The decline of the Turkish Air Force

Turkey is trying to compete in the air military industry in a context of clear military inferiority after no longer counting with US aid

PHOTO/Servicio de Prensa de la Presidencia vía AP  -   Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter pilot inside his plane from the capital Ankara

Following Turkey's expulsion from the F-35 programme enacted by the United States, the Ottoman country finds itself in a situation of clear inferiority compared to its neighbours. Washington suspended the sale of F-35 aircraft to Turkey after Ankara's purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-missile system in 2019 instead of the US Patriot systems. The US first imposed a sanctions regime on Turkey, but there was no reaction from the Ottoman country. Washington then proceeded to expel Turkey from the programme, leaving Turkey in a delicate situation. According to NATO, these missiles would be incompatible with its premises. Moreover, the US argues that Russia is sending these Russian missiles to obtain classified details of the Lockheed Martin F-35 II aircraft, which will not serve the Turkish army after their removal from the programme. 

PHOTO/MURAT CETINMUHURDAR - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses for a photo in front of a drone at a military airbase in Batman, Turkey.

Turkey currently has F-16 aircraft, but the country does not have the capacity to modernise the models. The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons are multi-role fighters with outstanding power. However, the US has decided to replace these models until their service finally ends in 2025. They will be replaced by the fifth-generation Lockeed Martin F-35 Lighting II. Now, with Turkey's expulsion from the US programme, Ankara is executing an arms race to develop its home-grown fighter, the TF-X (Turquish Force Experimental), an aircraft designed for an air-to-air role. This project is expected to see the light of day in 2023, coinciding with the centenary of the Turkish state, an ambitious premise given that the US, which has superior weapons technology, expects to be able to launch its new F-35 IIs in 2025, two years ahead of Turkey.  According to Erdogan, 'this is the best response to those who threaten to end Turkey's participation in the F-35 programme'. 

PHOTO/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA DE TURQUÍA - Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar poses for photos in front of an F-16 fighter jet at a military air base in the western city of Eskisehir.

However, the fact is that the TF-X does not have the strength of the major powers' aerospace industry and will not have even the slightest US support. But how did Turkey arrive at this substitution of military inferiority in the air? The reason goes back to 15 July 2016, when members of the Turkish army "allegedly" rose up against Erogan's Islamist government. The Turkish army has a long history of overthrowing governments, including four successful coups between 1960 and 1967, but the uprising in 2016 was anecdotal in comparison. Army soldiers tried to block roads on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, but only in one direction. Videos and audiovisual content published by show how the soldiers, equipped with Leopard tanks, were systematically surrendering to police and civilians.

Skeptics dismiss the operation as a fake as Erdogan took advantage of the "coup" to crush non-religious Turkish army generals and proceeded to dismiss them with military officers sympathetic to Erdogan's party. Analysts claim that this "uprising" was the perfect excuse for Erdogan to take matters into his own hands and carry out a purge of the army. 

AFP/ ADEM ALTAM - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses in front of the 16 soldiers representing the 16 Turkish states founded in history.

The coup was dismantled in less than an hour and Erdogan implemented a series of measures that involved the expulsion of numerous high-ranking officers and non-commissioned officers from the army. This further strengthened Erdogan's government and the Justice and Development Party, AKP for short, a social conservative, Islamist-leaning political force that has imprisoned numerous journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 200 journalists and media workers have been imprisoned in Turkey since the coup attempt. In addition, in 2020 alone, at least 48 journalists spent a day in police custody for reporting on the fate of Syrian refugees, the situation of COVID in the country or for covering the Kurdish issue, among other reasons.

The truth is that after the purge, Turkey does not have enough officers to fly the planes and does not have enough capable aircraft to threaten and compete with the other powers. Turkey has thus tried to turn to foreign pilots to make up for this shortfall. However, the situation is clear. On the one hand, Washington will not send flight instructors, not only because of its "punishment" of Turkey for buying Russian missiles, but also because it is assumed that pilot training in the US costs around 11 million dollars. 

REUTERS/EDDIE KEOGH - An RAF F-35B Lightning fighter jet flies over the English Channel during exercise "Point Blank".

Similarly, Turkey has asked Pakistan for help, although the Pakistani army also flies F-16s and is in violation of US arms export rules. Analysts say Turkey has a severe shortage of air marshals following the mass expulsion of air marshals after the 2016 coup attempt. In addition, it continues to work to modernise the F-16s, the aircraft that would currently form the backbone of the air corps.

Faced with this situation, Turkey has begun to implement measures in extremis. According to a report by the Atlantic Council, "Turkey has issued a decree threatening 330 pilots with revocation of their civilian pilot's licence unless they return to air force service for four years". This move comes on top of Erdogan's rapprochement with Russia, despite the fact that the Russian air force fought directly against Turkey in the Syrian civil war. On one of Erdogan's visits to Russia, the Turkish president accompanied by Putin examined a Su-57 fighter, a state-of-the-art ground-attack fighter. Such visits reveal that Erdogan may already be collaborating with Russia and its powerful aeronautics. 

AFP PHOTO / CROWN COPYRIGHT 2020 / MOD / LPhot BARRY SWAINSBURY - British Royal Air Force (RAF) and Turkish Air Force personnel unloading personal protective equipment (PPE) from a Turkish Air Force A400M aircraft.

Turkey has signed an agreement with French-Italian missile manufacturer Eurosam to develop a long-range anti-aircraft missile. In this vein, Turkish analyst Verda Ozer argues that the 'reduction in the number of F-16 pilots created the need to develop our air defence'. This is why Turkey would have bought the S-400s. In this sense, Turkey would need two systems: the S-400 to shoot down hostile aircraft and the Eurosam weapon to intercept ballistic missiles.

On the one hand, the Turkish air force would thus find itself without US aeronautical equipment, which would leave Turkey without important technological advances. On the other hand, it has the F-16s but not enough capacity to actually modernise them. Accordingly, it has begun the race for its own production of TF-Xs, strong aircraft that are not competitive with other military powers. 

AP/VADIM GHIRDA - NF-5 fighter jets of the Turkish Stars, Turkey's national aerobatics team, fly at the Bucharest International Air Show, or BIAS 2018, in Bucharest, Romania.

Turkey's rapprochement with Russia foreshadows future cooperation, as meetings have been taking place and the Ottoman country needs reinforcements in its military industry. Over the coming months we will see how the military context in the region evolves in order to try to predict Turkey's next strategy for establishing the country as a military power that is competitive with the rest of the forces of the different states.