Is Turkey a powerful country?

Ahmet Haşim Köse writes: Turkey became a weapon-exporting country after 1995, though to a limited extent. The real leap took place during the rule of Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). The change that took place in the defense industry during the AKP era has to do with the transformation in the structure of the state/company partnership that operates this sector.

Ahmet Haşim Köse

In Turkey, my generation largely heard of the expression “Quo Vadis” (Latin for “Where are you going?” for the fist time from the title of a book by Yalçın Küçük which was published in the 1980s. Yet Küçük altered the phrase into “Quo Vadimus” or “Where are we going?”

Küçük’s book dealt with bigotry in Turkey and how former President Turgut Özal imported his IMF and World Bank repertoire to Turkey. He argued that the world had entered a new dark age in the 20th century. According to him, Islamism and Pan-Arabism, which emerged in the 1950s, were paving the way for Turkey’s “Middle Age.” 

Küçük’s analysis came too early for us at a time when we were still consumed by the fallout of the 1980 coup. “The Middle Ages destroyed ancient cities, buried the antique culture and science, buried the intellectuals who brought antique culture and science. Destruction is necessary in order to get through the Middle Age,” Küçük wrote, before asking “Quo Vadimus?” To that, the author maintained we were headed “towards light.” 

But mankind has yet to see the light, and our era is getting darker. As a general rule, the Middle Ages span the millennium between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Küçük’s term is frequently used to describe the situation we find ourselves in today. 

French intellectual and businessman Alain Minc coined the term “New Middle Age” in an eponymous book that was published in 1994. Minc defines the “new Middle Age” in which we now live as the disappearance of wisdom, the lack of organized systems and obedience as well as the rise of authoritarianism. He refers to it as a process of destruction through which humanity loses all the gains it had achieved after long-fought struggles and goes back in time. 

I believe Küçük’s assertions were correct insofar as the dark ages were based on destruction. Those ages involve destruction and capital accumulation, or as Marx put in “Grundrisse”, the use of human intelligence against humanity. The ever-growing defense industry and recent wars serve as striking examples of this. 

What is more, the dark ages of history are marked by a glorification of power as well as violence and war. Capitalism constitutes an example of that violence. In fact, capitalism has turned violence into a commodity, which was designed to destroy whilst serving as a tool for capital accumulation. Capitalism involves both destruction and wealth accumulation. Hence, in order to understand today’s violence, one should examine how the war industry in organized both domestically and globally. 

Many international research institutes such as the Global Firepower (GF) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), issue data regarding military expenditure and put forward lists of the world’s “powers.” In addition, the World Bank issues data regularly on military expenditures. Yet this data and its verification should be discussed.  

Off-budget expenses are shrouded in secrecy. According to SIPRI, such expenses are common in Chili, Indonesia, Peru, Turkey, Venezuela, Mozambique, Nigeria and South Sudan, which raise these countries’ real military expenditures. In other words, it is difficult to obtain accurate data on a country’s actual “power.” 

In the Global Firepower’s 2019 list of global military expenses, Turkey ranks at the 18th place. The US, meanwhile, had spent 750 billion dollars on defense, China 237 billion dollars, Saudi Arabia 67.6 billion dollars, Russia 48 billion dollars, the UAE 22.8 billion dollars, Israel 20 and Turkey 19 billion dollars. In the Military Strength Ranking for 2019, which draws on more than 55 factors, Turkey climbed to the 11th place. The 10 first countries on the list were the US, Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, France, the UK, Egypt and Brazil.

According to calculations based on data from SIPRI, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) era between 2003 and 2019, Turkey spent an average of 19 billion dollars annually on military expenses. And, this does not include off-budget expenses. 

What is more, according to SIPRI, Turkey is the 13th country in the world when it comes to the purchase of arms. The institute’s data in this regard goes back to 1950. According to it, Turkey did not purchase arms until 1995 – except for the years 1981 and 1982. After 1995, Turkey became a weapon-exporting country, though to a limited extent. The real leap took place during the rule of the AKP. 

With the SIPRI data regarding the largest 50 countries that supply arms, one can determine that the average annual sales of these 50 countries between 2004 and 2019 amounted to 26.7 billion dollars. With 8.7 billion dollars of sales, the US accounts for 32.5 percent of the total sales. Russia trails the US with a share of 23.5 percent, France with 7.1 percent, Germany with 7 percent, China with 4.5 percent, the UK with 4.3 percent, Spain with 2.3 percent, Italy with 2.4 percent and Israel with 2.3 percent. Turkey’s average annual sales during this period amounted to 68.9 million dollars. In 2003, Turkey had a share of 0.2 percent and 42 million dollars of sales. Turkey climbs to 193 million dollars in 2019 with a share of 0.9 percent. This can only be explained through the “power” accumulation in this field.

While the local and national defense industries are growing, reliance on external markets persists. With SIPRI data, one can calculate that between 2003 and 2019, during the AKP era, the trade deficit in the defense industry amounted to a total of 10.9 billion dollars. 

The first five countries Turkey imports arms from are the U.S., South Korea, Germany, Italy, Israel and Spain. With regards to exports, Turkey exports its arms to the UAE, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia. 

When considered from the perspective of companies, the commodification of violence in our era is striking. SIPRI also issues data on the top 100 global arms producer companies. The SIPRI data set does not include Chinese companies. As one would expect, half of the top 100 companies are from the US. In 2004, 50 US companies produced 62 percent of the total arms production of these first 100 countries. With the dollar prices of 2018, the top 100 countries produced 301.8 billion dollars worth of products, 187 billion dollars of which were produced by American companies. The UK follows with 14 companies and 14 percent of the production, France with 9 companies and 7.6 percent, Italy with 5 companies and 3.6 percent, Germany with 8 companies and 2.5 percent, Japan with 6 companies and 2.2 percent, Russia with 4 companies and 1.2 percent, Israel 3 companies with 1 percent and India with 3 companies and 0.9 percent of the total production.

Turkey entered this top 100 group of arms-producing companies for the first time in 2010 with ASELSAN making it to the 92nd place with a production worth 760 billion dollars and a total share of 0.1 percent. In 2014, two companies from Turkey made it to the list. ASELSAN reached the 76th place while TUSAŞ (Turkish Aerospace Industries) came 95th. The production of these two companies was around 2 billion dollars while their total share was 0.2 percent. In 2018, these two companies climbed higher in the global ranking with 2.8 billion dollars worth of production and a 0.6 percent share. 

Beyond such a growth, the change that took place in the defense industry during the AKP era has to do with the transformation in the structure of the state/company partnership that operates this sector. The Turkish Armed Forces Foundation (TSKGV) still constitutes the backbone of the arms industry though a rapid corporatization of this sector encourages a new capital accumulation. Today, more than 700 companies are involved in this sector in Turkey. The pioneers in this field are ASELSAN, TUSAŞ, ROKETSAN, HEMA, BMC, FNSS, HAVELSAN, ALP Havacılık, NUROL
Makine and MİKES, which also feature amongst Turkey’s top 50 companies. 

The increased corporatization in Turkey’s defense industry actually began in 2002 when Turkey participated in the F-35 project alongside the U.S., the UK, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Norway and Australia. More than 10 companies (primarily ALP Havacılık, AYSAŞ, FOKKER ELMO, MIKE) got their places in this process and grew rapidly. While this process appears to have ended in light of the S-400 crisis, new capital has emerged. 

Turkey’s defense industry today relies of three pillars. The first pillar is the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation (TSKGV), which is a public institution and controls around 40 percent of the sector. The second pillar consists of the companies that have international partners such as NUROL, TAI (Turkish Aerospace Industries), MIKES and OTOKAR (Koç Holding). The third pillar consists of affiliates of family-held companies such as Bayraktar, Öztürk and Albayrak, which are known for their proximity with Erdoğan. One of the most important ones in this group is the BMC company, which is a partnership between Bayraktar Makine and Qatar-based Barzan Holding.

Despite the deepening economic crisis that Turkey faces, its “power” is being transformed and is growing. After Turkey deployed land forces in Libya, the number of countries in which it has troops rose to nine. Turkey has troops in four countries under UN supervision (Lebanon, Mali, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan) and in five countries under its own initiative (Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Qatar). According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers' (PwC) report “Global Defense Perspectives 2017,” after 2016, Turkey’s army become the world’s most active army after that of the US. 8.6 percent of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) was deployed abroad in 2014, and 13.2 percent in 2016. More than 50,000 Turkish troops serve abroad.

Quo vadimus? 


Ahmet Haşim Köse is an economist.