Turkey & South Korea’s Altay Tank Project
Turkey’s tank fleet is currently made up of American M-48s and M-60s, some of which have been modernized with Israeli cooperation into M-60 Sabra tanks, plus a large contingent of German Leopard 1s and Leopard 2s. That is hardy surprising. America and Germany are Turkey’s 2 most important geopolitical relationships, and this is reflected in Turkey’s choice of defense industry partners. The country’s industrial offset requirements ensure that these manufacturers have a long history of local partnerships to draw upon.
In recent years, however, a pair of new players have begun to make an impact on the Turkish defense scene. One was Israel, whose firms specialized in sub-systems, upgrades, and UAVs. The other is the Republic of [South] Korea, who has made inroads in the Turkish market with turboprop training aircraft, mobile howitzers… and now, main battle tanks.
The Altay Program
Turkey’s new tank is named after Gen. Fahrettin Altay, a cavalry commander in Turkey’s War of Independence. The tank will use a 120mm smoothbore gun, with the usual 7.62mm coaxial machine gun and a pintle-mounted 12.7mm machin gun up top. Compared to the ROK’s K2 Black Panther, the Altay is reportedly longer, with an added road wheel and a slightly modified turret. It may also carry heavier armor.
The 2008 System Development deal includes the production of 4 prototypes worth $70 million dollars, and technology transfer worth $330 million dollars.
Once development is complete, a second set of production contracts will be signed. The Turks’ official goal was to design, test, and build the first Altay tank in 6.5 years, which would place the event in early 2015. So far, 2015 remains the target date for production to begin.
Turkey reportedly plans to produce 200-250 of the tanks locally.
Under this $400 million development deal, The Republic of Turkey will own all design and intellectual property rights to the final vehicle. Turkey’s Otokar will build the tanks in cooperation with various sub-contractors, including:
- South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem (XK2 Black Panther base design, expertise and parts as required, technical support system, C3I, help with modernization of Otokar’s factory in the northwestern province of Sakarya).
- Aselsan (fire control and C3I systems, other sub-systems)
- MTU Friedrichshafen (1,500 hp diesel engine. May be replaced by 1,800 hp Turkish engine if they can develop it)
- SSM’s STM group (C3I co-development with Aselsan)
- Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation, i.e. state-owned MKEK, (120mm/55 caliber main gun)
- Roketsan (Modular Armor Package)
Foreign companies are reportedly under consideration for key items beyond the engine, including armor and complex systems integration.
Contracts and Key Events
ROK governments have been building a formidable local defense industry as a matter of policy, and those efforts are beginning to win export sales around the globe. The Altay project is just the latest payoff.
Relations with Turkey have been especially warm, owing in part to the Turks’ heroic combat record in the Korean War. In recent years, that combination of warm relations and solid products has led to Turkish orders worth hundreds of millions of dollars for KT-1 turboprop training aircraft, and K-9/K-10 derived “Firtina” mobile howitzers. In July 2007, South Korea’s inroads became undeniable, as discussions began concerning a deal to develop Turkey’s next generation tanks. That was a major upset, but it had yet to coalesce into a deal. By the end of July 2008, however, the ink was dry on a deal that made Korea’s new XK2 the basis of Turkey’s co-produced Altay tank.
2016 – 2017
November 03/17: Ankara announced this week a new $1 billion competition to design, develop, and eventually produce an engine and transmission system, or power group, for Turkey’s indigenous Altay tank program. A previous contract awarded to local engine-maker Tumosan, in conjunction with Austrian firm AVL List GmbH, was cancelled as part of Austria’s arms embargo on Turkey. Now chasing the money is the British-based European division of US firm Caterpillar, who have expressed interest in the power pack for the Altay program.
November 1/17: Rheimetall’s CEO has blasted the ongoing diplomatic spat between the Germany government and Turkey which has damaged relations and put a freeze on planned defense projects. Relations have been strained since the failed coup of 2016 against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the subsequent crackdown of opponents. Berlin has also refused to extradite people Turkey claim were involved in the plot. Armin Papperger, the German manufacturer’s CEO, said several defense projects had subsequently been put on hold, including the production of ammunition for fighter jets in Turkey and upgrades to Turkey’s Leopard tanks, and were still awaiting decisions by the two governments. Rheinmetall’s potential involvement in Turkey’s Altay tank program could also be in doubt—the firm has formed a joint venture with Turkey’s BMC to bid for the first tranche contract which would see 100-200 Altay units built.
September 27/17: Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli has accused US and German defense suppliers of a “covered” [indirect] arms embargo on Turkey. Canikli said that the firms were either halting shipments of spare parts of weapons systems to Turkey, or deliberately delaying them, while a Turkish diplomat dealing with NATO matters confirmed that some Turkish requests for systems and subsystems have not been addressed by the US and Germany. However, the British-based European division of US company Caterpillar—engine-maker Perkins—is in talks with Ankara to produce and supply an engine for the Altay, Turkey’s indigenous Main Battle Tank. Austria’s AVL List GmbH had initially been contracted to supply the power pack (engine and transmission) for the Altay, but this deal was cancelled after Austria’s parliament unanimously adopted a non-binding motion that imposed an arms embargo against Turkey in November 2016.
September 08/17: Turkey’s timetable for its Altay main battle tank hopes to have a winner selected by mid-2018, with bids from BMC, Otokar and FNSS expected for this November. The initial phase of the indigenous Altay tank program aims to initially serial produce a batch of 250 units, with military officials hoping that the program would eventually reach 1,000 units. Earlier this year, Otokar’s Altay prototypes successfully completed qualification tests including mobility and endurance testing on rough terrain and climatic conditions, firing tests with various scenarios, and survivability testing. However in June, the government procurement agency SSM, citing an unsatisfactory offer from Otokar for the serial production of the tank, canceled the contract and decided to go for an open competition.
July 20/17: Three Turkish defense firms will be asked to submit proposals to Turkey’s Altay tank program, which could reach beyond $10 billion. BMC, Otokar and FNSS—all private companies—will bid to secure a contract for the serial production of an initial batch of 250 Altay tanks, with Turkey planning to produce a total of 1,000 units. Ankara’s decision to include three bidders in the program comes after Otokar produced and successfully completed qualification tests of an Altay prototype, including mobility and endurance testing on rough terrain and climatic conditions, firing tests with various scenarios, and survivability testing. However, last month, the Turkish procurement agency deemed Otokar’s serial production sole-source offer as too expensive, instead opening up the competition to include other bidders.
June 16/17: Turkey has decided to ditch its sole-source negotiations with manufacturer Otokar for the serial production of the Altay tank, instead favoring to start an open bid for the same contract. Four prototypes were built by Otokar for developmental tests— successfully completed earlier this year—and clauses within the developmental allowed the firm, without competition, to make an offer for the serial production contract. However, Turkish procurement officials familiar with the Altay program, said that Otokar’s best and final offer failed to qualify for a single-source serial production contract. New bids are expected to be solicited by the end of the year, with FNSS and BMC expected to join Otokar in the new competition.
April 13/17: Despite issues with gaining certain technology transfers for the Altay, Turkey could begin serial production of the main battle tank as early as this May, according to Defense Minister Fikri Isik. Pakistan and some Gulf nations are believed to be lined up as potential customers for the vehicle. Talk of potential delays to the Altay surfaced when local contractor Tümosan was unable to continue working on providing a domestic diesel engine for the tank, after Austria’s AVL List GmbH, which it had as a technical support partner, ceased working with the Turkish firm amid concerns that the Turkish government were sliding on human rights issues. It now looks like Ankara may instead turn to Ukraine for help, with the Altay possibly adopting the Kharkiv Morozov Machine Building Design Bureau’s (KMDB) 1,500 hp 6TD-3 diesel engine.
March 5/17: The Turkish government has cancelled an engine development contract for the Altay main battle tank (MBT) with Tümosan after the company’s failure to secure a new design and development partner to replace AVL List GmbH from Austria. Tümosan’s need to find a new partner came about in January after they were forced by Ankara to cancel the deal with AVL List GmbH due to Turkey’s concerns with emerging political and regulatory issues in Austria, namely the Austrian government’s insistence on issuing export licenses with conditions. Speaking on the announcement, Tümosan cited reluctance from supplier governments to transfer technology and intellectual property and Turkey’s post-coup political events as major challenges in their ability to secure a new partner.
March 1/16: The Turkish government has granted land to defense firm BMC to relocate and build a new plant. The 222-hectare site will see $430 million invested by the company into the expansion with the plant believed to be operational within two years. BMC is currently bidding for the serial production of the indigenous Altay battle tank, which has been developed by rival company Otokar. While the bidding process has yet to begin, the winners would see a contract to produce up to 1,000 Altays after an initial run of 250 for the Turkish Army.
January 21/16: Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) has announced that a number of parties have expressed interest in purchasing their indigenous new generation main battle tank, the Altay. Those that may look to make purchases are regional allies, including a number of Gulf countries and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia in particular has been expressing keen interest after officials from these countries were invited to observe firing tests of the tank. While still in development, and a manufacturer for serial production is yet to be announced, the interest seemingly generated may lead to some big business for Ankara in the coming years.
2011 – 2014
Nov 18/14: XK-2. South Korea’s WON 2+ trillion (about $1.84 billion) XK-2 tank project, which served as the basis for Altay, has experienced delays due to technical difficulties. Acceleration performance has been a particular issue, and the ROK plans to field it with a locally-made engine and transmission by 2017. So far, about 100 K-2 Black Panther tanks have been deployed in Korea. Sources: Yonhap, “S. Korea to put K-2 combat tank into full service by 2017”.
Feb 27/14: Engines. While talking to reporters about Airbus’ A400M contract, Undersecretary for Defense Murad Bayar mentions that:
“Turkey’s Altay tank’s engine must be made in the country. There are also proposals from two Turkish companies to produce the engine in Turkey.”
It’s a blow to initial engine provider MTU Friedrichshafen. Whether it ends up affecting the tank depends on whether Turkish firms produce an engine in time, with adequate performance, efficiency and reliability. Sources: Anatolia News Agency, “Airbus and Turkey Dispute Over A400M Military Aircraft”.
Nov 14/13: Industrial shift? SSM’s chief, Murad Bayar, tells Defense News that they’re looking at a different approach to Altay’s production contract. Koc-owned Otokar is very likely to remain the main manufacturer, but they’re reportedly considering a consortium/ cooperative approach composed of Turkish and even foreign firms. Politics is playing a strong role:
“Otokar is owned by Turkey’s biggest business conglomerate, Koc Holding, whose defense business may be a casualty of a row between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and one of its top executives after a month of civil unrest that battered the Turkish government. In one incident during June demonstrations, protesters tried to escape police tear gas and pepper spray by taking refuge in a posh Istanbul hotel, Divan, owned by Koc. Hotel management admitted the protesters to its lobby, but police fired more tear gas and pepper spray into the hotel lobby, although it is illegal to fire these chemicals into indoor spaces.”
The Erdogan government’s response was to relax the laws regarding police conduct, while calling the youthful protesters “terrorists” and promising to punish firms that helped them in any way. Koc has already lost a contract to build “Milgem” corvettes, so suspicions of a political motive over Altay are well founded. Defense News, “Turkey Mulling ‘Big Team’ for Tank Production” | Hurriyet Daily News, “Koc’s defense business a casualty of feud with government?” | Wikipedia, 2013 Protests in Turkey.
Nov 15/12: With about $500 million invested in development to date, Otokar officially rolls out its first 2 Altay tank prototypes at its Sakarya plant. Prototype #1 is already in use for mobility tests, with over 2,000km of mileage under its treads. Prototype #2 will be used for firing tests. Any changes will feed back into the design and construction of prototypes #3-4.
Kudret ONEN, Head of Koc Holding Defence Industry Group and Otokar’s Chairman of the Board, says that the project currently has 550 engineers (260 at Otokar), and nearly 100 subcontractors. Mass production is still promised for 2015. Otokar [in Turkish].
June 11/12: Update. While announcing its vehicle lineup for Eurosatory 2012, Otokar provides a project update:
“The first phase of the project, ‘Conceptual Design Process’, has been completed in 2010. And we presented the full-scale model, which reflects the concept design of ALTAY, at IDEF Exhibition, last year. In scope of the ‘Detailed Design Process’ which is the second and the most critical phase of the project, ‘Preliminary Design Phase’, has been successfully completed by the last quarter of 2011. During this phase, manufacturing of prototypes took start in line with this process. Following the completion of the Second Phase, we’re planning to start the ‘Prototype Development and Qualification Phase’ which is the third and the last phase. In scope of the project plan we continue investing in the first prototype of the ALTAY tank which will be ready for testing by the last quarter of this year. In addition to our existing facilities within Otokar plant, we have recently established a new Tank Test Center with an investment of USD 10 million.”
March 27/12: SSM’s plan. Turkey’s SSM procurement agency has unveiled their new 5-year strategic plan, with timetables for key acquisitions. The plan commits to begin deliveries of the Altay tank by 2015. Hurriyet Daily News
2005 – 2010
July 6/09: US Pressure on Israel. The Jerusalem Post reports that the USA had pressured Israel out of Turkey’s tank competition, in order to give American firms better odds. Israel would have entered the competition with a strong position to build on. Turkey’s existing M-60 tanks were heavily modernized by Israeli firms, based on the same “Sabra” modification set that Israel used on its own M60s. Beyond Sabra, Israel’s current Merkava family tanks are purpose-built for the needs of warfare in the Middle East, with unique features for urban warfare and counter-terrorism conflicts.
Within a couple of years, worsening relations between Turkey’s Islamist government and Israel made any such project unthinkable anyway.
July 30/08: Representatives of the Turkish and South Korean governments sign the $400 million System Design & Development Memorandum of Understanding, making the Altay tank project a reality. This contract does not include the mass production process. The South Korean Defense Ministry added that:
“The signing of the contract on the ROK-Turkey technology cooperation in tank development is expected to greatly help boost the cooperation between the two countries in the defense industry sector, while the Ministry of Defense and the DAPA plan to provide full support to ensure smooth technology cooperation throughout the entire process of tank development from designing to production and testing.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Lee held ministerial talks with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on July 28/08, in which the two agreed to continue building a cooperative relationship between their militaries…”
See: ROK Ministry of Defense | Otokar Aug 1/08 release | KOIS | Korea Times |Turkish Daily News (beforehand) | Turkish Daily News (post-deal) | Today’s Zaman (Turkey) | Aviation Week Ares | Agence France Presse.
Altay Development MoU
March 2007: According to a resolution adopted at the meeting of the National Defence Executive Committee, the Turkish government decides to begin contract negotiations with Otokar, as the nominee for prime contractor.
February 2007: Bid evaluation process, aiming to appoint the prime contractor, is completed in February 2007.
July 2006: RFP bids are submitted by Otokar’s team, and by the BMC-FNSS Consortium.
FNSS Savunma Sistemleri A.S. makes some of Turkey’s armored personnel carriers; it is a joint venture between BAE Systems and the Turkish Nurol Group. BMC Sanaye Ve Ticaret A.S. makes wheeled vehicles and trucks for the Turkish armed forces, and is part of the large Turkish conglomerate Cukurova Holding.
February 2006: SSM issues the project’s Request for Proposals.
April 2005: Feasibility study complete. The path forward is defined as “designing and development of the main battle tank inside Turkey by getting technical support and assistance from abroad whenever required.”
2005: The Turkish SSM defense procurement agency charges a 3-firm Turkish industrial consortium with a feasibility study to determine the production pattern for the Turkish National Main Battle Tank Project.
- Turkish SSM procurement agency – Turkish National Main Battle Tank Project
- Army Technology – Altay Main Battle Tank, Turkey
- Wikipedia – K2 Black Panther
- Otokar corporate site
- Yonhap news service (May 27/08) – Seoul, Istanbul seal agreement on logistics cooperation. Military logistics, involving security of ammunition supply and other commodities in peace or war. This is an important agreement, and its signature makes the ROK’s status as a major Turkish arms supplier official.