Turkey and Ukraine have been building the pillars of a promising defense cooperation partnership for some time. The two countries currently engage in joint endeavors in game-changing military areas such as drone warfare, aerospace engines and missile technology. Following the October 16–17 summit between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, Turkish-Ukrainian strategic ties look poised to bring about a new geopolitical reality in the Black Sea region.
The most notable current area of cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine is in unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Turkey’s forthcoming high-end combat drone, the Akinci (the Raider), was notably powered by Ukraine’s Ivachenko-Progress AI-450T turboprop engines during its prototype test flights. Produced by Baykar Company—the maker of the famed “Pantsir-hunter” Bayraktar TB-2 UAS—the Akinci will mark a true leap forward for the Turkish arsenal thanks to its advanced sensors and available weapons systems, an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and air-launched cruise missiles, respectively (Baykarsavunma.com, accessed November 9). Last year, Baykar boosted its defense industrial cooperation with Ukraine by establishing a joint venture, Black Sea Shield, with Ukrspetsexport, a member of the state military-technical conglomerate Ukroboronprom. The Black Sea Shield program covers a broad cooperation agenda, including aerospace engines and missile technology (see EDM, February 12; Baykardefence.com, accessed November 9).
According to the Ukrainian Defense Review, Baykar and Ukraine’s military-industrial base has geared-up to co-produce an unmanned fighter jet with a total weight of some 5.5 tons (with at least one ton of combat payload), a top speed of 900 kilometers per hour, and the ability to climb above 12 kilometers. One plausible solution for this joint ambition may be Ivachenko-Progress’s AI-25TLT turbofan engine, which is already equipped on various international platforms, including the Czech L-39 Albatros trainer and light-attack aircraft (Ukrainian Defense Review, January–March 2020).
Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 armed drone sales to Ukraine deserve attention in their own right. The Bayraktar TB-2 UAS is one of the most combat-proven platforms of its class. It has built up an impressive reputation that dates back to the Turkish military’s Syrian expeditions and now extending to the recently concluded Armenian-Azerbaijani war in Karabakh (see EDM, October 15). Equipped with Roketsan-made smart weaponry, the Bayraktar TB-2 offers reliable solutions against a wide set of targets, including armored land-warfare vehicles, main battle tanks, troop concentrations, mobile air defenses, artillery pieces and even mobile ballistic-missile launchers, as seen in the recent Azerbaijani example. Turkish news outlets reported that Ukraine initially procured 12 of these systems, which could soon be followed by a larger package of 48 pieces (Daily Sabah, October 6). More importantly, the Ukrainian security forces could soon begin employing Turkish-made UASs in their operations against Russia-backed military units in the eastern part of the country. If this happens, such a development would mark the fourth front where Turkish drones are or have faced off against Russian-manufactured weaponry—after Libya, Syria and Karabakh. Following in Azerbaijan’s footsteps, gaining an edge in advanced drone warfare could significantly bolster Kyiv’s military capabilities (see EDM, November 9).
Another interesting arms transaction between Ankara and Kyiv was the recent sale of a modernized S-125 (Goa-3) variant surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to Turkey (TRT Haber, October 7). The Ukrainian modernization program has increased the Soviet-legacy S-125’s range of 25 kilometers against maneuvering targets to some 40 kilometers (Ukrainian Defense Review, January–March 2019).
The Turkish military could employ the Ukrainian-modernized S-125 in two ways. First, the SAM system can be forward-deployed in support of its expeditionary contingents. Libya is the most plausible destination in this respect. Watiya Airbase, where Turkey previously deployed MiM-23 Hawk and Korkut air defenses alongside electronic warfare (EW) assets, was attacked in July 2020, reportedly by United Arab Emirates Air Force assets taking-off from Egypt (Anadolu Agency, July 5; EDAM, July 8). Turkey has limited medium-range SAM systems in its arsenal, and the indigenous Hisar line still has a way to go before reaching full operational capacity. Thus, modernized S-125 SAMs can offer a stop-gap measure for Turkish military planners.
Second, Turkey can use the Ukrainian-modernized S-125s as a part of its forthcoming S-400 SAM site configuration. With ongoing tests in the Black Sea city of Sinop, the Turkish Armed Forces are expected to declare the S-400s operational soon (Daily Sabah, October 24). Based on the Soviet-Russian design philosophy, the two SAM systems can operate within a layered architecture—which Ankara should be able to exploit with the help of the Ukrainian defense technological and industrial base.
Turkish defense giant Aselsan’s investment portfolio in Ukraine is another important aspect to monitor. Last year, the company secured a lucrative contract in Ukraine for high-end military communications systems. Aselsan even started a local production facility in Kyiv for the deliveries (Anadolu Agency, December 20, 2019). Armor survivability is also a critical agenda item for bilateral strategic ties. Having faced dangerous anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) threats during its Syrian expeditions, Turkey has shown interest in active protection systems since 2018. Aselsan (and Roketsan) now work closely with their Ukrainian partners on active protection system co-production based on the Zaslon family (TRT Haber, March 7, 2018; Kyiv Post, December 14, 2018).
Finally, when it comes to maritime systems, Turkey’s MILGEM-class corvettes can offer a capability boost for the Ukrainian Navy in the Black Sea (TRT Haber, October 19). If such a deal is secured, Ukraine will be the second export destination for this vessel type, following Pakistan.
The burgeoning defense ties between Kyiv and Ankara highlight some notable geopolitical realities. Turkey is carrying out a unique strategic-military agenda that eludes simple classification. Namely, the Turkish administration signed a comprehensive defense cooperation deal with Ukraine while, at the same time, test-launching the S-400 SAM systems it had previously purchased from Russia (Anadolu Agency, October 16). Turkey is, thus, the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member that has procured a strategic weapons system from the Russian Federation even as it has developed extremely close defense ties with Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
In fact, Turkey’s defense technological and industrial base has long benefited from mixing NATO and non-NATO partnerships—first and foremost with South Korea and Israel—when it comes to lucrative technology transfers and co-production opportunities. Ukraine stands to become another important partner of this type but with the additional political-military value of helping Turkey counter-balance Russia in the Black Sea.