şenol.