Pakistan-Turkey military cooperation reflects growing strategic ties

Pakistan-Turkey military cooperation reflects growing strategic ties


Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production this month formally signed a long-awaited contract with Turkey’s Military Factory and Shipyard Management Corporation for the procurement of four ships: MILGEM Ada Corvettes for the Pakistan Navy. This was the second important defense deal signed between the two countries this year. In May, Ankara and Islamabad announced the largest ever defense contract between the two countries when they agreed on the sale of 30 Turkish-made T129 ATAK helicopters said to be worth $1.5 billion to Pakistan. 

Pakistan and Turkey are traditional allies and have enjoyed strong defense and economic ties for decades. However, changing regional security dynamics in the Middle East and South Asia are expanding their military ties in leaps and bounds. One key common factor driving this growing military cooperation is the changed relationship with the US — a key military supplier and partner for both countries. Technology transfer and close military relations with the US have allowed Turkey, a NATO member, to develop as a major arms supplier. For decades, as a long-term US ally and security partner in South Asia, Pakistan has relied on US military support and funding to finance, upgrade and equip its military forces with up-to-date weapons systems. Long-term US military support has allowed it to maintain a credible defense against much larger Indian forces deployed along its eastern borders. 

Since 2015, growing divergences over regional issues with the US has intensified military cooperation between Turkey and Pakistan. For Turkey, differences with the US over Kurdish separatist fighting in Syria and the aftermath of the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016 have shaken the countries’ decades-old relationship. Pakistan-US relations began to nosedive drastically in 2015 over the stalemate in Afghanistan. Under the Donald Trump presidency, US-Pakistan relations have further unraveled and, in 2016, the US Senate and Congress started the process of withholding Coalition Support Funds and refused to subsidize the sale of eight US-made F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. 

The combination of the US factor and the changing regional environment is re- energizing military relations between Pakistan and Turkey, who initially expanded their military cooperation in the period immediately following 9/11. As two frontline states and coalition partners for the US in its global war on terror, their bilateral military relations expanded in the early 2000s but, despite good intentions, military cooperation between the two remained limited. A lack of fiscal power for purchasing weapons at market rates and reliance on subsidized military support from the US, which increased substantially after 9/11, prevented Pakistan from seriously pursuing Turkish weapon systems. 

Despite these constraints, Pakistan was able to proceed with the Mid-Life Update of its air force’s 41 F-16A/B Block-15s, which was implemented by Turkish Aerospace Industries in 2006. In 2009, the Turkey-Pakistan High Level Cooperation Council was established, and then later upgraded to a strategic partnership. A total of 1,494 Pakistani military personnel have received their military education in Turkey since then. Turkey has also remained a key participant in Pakistan’s International Defense Exhibition and Seminar and companies from both sides have always shown keen interest in each other’s products.

In expanding its military and defense cooperation with Ankara, Pakistan is eyeing opportunities for technology transfer to strengthen its own capacities, as well as procuring advanced military hard and software.

Dr. Simbal Khan

Now, for both, relations with the US are on an uncertain path and both militaries also face the threat of sanctions and embargoes from Washington. For Pakistan, the situation is more critical; its indigenous capacity for defense production lags far behind that of Turkey. Consequently, in expanding its military and defense cooperation with Ankara, Pakistan is eyeing opportunities for technology transfer to strengthen its own capacities, as well as procuring advanced military hard and software. 

Elements of technology transfer to Pakistan are evident in all the recently signed military deals: The navy’s order of the four Ada-class Corvettes; the T129 ATAK helicopters for the army; and the upcoming upgrade of the navy’s Agosta 90B submarines. Existing memorandums of understanding in research and development are expanding the future prospects of joint production of aviation and other military assets. The two sides are already discussing cooperation on advanced drone technology, with TAI awarding Pakistan Aeronautical Complex a contract to produce parts for its Anka unmanned aerial vehicle program. Pakistan has also bought other hardware from Turkey, including software-defined radios for secure communications. 

In brief, for both Turkey and Pakistan, growing military relations is a facet of their expanding strategic relationship and is grounded in a common understanding of future scenarios, which project a diminished reliance on the US as a strategic partner. China’s ascendency as a global power and Russia’s desire to play a more muscular active role beyond its borders are creating new challenges as well as opportunities for Turkey and Pakistan to realign interests. The defense deals signed recently flag the as-yet-untapped potential of growth and partnership for both countries. Deepening military cooperation and growing indigenous defense industries are likely to increase their growing alignment on regional and global issues.

• Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geo-politics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh

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