A Comprehensive Defense Partnership: Interpreting Türkiye’s Role in Bangladesh’s Military Modernization Drive

On the 2024 Global Firepower Index, Bangladesh ranks 37th among 145 states of the world. In the previous year, the country ranked 40th on the Index, so this is an improvement for the country’s position. Over the previous decade, Bangladesh’s position on the index has consistently improved, and this is explained by the country’s ongoing military modernization drive. In this endeavor, several defense partners have cooperated with Bangladesh, and Türkiye holds a prominent place among these partners.

Historically, the predecessor states of Bangladesh and Türkiye shared extensive political, military, economic and cultural relations. Turkic peoples played an instrumental role in the politics of Bengal between the 13th and 18th centuries. During the 15th century, the Bengal Sultanate developed expansive maritime trade ties with the Ottoman Empire. Bengali Muslims held the Ottoman Empire in high regard owing to the Ottoman Sultans’ assumption of the Muslim Caliphate. Accordingly, Bengali Muslims enthusiastically participated in the Khilafat Movement in 1919–1922 which sought to oppose the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War.

During the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971, Türkiye backed Pakistan, but recognized Bangladesh’s independence on 22 February 1974 and established diplomatic relations with Bangladesh in 1976. In the early 2010s, Turkish–Bangladeshi ties were strained owing to strong Turkish opposition to the war crimes trials in Bangladesh. But the ties recovered due to staunch Bangladeshi support for the Turkish government in the wake of the failed Turkish coup d’etat in 2016 and the vigorous Turkish support for Bangladesh with regard to the Rohingya crisis. At present, Dhaka and Ankara share comprehensive diplomatic ties, Turkish–Bangladeshi bilateral trade amounts to approximately $1 billion, and Türkiye has provided Bangladesh with strong diplomatic and humanitarian support with regard to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Turkish ‘soft power’ in Bangladesh has also grown in recent years, primarily owing to the massive popularity of Turkish historical drama series in the country.

Under these circumstances, Dhaka and Ankara have developed comprehensive military ties, with particular focus on the procurement of advanced weaponry, military training, and technology transfer. Bangladesh is seeking to modernize its military under Forces Goal 2030, while Türkiye wants to expand the market for its burgeoning defense industry. Accordingly, the two countries have constructed a mutually beneficial military partnership.

Historical Precedent

Military cooperation between the two countries can be dated back to centuries ago. During the 17th century, shipyards in Chattogram reportedly constructed an entire fleet of warships for the sprawling Ottoman Navy. Bengali author and poet Syed Ismail Hossain Siraji served as a volunteer in the All-India Medical Mission, which provided medical aid to Ottoman troops in Istanbul (then Constantinople) during the during the First Balkan War (1912–1913). During the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1923), Bengalis raised funds for the Turkish nationalists to assist their struggle for independence. Hence, military cooperation between the Bengalis and the Turks is a historical phenomenon, which has been revitalized in the 21st century.

With a strong military and an advanced military industry, Türkiye ranks 8th on the 2024 Global Firepower Index. Türkiye exports various types of military equipment, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), air defense systems, electronic warfare systems, naval vessels, helicopters, and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), to dozens of states. Türkiye also provides standardized training to military personnel from numerous states, and undertakes joint defense production projects with other states. Accordingly, Turkish–Bangladeshi defense partnership is primarily based on three pillars – procurement of advanced weaponry, provision of military training, and prospects for technology transfer.

Procurement of Advanced Weaponry

Bangladeshi military analysts view Turkish-made weapons as reliable, modern, and relatively cheap. Since the mid-2010s, Bangladesh has imported at least 15 types of military equipment from Turkey. Over the previous years, Bangladesh has emerged as the 4th largest market for Turkish military equipment. The Bangladesh Army currently operates the Turkish-made Otokar Kobra II infantry mobility vehicles (IMVs) and mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, Otokar Kobra I light armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), RN-94 armored ambulances, TRG-300 Tiger MLRS, TRG-230 surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs), and last but not the least, Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs. In addition, Bangladesh has purchased ground surveillance radars and a portable jammer from Türkiye. Also, Bangladesh has awarded a contract to build offshore patrol vessels for the Bangladesh Coast Guard (BCG) to the Antalya-based Ares Shipyard. Türkiye has also agreed to sell automatic guided artillery shells to Bangladesh, and is interested in supplying the latter with tanks and helicopters.

Through importing advanced military equipment from Türkiye, Bangladesh is modernizing its armed forces under the Forces Goal 2030. Also, the Bangladesh Armed Forces have traditionally relied on Chinese-made weapons, hence the infusion of Turkish weapons is helping diversify the sources of weapons for them. In addition, Bangladesh is the top troop-contributing country (TCC) to United Nations (UN) peace operations, and the acquisition of modern Turkish military equipment enhances the capabilities of Bangladeshi UN peacekeepers. Moreover, a number of Turkish equipment, including Kobra II IFVs, TRG-300 Tiger MLRS and Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs, are battle-tested, and so they provide Bangladesh with new operational-tactical and even strategic capabilities.

For instance, Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs have achieved significant combat successes in numerous battlefields, including Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Mali. The medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UCAV has proved particularly successful in monitoring and striking insurgent groups and semi-state military formations. At present, Bangladesh is facing a low-level insurgency by the Kuki-Chin National Army (KNA) in the Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT). Moreover, Bangladesh’s southeastern neighbour Myanmar is currently embroiled in a complex civil war, and neighboring northeast Indian states are witnessing increasing unrest. In such a situation, Turkish-made UCAVs can help Bangladesh in dealing with both the KNA and the potential threats coming from the restive neighbouring regions. Furthermore, these UCAVs can provide Bangladeshi UN peacekeeping contingents with enhanced reconnaissance and security capabilities.

Provision of Military Training

At present, Türkiye provides specialized training to thousands of Bangladeshi military and security personnel. Since the late 2010s, around 3,000 Bangladeshi military officers have received specialized training in Turkey. After Bangladesh purchased Turkish-made TRG-300 Tiger MLRS, 41 Bangladeshi personnel received training for operating the system in Türkiye in 2021. In 2023, seven teams from the Bangladesh’s Special Security Force (SSF), the Bangladesh Police, and the Bangladesh Ansar were trained in Türkiye. Thus, Türkiye is helping the process of professionalization of the Bangladeshi military and security institutions.

Prospects for Technology Transfer

In December 2020, then Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Bangladesh and commented on Türkiye’s interests in joint production of military equipment and sharing military technology with Bangladesh. On several occasions, Türkiye has either provided Bnagladesh with military technological support or promised to do so. For instance, Türkiye has provided technological assistance to the Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory (BMTF) in manufacturing artillery shells. Meanwhile, the Khulna Shipyard Limited is constructing three diving support boats based on Turkish designs for the Bangladesh Navy. Also, Türkiye has proposed to provide Bangladesh with the technological know-how to build patrol boats for the Bnagladesh Navy and the BCG.

Bangladesh has a nascent defense industry. The growing instability around Bangladesh’s borders, the activities of insurgent groups inside its territory, and the necessity to protect the country’s sovereign maritime territory necessitate the build-up of the country’s land and air forces and the construction of a blue-water navy. Accordingly, indigenization of military production is necessary for Dhaka. The acquisition of Turkish military technology would assist the country in developing its defense industry further to meet the goals of its military modernization. Also, not every major arms producing state is interested in technology transfer, so Türkiye’s offer is a rare one in this regard.

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

The emergence of a multipolar world and the intensification of geopolitical struggle in the Indo-Pacific region have the potential to generate new threats and challenges to Bangladesh. The country needs to build up a strong defensive capability to deal with such threats and challenges. Through the export of advanced military equipment, the training of Bangladeshi security personnel, and the real and potential transfer of Turkish military technology to Bangladesh, Türkiye is providing Bangladesh substantial assistance in developing such defensive capabilities. On the other hand, with its growing economic muscle, Bangladesh is a lucrative market for the Turkish defense industry. Hence, the mutually beneficial and comprehensive Turkish–Bangladeshi defense partnership is likely to proceed continually and has the potential to expand into a full-fledged strategic partnership in the future.

[Photo of Mahdi Sling, via Wikimedia Commons]

Md. Himel Rahman is a post-graduate student of Security Studies at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, and a freelance analyst on international and strategic affairs. His articles have been published on The Diplomat, the South Asian Voices, The Geopolitics, the Eurasia Review, The Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Observer, and other platforms. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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