Turkey’s strategic transformation

Mina Adel, Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

Turkey’s military strategy has shifted from the defensive to the offensive, aided by a strong and rising manufacturing base and the development of locally made equipment, writes Mina Adel



On 24 May, a Turkish amphibious assault ship that can carry dozens of tanks and soldiers and protected by corvettes and with air coverage from the Turkish Air Force was launched to carry out simulated naval offensive operations during the Turkish EFES-2024 Exercise.

 Great momentum was achieved among the many Naval and Air Force units taking part, integrating them into one combat scenario.

The exercise started two days following the announcement of Turkey’s new State of War and Mobilisation Regulations under which “the president will decide to declare general or partial mobilisation in case a situation of war arises or in case of an uprising… against the homeland or the republic or behaviour that endangers the indivisibility of the country and nation internally and/or externally,” according to the Turkish Official Gazette.

It seems that this was not only the reason for the impressive show of strength, however, since there has also been another decision on the development of the military in Turkey, according to the recent report from London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

“The Defence Industries or SSM in Turkey were placed under the direct authority of the presidency in 2018. It was accordingly renamed the Defence Industry Agency [Savunma Sanayii Başkanlığı or SSB]. This upgraded status was remarkable as it emphasised the importance accorded to the sector by the government and, particularly, by President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” the IISS report said.

“Turkey boosted its defence budget in 2023 to 9.69 billion dollars, up from 6.25 billion in 2022, restoring growth after a slow fall since 2016.”

One of the most significant outcomes has been an increase in military exercises, according to the Turkish Yeni Safak website. In May 2024, the Turkish military performed three international exercises: the Anatolian Phoenix Exercise, the Seawolf-II Exercise, and the EFES Exercise.

These aim at simulating combat scenarios for the Air Force and Navy and are offensive in nature. They may highlight a shift in Turkish military strategy and a focus on offensive operations, especially with the presence of locally manufactured combat units carrying out these missions.

The Turkish Air Force and Navy are the most likely branches of the country’s military to have benefited from the development and replacement of outdated combat units or systems that could not be exported to Turkey under various sanctions.

It may be a risky decision to rely on domestic technology, but limited military operations have solved the problem. The IISS report noted that “Operation Spring Shield in February–March 2020 served as an opportunity to test Turkish defence industry products in conflict zones.”

To better understand the transformation underway in the Turkish military, Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to Turkish experts Tayfun Ozberk, a former Turkish Navy officer and now naval analyst, and Osman Basibuyuk, a former Turkish fighter pilot and aerial systems expert.

Ozberk said that the “Turkish Navy has undergone a significant strategic transformation in recent years, reflecting a broader shift in Turkey’s defence and foreign policy. The transformation of the Turkish Navy can be traced back to the Turkish Naval Forces 1997 strategy document titled ‘Towards Open Seas,’ and the transformation over the past 30 years is also based on this.”

Regarding the recent EFES-2024 Exercise, Ozberk said that this “is a joint exercise where amphibious operation capabilities are tested. Naval, land, and air elements participate. The special feature this year is that it is the first EFES exercise in which the TCG Anadolu [an amphibious assault ship] took part, which has greatly increased Turkey’s amphibious capabilities.”

Basibuyuk said that “military exercises are held to prepare the army for war or to prevent a possible war by showing off the kind of military strength that can deter opponents. The Turkish Armed Forces are trying to improve cooperation by conducting joint exercises with their allies, as well as testing newly developed weapon systems and training personnel.”

Turkish military manufacturing has evolved significantly in recent years to produce innovative and sophisticated fighting equipment for use in the air and at sea and that supports the current strategic transformation.

According to the IISS report, “Türkiye’s top-down strategy for establishing its defence-industrial base [goes] from the platform level to components and technologies.”

“The Turkish defence industry has attached importance to domestic production, and there has been a leap forward in shipbuilding, weapons, and sensor technologies. The development of the GENESİS command and control system, the MILGEM indigenous warship production project, and the acquisition of the Anadolu for the Turkish Navy can be considered important cornerstones,” Ozberk said.

 “Turkey’s MILGEM (National Ship) project is a cornerstone of its naval strategy. It includes the construction of modern corvettes and frigates, such as the Ada-class corvettes and the Istanbul-class frigates. The flagship TCG Anadolu is a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship (LHD) that will serve as a mini-aircraft carrier. This platform is designed to project power and support amphibious operations, significantly extending Turkey’s reach.”

Regarding the future of the Turkish Navy, Ozberk said that “what I personally consider to be the most important is the TF-2000 air-defence destroyer project and Turkey’s aircraft carrier project. The Navy has established a unit for this, and the concept design phase has begun.”

Turkey has had to depend on itself to develop its Air Force to keep up with current fighting tactics and give maximum combat effectiveness to its Navy, Basibuyuk said.

“The F-16 aircraft in the Turkish Air Force’s inventory have aged over time, and there were no new aircraft to replace the old ones. So, Turkey decided that the best solution to the aircraft supply problem would be national production. Thus, the TF-X KAAN fighter-jet project was launched.”

“The Turkish Air Force was planning to purchase over 100 F-35 aircraft from the US. But the arrival of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system in Turkey worried the US, and Turkey started negotiating with other countries to meet its air defence missile needs.”

“First, an agreement was made with China. The Chinese agreed to transfer the technology, but Turkey had to cancel this agreement under US pressure. Washington also refused to sell Patriot Missiles to Turkey. In other words, it deliberately wanted to keep Turkey’s air defence force weak.”

“The KAAN aircraft is better than the F-35. An F-35 can carry six tons of ammunition, whereas a KAAN can carry 10 tons and has two engines compared to the F-35, which has a single engine. Having two engines means more power,” commented Temel Kotil, CEO of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI).

The KAAN successfully completed its first and second test flights this year and is expected to be delivered before 2028, according to Kotil.

It is possible that the secret behind the KAAN project is that Turkey was already familiar with the F-35 aircraft, which has contributed to the Turkish military’s understanding of stealth aircraft technology. Turkish pilots have already trained on this type of aircraft and have taken part in exercises involving European aircraft similar to the F-35 such as the Ramstein Alloy.

However, the Turks were not seeking a joint strike fighter, but instead wanted to underline their air superiority by developing a fighter capable of carrying out many missions, such as the F-22, in an attempt to enhance the ability of the Turkish Air Force’s F-16 Block-70 aircraft to dominate in the air and take advantage of the electronic support capabilities of the E-7.

These three aircrafts will spearhead offensive operations to support the Turkish Navy.

In theory, the KAAN’s unique design and its officially stated technological capabilities will allow for its success, but whether or not the TAI has been able to reach a completely mature design, particularly in technological systems, engines, and weapons, will soon become apparent.

Once this is accomplished, Turkish pilots will be able to quickly integrate the new aircraft into the existing fleet by using combat tactics that are typically carried out at the Air Warfare Centre in exercises such as Anatolian Eagle, as well as using it with new ANKA-3 and Kizilelma combat drones.

The Turkish military strategy has thus shifted from the defensive to the offensive, aided by a strong and rising manufacturing base. But there is still the question of whether the country’s political leadership will be able to secure the required funding to support it.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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