Murphy's Law: The Agonies Of Altay

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March 10, 2021: In early 2021 Turkey presented an unexpected modification of its German Leopard 2A4 tanks using technology from the new Turkish developed Altay tank. This hybrid consisted of the Leopard 2A4 hull using the turret of the new, and much delayed, Altay tank. This is odd because Turkey only has 345 Leopard 2A4s and wants to build a thousand Altay tanks. It is unclear how well the hybrid Leopard/Altay functions, how much it cost or how many of the are to be procured. Currently Turkey only has about a dozen Altay turrets, most of them used for the Altay prototypes used for development and testing.

What is certain is that production of the Altay has been delayed by German and French arms export sanctions imposed because of Turkish treatment of Kurds in Syria and the 2020 Turkish intervention in the Libyan civil war. The Libyan operation was carried out to get one of the two Libyan factions to sign an agreement giving Turkey access to Libyan offshore waters. This agreement was illegal on several levels but the Turks insist it gives them the right to explore for oil and natural gas in offshore areas that belong to Greece. One of the side-effects of Turkey sending thousands of troops to Libya is that they can no longer obtain essential components for Altay from Germany (engine and transmission) and France (composite armor). Tukey is seeking replacement engines and transmissions from South Korea but has no alternative source of advanced composite armor tech because few countries have developed the technology and produce it. Composite armor was developed in Britain at the Chobham research facility and came to be called Chobham armor. The U.S. developed their own version using some novel new components, like depleted uranium. France has also developed a novel new composite armor technology and expected to export a lot of that expensive (to develop and manufacture) technology. Turkey was one such customer but now that deal is suspended.

Altay is similar to the American M1. Both have a 120mm gun, composite armor, and high-end electronics. The two tanks are so similar because in 2011 Turkey paid South Korea $400 million for rights to much of the technology in the new 55-ton South Korean K2 tank. This vehicle was in turn based on the 1980s K1, which deliberately emulated the M1 design in many ways and did so with the cooperation of the United States. The K1 and K2 proved to be successful designs, and the Turks already had decades of experience maintaining and upgrading American M-60 tanks (the predecessor of the M1). With the addition of the South Korean tech the Altay rapidly took shape. Unfortunately, Altay evolved into a very expensive (over $13 million each) and import dependent “Turkish made tank.” Turkey is trying to develop local sources for tank engines and transmissions but these two components are specialist items for heavy tanks and cheaper to import than build locally. Turkey has already spent nearly a billion dollars developing Altay but the project is endangered by sanctions blocking obtaining key components. In this case China and Russia are no help, although Ukraine did supply APS (Active Protection System) technology that will be used in Altay. Ukraine and Russia can provide some novel new ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) tech and Turkey has used that to upgrade some of its M-60s but Turkey clearly prefers the superior (in many ways) advanced composite armor designs.

This Altay debacle is a major fall from the situation four years ago. In 2017 the Turkish Army successfully completed acceptance tests for the Altay. This tank was similar to the modern American and European tanks and began development in 2008. The Turks wanted to buy a thousand Altays and would acquire them in four lots of 250 each. Not all of them may be needed depending on the regional military-political situation. The Turkish Army currently has about 700 German Leopard 1 and 2 tanks, 900 American M-60s (upgraded by Israel) and 1,300 American M-48s. Most (except for the Leopard 2s) are quite old and need replacing soon. Turkey doesn’t really need 3,000 tanks when half the number of more modern ones would do. Altay is also similar to the Leopard 2s the Turks currently have. Most of the rest are Cold War era tanks and rapidly approaching retirement age. The later German sanctions also blocked Turkey from upgrading its Leopard from the A4 to the superior A7 standard.

The K2 design was attractive to the Turks because it used a number of new electronic defenses. These include a laser detector that will instantly tell the crew the direction the enemy laser beam is coming from. Most tanks use a laser range finder before it fires its main gun. The K2 fire control system also enables the main gun (120mm) to be used to hit low flying aircraft (helicopters, mostly). There are also numerous improvements to the K1 mechanical and electronic systems, as well as more armor, both composite and ERA. This made the K2 (and Altay) easier to use and maintain. An autoloader reduces the crew to three men. The Altay is more heavily armored than the K2 and does not use the auto-loader.

All those stalled Altay plans recently found a potential solution when South Korean firms offered suitable substitutes. South Korea had already developed the powerful tank engine needed for Altay but had some reliability problems with their transmission. This is a key element that enables a powerful engine to move a tank efficiently. Those problems have been fixed to the satisfaction of the Turks but a purchase contract has not been signed yet. Altay still needs someone to replace the French composite armor. South Korean composite army is of a different design than what Turkey was obtaining from the French and it is unclear if using South Korean heavy tank armor is even under serious consideration. What may kill the Altay project is cost. Since 2017 the per-tank cost has doubled as more tech was added or component costs increased. A new tank is not crucial to Turkish defense but relations with foreign suppliers of military tech is.

 


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