Monday, April 12, 2010

Israel, Turkey Team to Offer Colombia Tanks

Joint Marketing Effort Belies Deep Diplomatic Rifts By barbara opall-rome Published: 12 April 2010 TEL AVIV - Despite diplomatic differences that threaten the strategic ties between Israel and Turkey, defense and industry leaders from both nations are pushing third-country exports of the jointly refurbished M60A1 main battle tank, beginning with Colombia. In interviews here and in Turkey, officials said a new joint venture between Turkey's procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, or Savunma Sanayi Mustesarligi (SSM), and state-owned Israel Military Industries (IMI) is competing for the South American country's estimated $250 million tank buy. IMI is the prime contractor for the jointly upgraded M60. Related Topics Europe Americas Land Warfare The defense ministries of the two countries approved the joint venture and requisite licensing issues at the height of tensions between the Islamist government of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist coalition government over Israel's early 2009 war in Gaza and disputes over Gaza, Iran and Syria. The joint venture between IMI and Turkey's Aselsan aims for a 50-50 work share based on Israeli electronics, subsystems and weaponry, with the bulk of production and assembly work to take place in Turkey and later under licensed production in customer countries. Both countries last week marked the final delivery of the 170th tank produced under the joint, $687.5 million upgrade program, launched in 2002. Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul presided over the April 7 event, which was attended by hundreds of Turkish civilian, uniformed and industry leaders, as well as Colombian Army leaders. Retired Maj. Gen. Udi Shani, director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and a former tank officer, led the Israeli delegation, which included senior Israeli industry executives and the director of Israel's Merkava Tank Production Office. In an April 7 statement, Israel's MoD said it lent its full support to the eight-year effort, which involved considerable technology transfers and military-to-military sharing of operational, training and logistics concepts. "As an armored corps officer most of my military career, I believe this is the best tank of its kind, and will serve with distinction the Turkish Army as it confronts the challenges ahead," Shani said. He told Gonul and other event attendees the program was based on "knowledge and expertise accrued over decades in support of Israeli requirements. ... We will be able to expand on this in future projects, which will contribute to the security of both our countries." "We're proud of the cooperation nurtured at all levels during the course of this major upgrade effort, and its successful completion will allow for additional opportunities with regard to third-country sales," IMI Managing Director Avi Felder said April 8. Felder confirmed that IMI and its Turkish partners are bidding for the Colombia program, offering what he described as "an advanced, extremely cost-effective front-line main battle tank … in terms of firepower, survivability, maneuverability as well as unit and life-cycle costs." When pressed, Felder estimated that the Israeli-Turkish offer would cost about half that of a new tank such as the U.S. MIA2 Abrams, Germany's Leopard and even Israel's own Merkava Mk4. Kenneth Brower, a defense analyst based in Delray Beach, Fla., questioned Colombia's need for a major tank acquisition program. But if Bogotá is committed to such a purchase, he said, the Turkish-Israeli-upgrade M60 would be an ideal choice: "This is certainly the best of the upgraded tanks in the world." He estimated the price tag for a new Merkava Mk4 at $4 million, while a new Abrams or Leopard would be closer to $9 million. "I estimate the cost of a reconditioned Turk-Israeli M60 at $2.5 million to $3 million, depending on Colombian specifications." With IMI as prime contractor and Elbit Systems a leading Israeli subcontractor, Israel, SSM and industry partners replaced or upgraded all major elements of the original U.S.-built M60. Upgrades include a 120mm cannon and fire-control system, advanced suspension, new hybrid armor and a 1,000-horsepower propulsion system developed by Germany's MTU. An Israeli MoD official noted that the upgraded Israeli-Turkish tank is one of at least four other options now being evaluated by Bogotá, all of which are based on Israeli technology. Other options include upgraded versions of Merkava Mk2 and Mk3 tanks and - less likely due to unit costs - brand-new Mk4s now in production for the Israeli Army. A decision on the Colombia acquisition program is not likely until later this year or early next year, and is likely to include work-sharing and offset agreements, sources here said. Amos Yaron, a former Israeli MoD director-general who approved the bilateral upgrade program, said it showed that mutual interests can sustain and strengthen defense ties, even at a time of political and diplomatic tension. "Our relationship with Turkey is based on common interests, and even though politics can drive us apart, projects like this give us hope that in time, we can return to business as usual," Yaron said. "This cooperative program doesn't have to end with 170 tanks. The Turkish Army has many more M60s, which would make for a very economical investment, and then of course, there's the export market." Yaron and others noted that all third-country exports involving U.S. content would require U.S. export licensing approval. Until now, Israel has never offered a complete Merkava system for export "for our own reasons," he said. ■

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