The intersection between Turkey’s defense industry and its foreign policy

As part of a broader research project titled “National Defence Industry: From an Enabler of Turkiye’s Pursuit of Strategic Autonomy to a Bridge between Turkiye and Europe,” in May and June 2024, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Center for Foreign Policy and Peace Research (CFPPR), supported by the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS), published two reports titled “From Client to Competitor: The Rise of Turkiye’s Defence Industry” and “Adapting Security: The Intersection of Turkiye’s Foreign Policy and Defense Industry.” In the first report, authors Sıtkı Egeli, Serhat Güvenç, Çağlar Kurç and Arda Mevlütoğlu explain how Turkey’s development of its defense industry has aligned with its ambitions to achieve strategic autonomy. The authors in the second report highlight how Ankara’s defense interests have reflected the international political system and have been used by Turkish decision-makers to help their country navigate global politics. As such, the authors argue that new defense partners reflect Ankara’s desire to diversify its defense-industry ties and to find alternatives to the Western suppliers that had been “unreliable in the past.” 

The path toward modernization of the Turkish military 

After the end of the Cold War, Turkish decision-makers adopted a “top-down” strategy that capitalized on the dramatic shift in international arms production. Turkey aimed to look eastward to cooperate with China and Russia as its threat perception changed. 

In the second half of the 1990s, Turkey became a prominent Israeli arms purchaser. There were numerous factors behind this. First, Israeli weapons were a high-tech and credible alternative to NATO weapons. Second, unlike Europe and the U.S., Israeli arms purchases were not conditioned to Turkey’s domestic developments (democratization, human rights, minority rights…). Third, Israel and Turkey’s foreign policies overlapped in critical areas in the Middle East, aiming to contain Syrian and Iranian interests. Finally, deep relations with Israel were expected to be rewarded by pro-Israeli lobbying groups in the U.S. to counter the Armenian and Greek lobbies, the report argues.

From 2004 onwards, Turkey decided to abandon the joint venture model with foreign (mainly Western) partners in favor of local prime contractors to pursue indigenous products and solutions. Several homegrown solutions proved to be attractive among export customers for the following reasons.

First, they were used for “counter-terrorist” operations against PKK fighters in Turkey and cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s army accumulated military experience fighting Kurdish guerillas in the mountains and urban environments. 

Second, Turkish defense products were not offered (or limited by) political strings when engaging with arms exports to different countries.

Bayraktar TB2 of the Turkish Air Force (Wikimedia Commons)

Third, the Turkish government realized that its arms products were exerting a mix of both soft and hard power in its immediate neighborhood. In doing so, Ankara had the opportunity not just to take advantage of arms exports to advance its foreign policy objectives, but also to establish a military foothold in countries such as Qatar, Azerbaijan, Libya and elsewhere. In 2020, the Turkish TB2 UAVs were crucial in turning the military balance of power in Libya, Idlib (Syria), Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and Tigray (Ethiopia). Additionally, these UAV exports bolstered Turkey’s image in several Eastern European NATO member states, thus increasing Ankara’s leverage in the Atlantic Alliance. 

These accomplishments were also pushed by Turkey’s diversification of arms deals but had certain limitations due to Western pressures. 

In 2013, Ankara announced the Chinese FD-2000 system as a winner of the tender for its long-range missile program. This was a major turning point in a NATO-member state. However, this decision sparked opposition from NATO members and especially the U.S. who opposed the integration of their missile system into a Chinese system. Under pressure, Turkey canceled the deal and announced that it would seek an indigenous solution to meet its long-range missile requirement. In 2017, Turkey decided to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system. This triggered a heated debate among NATO members about Turkey’s foreign policy and defense alignment. The deal resulted in the ousting of Turkey from a project to jointly build the F-35 jets, causing Turkish firms to lose many billions of dollars.

“Following decades of reforms and investments, Turkey’s defense industry is emerging as a serious player in international defense markets,” the report reads. Turkish UAVs symbolize the country’s increasing footprint in the neighboring regions, mainly in the Eastern Mediterranean, South Caucasus and Ukraine.

However, Turkey’s main source of military pride became its UAVs (drones). The International Crisis Group says that Turkey started developing drone systems in 2000. In 2004, the Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries offered large tenders to the private sector for the first time in an effort to boost domestic drone production. This decision was a reaction to domestic threat perceptions, mainly from PKK and Western sanctions. The companies that first benefitted from the 2004 investments are among the top UAV producers today. By 2023, the Baykar company employed more than 3,600 people, and as of September 2022, it could produce over 200 TB2 (Bayraktar drones) per year. 

“Following decades of reforms and investments, Turkey’s defense industry is emerging as a serious player in international defense markets,” the report reads. Turkish UAVs symbolize the country’s increasing footprint in the neighboring regions, mainly in the Eastern Mediterranean, South Caucasus and Ukraine. The performance of Anka and Bayraktar TB2 UAVs in cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq and neighboring countries such as Azerbaijan and Libya drew the attention of many countries. By the end of 2023, Turkey exported UAVs to more than 30 countries. In Africa alone, Turkey’s UAV exports are closely aligned with its diplomatic, trade and security initiatives, which some Turkish defense analysts refer to as “drone diplomacy.”

However, despite the booming turnover and increasing export figures, the Turkish defense industry suffers from brain drain, as many highly-skilled engineers migrate to Western countries.

The multipolar world order and the expansion of Turkey’s defense industry 

The geopolitical shifts in the early 2000s, which led to an increasingly multipolar world order, have allowed Ankara to acquire weapons from multiple suppliers. For the first time, Turkey’s defense industry and its exports were used to help orient the country’s foreign policy objectives. Turkey started exporting weapons and UAVs to UAE, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan became a leading customer of Turkish defense products, as the Turkish-Azerbaijani military cooperation is closely aligned with Turkey’s wider foreign policy objective to balance Russia in the South Caucasus. In short, the “prospects for export orders began to exert an influence over foreign policy.”

Bayraktar ground control station on a mobile platform (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Turkey’s long-term ambition to establish a self-sufficient and indigenous defense industry has led to considerable industrial growth and increased Ankara’s strategic autonomy by reducing the influence of Western suppliers, the report argues. This argument is also backed by Russian expert Pavel Shlykov, who writes in his article “The State of Strategic Hedging: Turkey’s Foreign Policy and Relations with Russia” that Turkey’s foreign policy diversification was a reflection of the reduction of technological dependence of the Turkish military complex from 70% to 30%. From 2000 to 2020, the number of Turkish companies working on the government’s defense contracts increased from 50 to more than 1,500. Over the same period, Turkish arms exports increased from $248 million to $3 billion. Shlykov, quoting the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), mentions that from the mid-2010s, Turkey reduced its arms purchase by 60% and from the U.S. by around 80%. Moreover, the expansion of financial, trade and military-technical partnerships with Russia and China became the core component of the strategic autonomy, which in return reduced Turkey’s economic and military dependence on the West.


To conclude, the geopolitical shifts in the global system have provided opportunities and challenges for Turkish defense industrialization. As this industry was heavily dependent on the U.S. and European imports during the Cold War era, this dependence lessened after the fall of the Soviet Union and the transition towards a multipolar world order, which we are experiencing now. This diversification was also triggered by the U.S. and partial European arms embargoes on Turkey following the invasion of Cyprus and the incursion into northern Syria against Kurdish fighters. These sanctions compelled the Turkish defense sector to innovate and seek alternative sources of imports.

By the 2010s, as the AKP consolidated its power and grew in confidence, Turkey began exerting influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant, South Caucasus, the Balkans and the North and Horn of Africa. This foreign policy activism moved in parallel with Turkey’s military industry development, which was a “top-down” strategy. Turkey’s strategic autonomy in its foreign policy is a clear manifestation of the reduction of arms from the West, the development of indigenous weapons and the opening of new arms markets.

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher. He has graduated from the American University of Beirut in Public Policy and International Affairs. He pursued his BA at Haigazian University in political science in 2013. In 2010, he founded the New Eastern Politics forum/blog. He was a research assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University. Currently, he is the regional officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He has participated in international conferences in Frankfurt, Vienna, Uppsala, New Delhi and Yerevan. He has presented various topics from minority rights to regional security issues. His thesis topic was on China’s geopolitical and energy security interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf. He is a contributor to various local and regional newspapers and a presenter of the “Turkey Today” program for Radio Voice of Van. Recently he has been appointed as associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Middle East-South Caucasus expert in the European Geopolitical Forum.

1 Comment

  1. Nicely done and informative. BTW, Turkey’s arms exports reached $5.5 billion in 2023. Thank you for the article.

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