Learnings on comparative defense-industrial strategy during lunch two NATO defense ministry officials

Last week the Atlantic Council hosted senior defense-industrial officials from Germany and Turkey for discussions about their evolving plans. Taking the time to reread their biographies, we remembered that some of NATO’s member states are clearly finding accomplished people to run military materiel management. But while the backgrounds of these two officials are similarly impressive, their approaches to industrial strategy are very different.

Last Thursday, the Council hosted an address by and a luncheon for İsmail Demir, the Turkish under secretary for defense industries (SSM), on “Turkey’s Defense-Industrial Policy,” as part of our ongoing Defense-Industrial Policy Series. Demir is charged with modernizing, as much as practicable, the Turkish armed forces from domestic sources. He came to the job after serving as general manager of aircraft repair and overhaul firm Turkish Technic. Earlier he had earned master’s degrees in applied mechanics at Michigan and aerospace engineering at Purdue, and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Washington State.

The Turks, he recounted, have been at this defense-industrialization thing since the late 1970s, and today’s priorities are diffuse. Foremost in demand is a ground-based air and missile defense system, as Turkey still depends entirely on the Patriot batteries of NATO allies. Meanwhile, Turkish industry builds MEKO 200 frigates and Type 209 submarines under license from Germany, and all manner of tracked and wheeled armored vehicles to local designs. The SSM has ongoing concern about Turkish industry’s absorptive capacity for new technologies, but its capabilities for supply continue to broaden. For the past five years, the US government has denied General Atomics an export license to Turkey for the MQ-9 Reaper. So two private Turkish firms developed the Bayraktar TB2 drone, armed with a miniaturized smart munition from Rokesan. Eventually, Turkey wants an indigenous fighter jet too—just after first participating in the the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

Also last Thursday, we hosted a luncheon for Katrin Suder, the German state secretary for defense, to discuss the Bundeswehr’s new Cyber Corps. I had the opportunity to meet her the day prior during a working lunch on broader topics to which the CSIS had graciously invited me. Suder is responsible for policy, planning, and procurement across the German armed forces. She came to her job after many years as a partner at McKinsey, eventually managing the firm’s public sector practice in Germany. Prior to becoming a management consultant, she had earned a PhD in computational neuroscience from the University of Bochum. Along the way, there were bachelor’s degrees in both physics and German literature and theatre—a combination remarkably similar to that of US Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

Germany’s new military-industrial strategy has just a handful of priorities, considerably reduced from the expansive plans of only a few years ago. Today, these are led by both demand from the military and the particular capabilities of supply in German industry. The troops particularly have need for better systems for command & control, reconnaissance, and soldier protection. In the last respect, the continuing German enthusiasm for the 360-degree capability of the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) comes from their experience of omnidirectional threats in Afghanistan. But a few of the defense ministry’s industrial priorities are driven forward by what German industry does well—most notably tanks and submarines. True, the Royal Australian Navy will be getting its future boats from DCNS of France, but Berlin had otherwise never really discussed security matters with Canberra. As my colleague Magnus Nordenman might say, Germany’s first way of shaping Asian security is with arms sales. Having globally competitive, lethal tools to offer wins the country a seat at the table.

But wait—a Turkish, post-JSF fighter jet? Who else is thinking of that, except in the vaguest way? Well, at least two other countries have serious programs: South Korea and Japan, both industrially impressive places with pent-up potential for arms exports. The phenomenon is what Joe Katzman has called the Hyundaization of the global arms industry, in which up-and-coming countries expand market shares through production of good enough weapons at impressive prices. Richard Bitzinger has cautioned us to hold the hype, because plenty of countries will continue to want the latest, greatest, and most JSF-like thing. But this is one of the reasons that the Germans have become more targeted in their national military-industrial strategy. They may continue to dominate segments of the industry, just not every segment in which they have long participated. Meanwhile, the American foreign military sales process grinds along at the speed of Washington, but not at the speed of either modern technology or allies’ emerging security needs.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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