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Turkey Tests Indigenous Vertical Launch System (VLS) – MIDLAS

On 03 December 2022, the Turkish munitions manufacturer Roketsan test-fired the HİSAR-RF surface-to-air missile (SAM) from its MIDLAS vertical launch system (VLS).

In general, a VLS is a system for deploying various missile types from surface warships, like frigates. A VLS system enables the end-user to configure a warship with a relatively large complement of guided missiles for anti-air, anti-ship, and/or land-attack roles. Not only that, but a VLS configuration also allows ships to launch their missiles in simultaneous volleys. From an air defence standpoint, this could be a critical way of thwarting a saturation attack by enemy anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM), for example.

The test marks a major breakthrough in Turkey’s efforts to develop homegrown air defence solutions for its land and naval systems. A VLS is a critical piece to that goal. It enables Turkey to deploy its indigenous SAMs from its surface vessels, like frigates and corvettes.

In fact, the head of Turkey’s Presidency for Defence Industries (SSB), Dr. İsmail Demir, said that the Turkish Navy’s lead I-Class frigate, the TCG Istanbul, will be equipped with the MIDLAS in 2023. This clearly signifies that Turkey will not configure its domestically built ships with the Lockheed Martin Mk.41 VLS. Instead, it will directly move ahead to its homegrown MIDLAS solution.

Thus, not only does the MIDLAS test signify a key milestone from a development standpoint, but the target induction date of 2023 indicates that Turkey’s VLS is nearing completion. Upon deployment, the MIDLAS will carry the Roketsan HİSAR-RF short-to-medium-range SAM. In the future, the MIDLAS will also deploy the SİPER long-range SAM system.

Overall, the completion of the MIDLAS VLS program will help Turkey achieve the following:

Assuring Turkey’s Future Air Defence Requirements

The chill in Ankara’s ties with Washington is seemingly affecting a growing number of important Turkish defence programs. In fact, if Turkey is directly moving to induct a homegrown alternative to the Mk.41, it now seems that more is at risk of supply challenges than only the most sensitive U.S. equipment (such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 or MIM-104 Patriot). Thus, strictly relying on the U.S. could raise the risk of not securing key inputs and, thus, jeopardize Turkey’s workhorse capabilities in the future. The apparent risk of not gaining the Mk.41 would jeopardize Turkey’s sea-based anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities.

Not only does the MIDLAS give the Turkish Navy its own modern SAM deployment system, but it natively pairs with Turkey’s indigenous SAMs, like the HİSAR-series and SİPER-series. Reportedly, the MIDLAS will also be capable of quad-packing its SAM complement in a single cell. This would make the MIDLAS similar in concept to the Lockheed Martin Mk.41 and MBDA SYLVER.

Together, these systems offer a strong starting point for Turkey’s indigenous air defence development.

Basically, these programs have enabled Turkey to develop a foundation in rocket motor, aerostructures, solid fuel, and guidance electronics technologies. With additional time and investment, it could develop and further evolve these systems. For example, a future block or variant of the SİPER will reportedly have a range of over 150 km, which will translate into credible land and naval-based AAW. Turkey is also looking at pairing its SAMs with other AAW solutions, like directed energy weapons (DEW).

With the MIDLAS specifically, Turkey is likely aiming to use its homegrown VLS in a manner where it could deploy different types of missiles. Thus, in a single ship, a portion of the MIDLAS VLS would be dedicated for deploying SAMs, but another portion for ASCMs or land-attack cruise missiles (LACM). Turkey will also iterate on the MIDLAS; thus, future variants of the VLS will offer new capabilities (e.g., possibly in relation to Turkey’s interest in deploying drones and/or loitering munitions, for example).

Granted, Turkey is not as far along in SAM development as the industry leaders, like the United States or, for that matter, Western Europe, and China. However, at this point in time, the HİSAR and SİPER meet the Turkish military’s air defence requirements. Moreover, Turkey has repeatedly shown that the pace of its defence technology advancements is relatively fast. Thus, while it may not achieve absolute parity from a technology standpoint with the other countries, it will still deploy credible solutions, especially for its key operational theaters and, as importantly, export markets.

Driving Deeper Export Gains

One of the key benefits of the MIDLAS is that it also provides Turkey with much greater flexibility in selling its naval solutions. From sensors to electronic support measures (ESM) to anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-air weapons, Turkey can deliver a full-stack solution for both new and existing (retrofitted) ships alike.

This flexibility achieves two major gains.

First, it frees Turkey to offer turnkey naval solutions, especially big-ticket items like frigates or destroyers. It can independently supply a complete multi-mission package without needing third-party vendors.

Second, the contracts for the SAM and VLS solutions would go to Turkish companies. Thus, Turkish firms, like Roketsan and others, will get more of an export deal’s value (as they do not need outside OEMs).

This shift could also alter the incentives structure for Turkey. Basically, there may be an even greater drive on Ankara’s part to provide financing or loans to buyers. Since Turkish companies would be the main ones to benefit from such programs (as they would supply almost of the key weapons and sensor inputs), loans can serve as a stimulus. However, the buyer will eventually repay the loans, thus creating a stimulus that ultimately comes from external sources over the long-term.

More established defence suppliers, like Europe and China, leverage the combination of loans/credit and local input sourcing to drive export growth. Turkey could emulate that model and, eventually, start taking key markets by pushing rival suppliers out. In fact, Turkey could look at building a niche market comprising of countries that want to operate along Western lines from a doctrine and training standpoint, but cannot acquire Western weapons due to a lack of funds or strong ties. Countries that fit this description include the likes of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Algeria, and Nigeria.

One could plausibly see Pakistan as the first export customer of the MIDLAS (and, possibly, Turkish SAMs), if these are made available. The PN’s forthcoming Jinnah-class frigate could be a viable platform for both the MIDLAS and, potentially, the SİPER SAM series. The timeline of the Jinnah-class frigate is farther down (i.e., closer to the mid-2030s); thus, Turkey’s solutions will have matured by that period.

Overall, this aspect of providing a Western solution without the Western strings could provide Turkey with a unique edge in the defence industry space. However, unlike the U.S. or China, Turkey’s main weaknesses are its lack of economies-of-scale and fiscal power. It cannot match the investment the top two economies of the world are making in defence technologies, at least not alone. Thus, an increasingly evident aspect of the Turkish defence industry model is to drive partnerships with other countries. While this work is not as far along as its technology development, it could start gaining ground as Turkey showcases more of its successes in the coming years. For Turkey, the ideal scenario would be to nurture its own big consortiums, akin to Airbus or MBDA, but with Roketsan, Aselsan, and TAI as the nuclei and leading parties.

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