Turkey rises as Pakistan's strategic ally with warships' deal

MiLGEM A MiLGEM corvette of the Turkish Navy | Undersecretariat for Defence Industries, Government of Turkey

Barely a month after Turkey's ruling AK Party announced the country had signed a deal to supply 30 attack helicopters to Pakistan, the country on Thursday announced another major arms deal with Islamabad.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli as saying Turkey will supply four corvettes (small multi-role warships) to Pakistan's Navy, a deal which he described as the country's “biggest single” military export order.

While the value of the deal was not announced, Turkish media reports claim it was in the vicinity of $1 billion. The Pakistan Navy had been interested in Turkey's MiLGEM corvettes, of which at least four are in service with the Turkish Navy.

The MiLGEM corvettes, which displace around 2,500 tonnes and are about 100 metres long, primarily carry American surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles and a mix of indigenous and European origin electronics. Given the state of US-Pakistan ties under President Donald Trump, it is unclear whether Pakistan will stick to using the American weapons in service with Turkey on its MiLGEM ships or opt for Chinese alternatives. The first two MiLGEM vessels are expected to built in Istanbul, while the last two will be built under licence in Karachi.

The MiLGEM purchase follows in the wake of Pakistan's purchase of Chinese frigates over the past decade to replace its ageing fleet of British and US-built 'hand-me-down' ships, which have seen over 30 years of service. In 2016, Pakistan announced it would purchase eight Chinese submarines, marking a shift from its reliance on French submarines over the past four decades.

The MiLGEM contract comes after Turkey announced in late May it was selling Pakistan 30 T-129 attack helicopters, which are a derivative of an Italian design. Earlier this year, a Turkish company also won a contract to modernise Pakistan's French-designed Agosta 90B class submarines, highlighting Islamabad's continuing strategic shift away from the West.

Pakistan and Turkey have enjoyed close ties for decades, dating back to the defunct Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) pact of the 1950s to curb the spread of communism. However, the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seen the Turkish defence industry get a fillip. Erdogan has set a goal of attaining “self-sufficiency” in arms manufacturing by 2023, with Turkey planning to build a stealth fighter and aircraft carrier by the next decade.

Given the mutual distrust of the US in both countries and Erdogan's desire to increase the Turkish defence industry's visibility, the MiLGEMs and T-129s may just be the start of more arms sales to Pakistan.