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Pakistan and Turkey Look to Deepen Defence Ties

On 14 February, the governments of Turkey and Pakistan signed 13 agreements across a number of areas, including defence, research and development (R&D), and industrial domains. The two countries inked the agreements during the two-day official visit of the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Pakistan.

During a joint-press conference with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, Erdoğan stated that for Turkey, military and defence industry ties were the most important aspect of its relations with Pakistan.[1]

Erdoğan noted that Turkish companies were involved in 68 defence projects in Pakistan, which are worth over $3.5 billion US.[2] The sale of four MILGEM Ada corvettes and 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters to the Pakistan Navy and Pakistan Army, respectively, are the main drivers of Turkey’s engagement in Pakistan.

There is no doubt that Turkey has a vested interest in securing additional big-ticket sales from Pakistan’s armed forces, especially in terms of drones and armoured vehicles. However, Ankara is also interested in engaging Pakistan at a deeper level, especially in terms of R&D.

In reference to Erdoğan’s visit, the leading official of Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB), Dr. Ismail Demir, told the Daily Sabah that the two countries should collaborate on R&D:

“I believe that forming research and development teams between Turkey and Pakistan and accelerating experience sharing will contribute to the defense industry. Establishing defense workshops and creating provision calendars for sectoral material will enhance both countries’ efficiency in the field.”[3]

It seems that Erdoğan achieved a step towards the SSB’s vision. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and Pakistan’s National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST) signed a multi-part MoU for “student and faculty exchange, joint-research, and intellectual property training leading to technology transfer.”[4] TAI is also the first Turkish firm to set-up an office in Pakistan’s National Science & Technology Park (NSTP).

TAI’s interest in NUST is likely aimed at enlarging its cadre of organic or lower-level R&D, typically in areas which are not geared towards specific products or systems, but broader applications.

The benefit for NUST is that its faculty and students have an additional funding source, which could result in an expansion higher level education as well as R&D efforts in Pakistan. Likewise, the entry of TAI – and possibly other Turkish companies – could make it costlier for the Pakistani armed forces and local entities to access that talent (since the latter would have alternative options).

On the other hand, TAI’s entry may incentivize other Pakistani institutions to make serious investments in R&D capacity so that they too can secure investment from overseas, which may expand the supply of skilled talent (and stabilize the cost of using that talent for both foreign and local companies).

However, it is unlikely Turkey’s interest in Pakistan’s R&D capacity is without direction – Ankara has a vital incentive in securing the Pakistani defence market: economies-of-scale.

While Pakistan has been a launch customer of both Chinese and Turkish military equipment, the Chinese do not need Pakistan from an economics standpoint. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) offers provides sufficient scale to make the large-scale production of Chinese weapons cost-effective. In fact, most of the PLA’s new mainstay weaponry have no exports to-date — e.g., the J-10 multi-role fighter and Z-10 attack helicopter — or a handful of sales – e.g., Type 054A frigate and 041A Yuan submarine.

On the other hand, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) cannot offer the same scale alone. So, for example, its TF-X orders may reach 200 units. The total cost estimate of the TF-X – i.e., development and the 200 units – was projected at $31 billion to $33 billion USD. This estimate averages out to up to $165 million US per aircraft.[5] There will be an overhead cost – i.e., R&D, manufacturing facilities, etc – that will keep the TF-X unit cost above $150 million US  for the TSK unless another country steps in to spread that overhead across more units and, ideally, share in supporting the overhead costs.

Pakistan is a target state for the TF-X (and arguably has been since the program first entered the drawing board in 2016) because it likely offers the next largest pool of TF-X orders after the TSK.

The PAF’s next or fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) is likely the future of its ‘offensive edge’ – i.e., its deep-strike and offensive counter-air (OCA) element. Today, this element is carried by the F-16 and legacy Mirages, but for the PAF, the ideal future of this element would be a twin-engine FGFA with supercruising.

Thus, the PAF could order 100-150 FGFAs, which in Turkey’s eyes could mean almost doubling the TF-X’s orders, and possibly achieving an efficient economies-of-scale. By combining Turkish and Pakistani orders, the TF-X could also join the larger next-generation fighter programs outside of the US and China.

So, a starting point to accessing that scale could be to help fund complementary FGFA R&D work in NUST and other Pakistani institutions. However, TAI could also leave room for a pivot: it could fund work which can apply to Project AZM, in case the PAF does not opt for the TF-X.

The latter scenario could also work into broader, higher-level collaboration. So, instead of working on the same specific fighter, Turkey and Pakistan can jointly develop composite materials, propulsion, radars and avionics, and other inputs that could go into an FGFA. The two sides would not develop the same fighter, but by collaborating on the inputs, they could lower the cost of their respective programs.

Turkey has much to gain from Pakistan, but the latter can also extract benefits. First, Pakistan could start leveraging its scale to require the Turks (and other sellers) to commit to offsets. Under offset deals, sellers must spend or invest a portion of the deal’s contract value back into the buyer’s economy. On the surface, this could reduce the net foreign currency outflow resulting from the arms sale.

However, instead of letting the Turks decide how to spend the money, the Pakistani side could require targeted investment in specific areas, e.g., joint technology development. This offset model would be akin to the one Australia and Germany had implemented. So, the Turkish investment could involve additional R&D spending in Pakistan, but through jointly owned entities. In turn, these entities can develop original solutions which could serve as local alternatives and/or drive high-value exports. For example, the offset could require an auto-manufacturing plant that supplies critical parts to overseas car brands.

For Pakistan, the benefit of this approach is that it gets the arms it needs today, is able to spare funds for investing in industries that can drive high-value exports, and reduces its reliance on overseas suppliers for costly goods. In return, Turkey gets additional scale, while also co-owning new business units (in Pakistan) that could add to its own foreign currency gains. Besides high-value export-oriented industries, the latter can also include investing in Pakistan’s shipbuilding and defence industry.

The lofty ambitions could also hit a snag. The US’ reluctance to release re-export permits for the ATAK’s LHTEC turboshaft engines could jeopardize the sale of T129s to Pakistan. Pakistan has given TAI one year to resolve the issue. If the LHTEC engines do not come through, the SSB would likely prefer Pakistan wait for Turkey’s indigenous powerplant, but Pakistan will likely source an alternative from China instead. This scenario could deflate momentum the Turkish industry built thus far in Pakistan.

Ultimately, it will depend on whether the Pakistan Army can summon as much as patience as the PAF for an original solution it can potentially build in Pakistan. The Army has the option of investing in the T625 utility helicopter and T629 (possibly the ATAK with Turkey’s homegrown engines) with the aim of securing production and maintenance/support workshare. The SSB likely hopes this becomes the case, but it would require a significant shift in the Army’s approach to procurement, which is unlikely.

Unlike the PAF, the Army is not short of readily available options to serve its immediate needs, so it does not need to invest as much in original development. The Army steers its localization towards cutting the cost of long-term support, and in ensuring it can sustain a war effort by locally sourcing the spare parts or repairs it needs at home. But the Army can still buy new solutions off-the-shelf; the PAF is having trouble with acquiring the solution overseas, so it must develop it (and of course, support it) domestically.

[1] “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: “Askeri ve savunma sanayii alanları, Pakistan ile ikili i – İslamabad haber.” Haber Gazetesi. 14 February 2020. URL:

[2] “Turkey, Pakistan sign a string of memorandums of understanding.” TRT World. 14 February 2020. URL:

[3] Dilara Aslan. “Turkey, Pakistan relations peak with defense industry cooperation.” Daily Sabah. 13 February 2020. URL:

[4] National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST). Official Facebook Page. 14 February 2020. URL: https://

[5] Burak Bekdil. “Turkey’s $50 billion jet program in question.” Hürriyet. 30 July 2013. URL:

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