Pak-Turk Defence Cooperation: Milestones and Potential

Both Pakistan and Turkey are facing a dip in their ties with western countries due to several geopolitical reasons. This has brought various challenges to both the countries from financial to political. The defence cooperation with the West has also taken a hit. Historically, both Pakistan and Turkey have been close Western allies. They operate American and European weapons systems and have been part of military training programs in those countries. Now their procurement of weapons from the west has suffered. This has forced both countries to focus on the indigenisation of their weaponry. It has also increased their bilateral defence cooperation in recent years. Looking at the trends, their defence cooperation is likely to increase in the future toward becoming each other’s top partners.

Reliability Issues with the West

In the recent years, we have not seen a major defence agreement between the United States (US) and either of Pakistan or Turkey. This has stopped the promised delivery of some weapon systems or critical components of other systems to these countries. Turkey, for example, was a developing partner in the F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft program. The US removed Turkey from the program and cited Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system as the reason. It also linked the rejoining of Turkey to the program by reversing its decision on S-400. Similarly, the US has stopped the delivery of 30 Turkish-made ATAK T-129 twin-engine attack helicopters to Pakistan by refusing to issue the export license for the engines of the helicopters. The US stopped the military assistance program with Pakistan in 2018. It also suspended the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET) funding Pakistani officers in the same year after the country joined a similar program with Russia. Although the program was resumed in 2020 but had already revealed the continuity issues due to political events.

A Push to Strengthen Pak-Turk Cooperation

The cut in defence cooperation from the US has pushed both Pakistan and Turkey to see alternatives at home and abroad. One such alternative is strengthening their bilateral defence cooperation. Both countries have proved to be reliable partners for each other. There are several reasons behind their growing partnership. They have strong religious and cultural ties, shared views on various regional and international issues, trust, reliance, and increasing quality of their indigenous weapon systems. Turkey’s efforts to indigenise its defence industry have materialised into various high-value developments. The development of drone technology and its successful use in Syria and against Armenia has brought Turkey worldwide recognition. Similarly, Turkish warships technology has matured over the years. It is also working on the development of next-generation aircrafts locally.

Pakistan is focusing on the development of its local defence industry as well. It has sought to promote public-private sector partnership to develop a self-reliant and self-sustained defence industry. The development of indigenous capabilities can also be exported to other countries. Pakistan is producing and exporting fourth generation JF-17 Thunder in partnership with China. And like Turkey, it is also working on the development of next-generation aircraft indigenously.

Pakistan gets access to western technology via Turkey indirectly. There are several components in MILGEM class corvettes and T-129 helicopters obtained or built under-license from different European countries. Similarly, it is viewed that Turkey may be trying to get closer to Chinese defence technology through Pakistan.

Warships and More

The development of the indigenous defence industry in Pakistan and Turkey holds great potential for their bilateral cooperation in the area. Turkey has in past upgraded Pakistan’s F-16 aircraft and Agosta 90B submarines. Now it is providing Pakistan with its indigenous systems. Pakistan has signed a deal with Turkey for the procurement of 4 MILGEM class corvettes by 2023. The deal includes the complete transfer of technology and intellectual property rights to Pakistan. It also enables Pakistan to develop an indigenous frigate project after the delivery of these corvettes.

The development of joint projects will not only enhance the expertise of both countries but also decrease R&D time for them.

The two countries also signed an agreement for the delivery of 30 T-129 helicopters in 2018. Turkey is developing a domestic engine option to power the T-129 helicopter though the timeline is not clear yet. Successful development of engines can get them delivered to Pakistan if the US continues to deny the license for the LHTEC T800 engine. Pakistan, on the other hand, is exporting   training aircraft to Turkey.

Both countries are also engaged in joint military exercises and training programs. To explore new areas and increase cooperation in the future, both counties have established High-Level Military Dialogue Group (HLMDG). The group meets annually and reviews progress made during the past year.

Full Potential yet to be Realised

The bilateral cooperation has strengthened significantly. However, it still has great potential to further increase the military capabilities of both countries. There are several areas where the two countries can increase cooperation. For example, Pakistan can be a potential operator of Turkish armed drones, and both countries can join hands or share with each other their expertise and experiences in the development of their respective next-generation fighter aircraft programs.

An important factor behind the success of Turkish armed drones during their engagements was the electronic warfare capabilities of Turkey. Those were both air-borne and land-based electronic warfare systems. This area has got a huge potential for growth and further development. Cyber-security, counterterrorism, radar technology, space, air, and missile defence are also important areas for cooperation.

Pakistan and Turkey have got a strong base for long-lasting defence cooperation. The development of joint projects will not only enhance the expertise of both countries but also decrease R&D time for them. With this, Turkey and Pakistan can make themselves net exporters of arms instead of being arm importers.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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