ANKARA (Reuter) — Turkey’s plans to modernize its military–the second largest in NATO–were boosted Thursday with the signing of helicopter deals worth $543 million with the French-German group Eurocopter and the US firm Sikorsky.
"With the signing of these contracts with Eurocopter and Sikorsky our armed forces will have taken a concrete step towards modernization for the future," Yalcin Burcak–Turkey’s defense industry undersecretary–said at a ceremony before the accords were initialed.
Governmen’s in the West are concerned about an arms race in the eastern Mediterranean. The latest accords are part of Turkey’s aim to accelerate annual military spending to about $5 billion from around $2.5-3.0 billion as part of a $150 billion program to the year 2030.
Turkey’s arch-rival Greece plans around $8.5 billion in military spending by the year 2000. The two countries are in dispute over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea and the divided island of Cyprus.
The Eurocopter deal to build 30 Cougar helicopters from 1999 to 2002 is part of an attempt to foster Turkey’s domestic defense industry and reach ambitious targets for development of the armed forces.
Turkey’s state defense company Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and other Turkish firms will account for 30 percent of the $430 million deal with Eurocopter–owned by French state-run Aerospatiale and Germany’s Daimler-Benz Aerospace.
"In this way–technology will be acquired–savings will be made and work possibilities will be created for our industry," Defense Minister Turhan Tayhan said at the signing ceremony.
Most of the Cougars will be search-and-rescue aircraft–some armed.
In a separate $113 million deal with United Technology Corp.’s Sikorsky Aircraft unit–the Turkish navy will also buy four Sikorsky Sea Hawk helicopters–with Hellfire rockets–over three years.
Turkey’s military spending plans have been plagued by controversy over the purchase in the United States of helicopter gunships.
The US Congress last year blocked the sale of 10 Cobra attack helicopters to Turkey in concern over their possible use against Kurds fighting a 12-year-old liberation struggle in the mountainous southeast region of Turkey.
In November–Turkey said it was canceling the Cobra order. More than 21,000 people have died in the armed struggle between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party.
The Washington-based Human Rights Watch has said in a report that the Eurocopter order– among Turkey’s plans this year to reach accords for 100 military aircraft–would further increase tension over arms sales in the eastern Mediterranean.
Tensions with Greece were exacerbated earlier this year by a row over Greek Cypriot plans to deploy Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles on Cyprus. Turkey has threatened to use force to prevent the deployment.
According to data published by the Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)–the Turkish armed forces are 639,000 strong with more than 4,000 tanks and more than 400 combat aircraft. Greek armed forces total 168,300–with 1,735 tanks and 388 combat aircraft.