Turkey’s space ambitions may be too ambitious

Turkey’s space ambitions may be too ambitious

Burak Bekdil
Turkey’s space ambitions may be too ambitious

AFP Photo

In 2001, Turkey’s government and military officials said they would “soon” set up a national space agency, the Turkish Space Agency (TSA). Most recently, after 13 years, a Cabinet minister said Oct. 1 that a draft legislation for the TSA was nearing completion.

Since 2001, Turkish officials and the military top brass have steadily raised the stakes about the country’s space ambitions. They have pledged that “space” would be Turkey’s fourth military force (after land, air and sea) and that a space command like the three other force commands would be formed. Indicating that “not even space was the limit” in their pledges, the government officials even declared that Turkey would send a fully Turkish spaceship into space by 2023, the republic’s centennial.  

Less than nine years before Turkish engineering will have built a 100 percent Turkish spaceship, the government announced that the draft bill for the TSA would finally be concluded after consultations with “relevant agencies” and submitted to Cabinet for final approval. The draft bill will then go to Parliament for further debate and voting. 

“The agency will coordinate all space programs,” said Transport Minister Lütfi Elvan. “It will accelerate our space programs.”

In a controversial move, Turkey, according to the minister, will also inaugurate next month its first satellite launching center. The UFS (in its Turkish acronym) will also be used as a satellite test and integration facility. It will be operated by the Turkish Air Force.

Defense officials have said the idea is to end Turkey’s dependence on foreign facilities as Turkey has several satellite programs. 

The Turkish military’s space-based assets are currently geared more toward intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. 

UFS was co-funded by Turkey’s defense procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) and Türksat, Turkey’s commercial telecommunications concern and the largest operator and customer of satellites in the country. 

In addition to the Türksat-I, -II and -III series that were launched in the 1990s and 2000s, Türksat signed a contract with Japan’s Mitsubishi for the TÜRKSAT-IV series communication satellites, the first of which was placed in orbit early this year. Türksat has ambitions also to develop and build its own satellites. 

Elvan said a contract for Türksat-VIA, Turkey’s first indigenous satellite, would be signed in November and that Türksat -VIA would be integrated and tested at UFS, also to be operated by Türksat.

But aerospace analysts are skeptical about UFS. One analyst warned that Turkey’s domestic satellite market may not be big enough to support UFS. “There is a large number of earth observation, communications, early warning and geo-positioning satellites planned down the road; but a lot of those are decade or so away, whereas the center will become operational soon,” he said. 

Other than an earth-observation satellite built by Italy’s Telespazio, there are no indigenous satellites that will reach maturity soon enough to warrant an UFS.

Analysts warn that even Türksat-VIA, the most advanced of all Turkish programs, will take a few years before it reaches the integration and test center phase. All other programs are further down the road, into the mid-2020s and beyond, they said.

Turkey relies on satellite orders from foreign customers, but securing contracts abroad may not be an easy task in a highly competitive market. Tüsaş Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), which will develop Turkey’s indigenous satellite, is a newcomer into the business, and it may not conduct production at the world’s most competitive prices, industry sources said. 

But according to a government roadmap for military and civilian satellites, Turkey plans to send into orbit a total of 16 satellites by 2020, with contracts amounting to nearly $2 billion. 

There is a second concern, and it is political. Some of Turkey’s Western allies worry that Ankara may intend to use its UFS to fire the long-range missiles the country hopes to build in the medium to long run. In 2011, Turkey announced plans to develop a missile with a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers, not revealing whether it would be ballistic or cruise. Although little information about the program has been released, a Turkish Cabinet minister in January 2013 confirmed that Turkey possessed capabilities to produce a missile with a range of 800 kilometers.