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The Question of Collaborating with Turkey on Defence

In 2016, Pakistan and Turkey began negotiations on multiple big-ticket defence programs for the Pakistani military, most notably four MILGEM Ada corvettes and 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters. Pakistan officially inked both programs – totalling $2.5 billion to $3.0 billion in value – in 2018.

In addition, Turkey also got a $350 million US contract to extensively upgrade Pakistan’s three Agosta 90B submarines and supply up to reportedly 50 ASELPOD targeting pods. Turkey is pining to win additional contracts, sensing opportunities in drones, utility helicopters, anti-tank guided missiles, and other areas.

Though the procurement side of the relationship amounts to at least $3.0 billion US in value, it covers only a portion of Pakistan’s long-term defence requirements. In the next 15-20 years, many other assets in use by the Pakistani military will start nearing either obsolescence and/or unserviceability due to age.

The most important of these are, arguably, the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) F-16A/Bs, which will reach the limits of their airframes’ lives. In addition, the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAA) is operating dozens of SA330 Puma helicopters in the transport and utility role, while the Pakistan Navy (PN) relies on its various Sea King models for search-and-rescue (SAR), troop transport, anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare.

Granted, the question of replacing these assets (among others) will not take priority for at least a decade, but as far as the Turks are concerned, there can be an opportunity to promote its next-generation aviation programs, such as the TF-X fighter and 10-ton General Purpose Helicopter, for example.

However, while off-the-shelf procurement will remain an option (be it from Turkey, China or Europe), the ‘wave of next-generation equipment’ could also spur more effort towards in-house design, development, and production. The PAF is already working along these lines through Project Azm, i.e., its umbrella project for developing a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone and next-generation fighter.

But can Pakistan collaborate with Turkey on fighter aircraft, helicopters, and potentially other applications such as surface warships, submarines, drones, armoured vehicles, and munitions?

The question depends on multiple factors, the first of which is understanding exactly what Pakistan would be willing to take on as its own project. In general, Pakistan’s approach to its defence industry is one of a living armory, i.e., a domestic alternative for specific weapons the military cannot acquire from abroad.

In other words, Pakistan will generally pursue a domestic program only if it is unable to acquire a credible solution from overseas (or if the combined cost of development and production is lower than importing).

So, the pursuit of Project Azm is an indication that acquiring a next-generation fighter from the market is inaccessible, either due to cost or to unwilling suppliers, or both.

However, despite theoretically having a means to develop an original tracked howitzer (e.g., ability to manufacture 155 mm gun barrels, depot-level support for the M109, and integration experience through the al-Khalid tank), Pakistan is not pursuing such development at this time.

In some cases, the economies-of-scale of a project makes domestic production tenable, if not the feasible option. In this case, one can point towards the al-Khalid main battle tank program.

With this approach, it would be difficult to see Pakistan manufacture helicopters or other niche equipment – the economies-of-scale is too limited and/or there are many willing suppliers on the market. However, a partnership could alter this dynamic by lowering the barrier to development and production.

Basically, a partner could share the cost of development and overhead (for setting-up manufacturing), but still allow Pakistan to have a say in design and configuration as well as protect its supply chain (and ensure it can independently sustain the system and replenish its stocks).

However, the challenge with a partnership is finding another country to collaborate with on fair terms, a luxury that had not been available to Pakistan (with the notable exception of China). But today, Turkey is apparently offering to become that co-development and co-production partner.

Currently, that offer is headlined by Turkish Aerospace’s TF-X, Turkey’s next-generation fighter program.

Pakistan’s interest in the TF-X goes back to 2016 when then Minister of Defence Production (MoDP) had stated that Turkey invited Pakistan to the program. Since then, a number of Pakistani officials had alluded to collaborating with the Turks on fighters, including the previous Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, who stated, “We are integrating our technology with friendly countries, including Turkey. We are thinking of producing the next-generation aircraft by pooling resources with them.”[1]

The most recent Pakistani official to comment on possibly collaborating on the TF-X was the Chairman of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Air Marshal Ahmer Shahzad, who said “Turkey’s TF-X is in line with what the PAF want.”[2] Pakistan has yet to commit to the TF-X (with co-funding), but a collaborative effort of this nature is both unprecedented (i.e., not relying on China) and the upper-ceiling of what is possible.

To be clear, a next-generation fighter program encompasses many challenges, not least cost, technology development, and the near-certainty of delays and complications. However, this reality is the same for an independent project (such as Project Azm) as it is for a joint venture. A joint venture may be less risky.

In this respect, the PAF could view joining the TF-X as a means of distributing the cost of developing some of the inputs (e.g., electronics, composite materials, etc) and gaining overseas support or expertise. The intended outcome, though uncommon, could be to develop a variant of the TF-X that melds with Pakistani needs (e.g., using an engine from the East instead of the West).

Alternatively, the PAF could simply buy into Turkish Aerospace’s vision for the TF-X as-is and, in turn, try acquiring critical expertise and capabilities (e.g., composite manufacturing) through the program. It could also try extracting economic returns through the program by entering Turkey’s supply-chain.

The potential is certainly there, but the question is whether it makes sense for Pakistan to cooperate with Turkey, and if it is possible. For starters, Pakistan’s fiscal limitations will be a constraint for the foreseeable future, and without a sustained 10 to 15-year period of economic planning and development, it is difficult to say if the country’s fiscal situation will change. However, the extent of collaboration can vary, Pakistan could ultimately settle on the margins as a 5% to 15% investor in a project as large as the TF-X.

If not cost, the question is whether Turkey would be able to share technology with Pakistan. If one looked at this matter in 2016, i.e., when Turkey was involved in the F-35 Lightning II, the prospect of collaborating with Pakistan would have seemed much less likely. Simply put, Turkey would have been in the position of potentially losing out on the benefits of the F-35 if the US felt it was sharing technology with Pakistan.

Interestingly, since its purchase of the S-400, Turkey basically extricated itself from that constraint, and in turn, the TF-X (besides less sensitive commercially-off-the-shelf US hardware, which Turkey would replace later) will not draw on the F-35 or from Lockheed Martin. If anything, the TF-X could draw from Western Europe, and while a challenging front, it is more workable for Pakistan than the US.

Finally, in the absence of the F-35, Turkey clearly has a stake in seeing the TF-X materialize so as to cement its own next-generation fighter capabilities. In other words, it may need the TF-X as much as Pakistan will need Project Azm, which means the TF-X will get priority resources.

It is unclear if Pakistan and Turkey will collaborate in the end, but the circumstances have probably never been as favourable for such an outlook. The next step would be sorting out the development sharing (i.e., cost, technology input, etc) responsibilities as well as co-production terms.

Political will is only one side of the equation, the next steps (i.e., commercial and technical terms) can torpedo joint programs as much as they can enable them. If Pakistan is serious about joining the TF-X, it may take several years to simply finalize the terms of its participation.

[1] Amir Zia. Interview of Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman. Bol Narratives. 01 April 2017. URL: http://www.bolnarratives.com/two-fronts-one-mission/

[2] Alan Warnes. Twitter. 02 May 2019. URL: https://twitter.com/warnesyworld/status/1123967134902706176

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