Focus: Small Arms

Running & Gunning

Running & Gunning

Sep. 4, 2013

From humble beginnings, small arms makers have staked out a solid position in Turkey's overall defense industry, with exports the name of the game.

Turkish small arms occupy a significant place in the country's national arsenal, while exports, both to governments and individuals, are the main driver for the growth of domestic manufacturers.

By the time of World War I, the Ottoman Empire's defense manufacturing apparatus was all but defunct. When the British faced off against Ottoman soldiers along the Gallipoli peninsula, they came under fire from mostly German small arms, although the British Maxim machine gun was also used against its creators, delivered to the Turks by German arms manufacturer Deutsche Waffen-und-Munitionsfabriken, which produced it under license. Today, German weapons still make up a large part of the Turkish Armed Forces' (TSK) small arms arsenal, although a domestic industry also contributes significantly to the country's firepower, supplying goods such as side arms, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, and more.This same industry has found a substantial international market of personal buyers, including hunters in countries such as the US.

The Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation (MKEK) is the country's most significant small arms manufacturer, and was re-established in 1950 as an organization of government factories that supply the TSK. MKEK's roots lie in the 1400s, when it was initially founded as the Royal Arsenal, or Tophane-i Amire, and supplied the Ottoman Empire's artillery corps. Today, MKEK consists of 11 factories and one company, and employs over 7,000 staff. MKEK exported goods worth $104.4 million in 2012, with clients in 28 countries on four continents. Half of MKEK's exports were destined for Saudi Arabia, which purchased $52.6 million worth of arms and ammunition from the company. Bahrain was the second largest destination, buying $9.7 million worth of arms, followed by Pakistan with $7.4 million. Other export markets included Argentina, Vietnam, the US, Switzerland, and Thailand. MKEK is also receiving larger orders from the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Turkish Police Department, and the National Intelligence Agency, delivering $289.5 million worth of goods in 2012, with deliveries worth a further $71.6 million expected to be delivered in 2013.

The sector is also heavily populated by private companies, of which one, Roketsan, is producing Turkey's first domestically produced anti-tank missile. The long-range, anti-tank UMTAS missile would not only meet the needs of the TSK, but also be offered to international buyers. The project is part of a push to manufacture more internationally marketable products, rather than import replacements, which was the industry's focus in the past. UMTAS has a range of 8 kilometers and has been designed to operate air-to ground and ground-to-ground, and will be integrated with the Turkish T129 attack helicopter as well as various other helicopters, UAVs, land vehicles, and naval platforms.

On the other side of the fence, companies such as Armsan focus more on individual users and have found significant numbers of customers abroad. “Most export trade in the sector is based on helicopters, tanks, or for example radar systems from government companies," said Şafak Atilla, General Manager of Armsan. “On the other hand, [the] personal firearms sector has a far more individualistic aspect compared to the other portion[s] of the defense market." Armsan began producing smoothbore hunting and sporting shotguns, and has also taken steps into the defense industry, producing defense and tactical shotguns, as well as single-shot, non-lethal smoothbore grenade launchers that can be used in the police and military fields and modular pump action shotguns that can be applied to infantry rifles. While the shotgun sector remains small in the defense sector—the sub-segment is worth $200 million compared to the overall small arms sector's value of $1.5 billion—it forms an important part of the small arms export mix. Armsan produces 3,500 shotguns per month, making it the third largest producer of shotguns in Turkey and the 12th largest company in the defense sector overall. Demand abroad is also keeping Turkish manufacturers busy. “In 2012, 88% of our production was for export, but we are continually increasing our production capacity to meet the demands," said Atilla, but he is also aware of the importance of the domestic market. “Although exports are our core business, we surely don't want to ignore our domestic market, where we have loyal customers. Nevertheless, the international market is giving us more lift for growth," he commented.

As Turkey's defense sector matures, the added bonus of the “Made in Turkey" brand will be a major boon for exporters. “While a decade ago, people weren't as impressed by something that was made in Turkey, now it is a recognized sign for quality," added Atilla, which will help to offset Turkey's higher costs compared to markets such as China. A large Arab market will also provide small arms and ammunition makers plenty of customers in the years to come, while increasingly sophisticated products brighten export prospects across the board.