In October 2021 South Korea signed a letter of intent to break EU sanctions on Turkey to supply engines and transmissions for the new Turkish Altay tank. The sanctions were imposed on Turkey because of their bad behavior in Syria since 2016 and against NATO ally Greece in Libya since 2019. Those sanctions meant that Turkey could not import essential components for Altay from Germany (engine and transmission) and France (composite armor). Tukey immediately began 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 export 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.
South Korea was willing to supply the engines and transmissions but had to consult with its Western allies, especially the United States, if this deal would cause problems for the Americans. The U.S. had cooperated with South Korea in the development of their K1 and K2 tanks and is a major ally of South Korea, which is threatened by North Korea and China.
Altay is similar to the American M1 as 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 was now 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 in 2017 when the Turkish Army successfully completed acceptance tests for the Altay. This tank 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. Turkey also plans to develop an unmanned version of Altay once all current problems are solved.
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 like 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 several 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 rangefinder before firing the 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 since 2019, Altay found a potential solution during 2020 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 and a purchase contract or letter of intent was expected before the end of 2021.
Altay still needs someone to replace the French composite armor. The 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 are.