In early 2000s, a cartoon in a Turkish magazine depicted two defense procurement officials apologetically telling an angry Minister of Defense that their national tank prototype “had derailed during field tests.”
I cut the cartoon and sent it, with compliments, to the then procurement chief, Murad Bayar, back in 2010.
The always polite and gentlemanly Mr Bayar later told me that that cartoon was adorning an office wall where the head of the project for the design and development of Turkey’s first main battle tank works – on strict orders that it should remain framed there until Turkey’s first national tank, the Altay, is up and running. Mr Bayar has long left that office but if his bureaucrats keep their promise the cartoon should still be hanging on their office wall. At best estimate, the frame should remain where it is for at least another half decade.
But Turkey almost urgently needs, or thinks it almost urgently needs, modern battle tanks. Defense procurement bureaucracy, after several years of pacing slowly, is giving tank programs a fresh pace.
In January the government officially launched a contest for the upgrade of a batch of 200 German- and U.S.-made battle tanks in the army’s inventory. On Jan. 23, five Turkish companies placed their upgrade bids: military electronics specialist Aselsan, Turkey’s biggest defense company; missile-maker Roketsan; and armored vehicles manufacturers BMC, Otokar and FNSS. Aselsan and Roketsan are state-controlled companies and BMC, Otokar and FNSS are privately-owned.
In mid 2000s, under a 2002 contract, Israel Military Industries had upgraded a batch of 169 M60s now designated in the Turkish inventory as M60Ts. The official contract price for the deal was $688 million but the actual figure went beyond that.
Under the new upgrade program the focus would be armor improvements and installing “active protection systems” on the tank bodies. The program came with a “priority” tag after several Turkish battle tanks were hit by Islamist radicals during the Turkish military’s incursion into Syria.
After negotiations with the bidders the procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) decided to split the upgrade program. It awarded a contract for the [electronic] upgrade of a batch of 80 M60T tanks to Aselsan. The contract is worth around $100 million, officials said. SSM also selected BMC for the full upgrade of a batch of 40 Leopard 2 tanks, a deal worth $150 million. The upgrades for the M60 A3 remain a puzzle.
If upgraded the ageing M60 A3s will cost Turkey over $100 million. There are engineering doubts over whether the engine and transmission system of the tank would be powerful enough to operate the M60 A3 after armor and protection upgrades. Better leave them for scrap, many analysts believe. It would be wiser to spend that money for upgrades on an extra batch of much healthier Leopard 2s, they say.
As the Syrian theatre unveiled the weaknesses of the Turkish army’s tank-based operations, the military planners are rushing to other solutions too. In October, SSM officially launched a competition for a program designed to develop [and later build] a power group for the Altay. SSM invited local engine makers to develop the “power group” consisting of an engine and transmission system for the Altay.
Officials say Turkey will have to spend up to $400 million only for the development phase of the program. Production costs are estimated at around $1.5 million per engine. If Turkey is to eventually produce 1,000 Altays, the engine program will come near $2 billion.
Five local manufacturers have responded to SSM’s call for a local engine for the Altay: BMC, Figes, Istanbul Denizcilik, Tusas Turkish Engine Industries (TEI) and TUMOSAN.
TEI is Turkey’s state-controlled engine maker and a sister company of Tusas Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the country’s aerospace powerhouse.
BMC is a Turkish-Qatari armored vehicles manufacturer and one of the bidders in the competition for the serial production of the Altay. The program involves an initial batch of 250 units but the number of tanks Turkey could purchase will likely go up to 1,000 units. In the Altay serial production race BMC will be competing with FNSS and Otokar, the maker of Altay’s prototypes.
SSM insists that bidders should submit proposals “with maximum local input and minimum foreign technology.” The office says the program aims to end Turkey’s dependency on foreign power technology in the Altay program.
One of the bidders in the engine competition, TUMOSAN, in 2015 won a $100 million contract to develop an engine for the Altay. It then signed up a know-how deal with Austrian AVL List GbmH, but in 2016 this key technical support contract was cancelled as part of Austria’s arms embargo on Turkey.
In November, Turkish procurement officials said they were in talks with the British-based European division of U.S. company Caterpillar over a plan to produce and supply an engine for the Altay. Caterpillar and its U.K.-based partner, engine-maker Perkins, have expressed interest in the power pack for the Altay program.
Then there is the Altay program itself, the backbone of Turkey’s modern tank efforts. Under the Altay program Turkey aims to produce an initial batch of 250 tanks, eventually reaching 1,000 units. The Turkish government obtained serial production bids from three manufacturers: Otokar, BMC and FNSS.
The competition is for the serial production of the planned new generation battle tank. Senior procurement officials say they want to make a “quick decision” on the three-way race as they calculate a modern tank fleet may be essential in view of near-future security threats to Turkey in this increasingly volatile region.
One official said that SSM will ask the three bidders to submit their best and final offers as quickly as possible, hoping to select a contender in the first half, “preferably in the first quarter” of 2018.
That will be an unusually swift assessment process, given the notorious slowness of the procurement mechanism. Hopefully the cartoon framed on an office wall at one of Turkey’s most serious government buildings will finally be removed.