Turkey’s long-delayed goal of developing a national helicopter is finally seeing daylight. On September 7, 2007, Turkey’s Under-Secretariat for the Defense Industries (SSM) signed a contract with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI/ TUSAS), ASELSAN and the Italian-British rotorcraft company AgustaWestland to produce optional- attack/tactical-reconnaissance helicopters (T129 ATAK) in Ankara using AgustaWestland’s expertise with the joint participation of local industry. The contract became effective on June 24 at a ceremony held at the TAI/TUSAS, which was attended by the country’s top leadership, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chief of the Turkish General Staff Yasar Buyukanit, and was highly publicized in the Turkish press. The “independent” and “national” helicopter project, implying Turkey’s full rights over such high-tech military equipment including export rights, caused joy and boosted national pride in the country (Turkish Press, June 24-26).
As the prime contractor, TAI will oversee the subcontractors ASELSAN and AgustaWestland and will report to the Turkish Land Forces Command (KKK). The program is scheduled to last nine and a half years, with the first T129 ATAK delivery in the 60th month. As part of the $3 billion project, by 2013 the KKK will start acquiring the “Turkish” version of AgustaWestland’s A129, which will be modified to increase operability in the challenging terrain of south-eastern Turkey where the Turkish army is fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The project integrates nationally developed high-tech avionic equipment, hardware and, most surprisingly, local software developed on the basis of the original source codes. Upon completion of the newly configured choppers, the TAI will retain the intellectual property rights to the T129 and to sales of the helicopters worldwide, except in Italy and the UK (TAI Press Bulletins, September 17, 2007, June 24; and Turkish Press, June 24).
Turkey’s interest in attack helicopters first started in the mid-1990s in response to the intensifying PKK terror campaign. In addition to buying various American assault helicopters to increase the army’s firepower against the PKK militants who took advantage of the mountainous terrain, the Turkish security elite developed a helicopter gunship program. It came at a time when Turkey had started to embark on various multi-billion-dollar military modernization projects and increasing local contributions to military procurement. Technology transfers and participation of local industry in production became key requirements to these projects.
The original tender announced in October 1996 went through several steps and was influenced by the changing conditions in Turkey’s domestic politics and international affairs. Turkey came under attack over the human rights situation in south-eastern Anatolia caused by the fight against the PKK and was subjected to an undeclared arms embargo. In response, Turkey disqualified European bidders. For a while Turkey considered a joint Russian-Israeli proposal, but the contract was awarded to Bell Helicopter Textron in 2000. The negotiations hit a deadlock over price disputes, licenses and technology transfers; and the SSM Executive Committee cancelled the project altogether on May 14, 2004 (SSM, ATAK Program Brief). This decision might also have been influenced by the decline in the PKK’s terror campaign, which reduced the urgency of the project. On February 10, 2005, the SSM re-opened the tender, which coincided with an escalation of PKK terrorism.
This time the requirements about local participation and technology transfers were strengthened (see: SSM, ATAK Program Brief), and this eliminated many potential bidders, including top U.S. helicopter manufacturers. Only AgustaWestland, Eurocopter, KAMOV and Denel submitted bids. American firms were unable to meet Turkey’s demand for technology transfers due to U.S. laws and regulations pertaining to defense deals. The new bidding rules also reflected deteriorating Turkish-American relations in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War and the growing influence of nationalism among the Turkish security establishment. Turkey speeded up its efforts to diversify its arms suppliers and reduce its dependence on imports in weaponry, especially in technological control systems, in order to avoid future interruptions in arms supplies because of political developments. SSM short-listed AgustaWestland and South African Denel in 2006. The absence of powerful American contenders, its offer of unrestricted technology transfers, its relatively low price, and the close relations between Turkey and Italy made AgustaWestland the most likely candidate (Turkey Daily News, January 20, 2006) and the bid was awarded to AgustaWestland in 2007, despite some objections by the military leadership (Turkey Daily News, April 2, 2007).
Controversy over the project is still continuing. First, there are questions about the justification of spending so much on such an expensive system. Although this project was tagged as urgent in the 1990s, its completion is still years ahead. Some military officers have maintained that the absence of this critical weapons system did not affect the Turkish army’s fight against terrorists. Some commentators asked, “if it goes perfectly without the gunships, why did the procurement system tag the helicopters as an ‘urgent priority’?” (Turkey Daily News, November 14, 2007). It needs to be noted that although Turkey approached the United States about buying 15 used Cobras as an interim solution, this request was rejected, supposedly as a reaction to Turkey’s rigidity in the attack helicopter contract (Today’s Zaman, April 14).
Second, Turkey’s freedom to export to third countries was questioned. In response to questions, the SSM director Murad Bayar admitted that the AgustaWestland’s engine and weapons systems, as well as some of ASELSAN’s electronic equipment were either produced under U.S. license or are supplied by U.S. manufacturers. The export of T129 to third countries would be subject to obtaining U.S. export licenses for manufacturing, which implies a de facto U.S. veto (Hurriyet, June 24).
Third, doubts about the capability of the new helicopter to meet Turkey’s needs continue. The original A129 appears inadequate for the Turkish army’s requirements, as demonstrated by the country’s reluctance to consider it as an interim solution (Today’s Zaman, June 11). Bayar, however, maintains that with the upgrades the T129 will fulfill Turkey’s expectations.
Finally, the transparency of the contract has become an issue, with some MPs calling for a parliamentary investigation into the contract (Today’s Zaman, June 26). This is a recent development in Turkey, where military contracts used to be treated as taboo.
With Turkey poised to spend billions of dollars in military modernization and uncertainty looming over its domestic politics, it remains to be seen if Turkey will maintain its stringent tender rules for military procurement to boost domestic industry and how it will choose its partners in the days ahead.