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The Current Situation and Future Expectations of The Turkish Air Force

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Turkey is a significant NATO member located at the gateway between Europe and the Middle East. Its geographical environment is abounding in airborne and ballistic missile threats from neighboring countries. The Turkish Air Force (TurAF) has played a critical role in Turkey’s defense needs.

Modern aircraft, air and missile defense systems, and long-range bombs, as well as well-trained and experienced personnel, are all essential components of a competent air force. TurAF’s most pressing challenge is maintaining its capabilities and capacity following the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Thousands of officers and non-commissioned officers were purged from the TurAF as a result of the coup attempt, most of them without depending on a court decision. Fighter pilots, the majority of whom had years of experience, were the hardest hit by the purges. TurAF quickly lost its pilots, going from 1300 to fewer than 400 within two years. The pilot-to-cockpit ratio dropped from over 2.5 pilots per aircraft to just under 0.8 (for the F-16, this ratio is about 0.5). This ratio is important to ensure that pilots get enough rest between flights without impacting the Air Force’s operational tempo.

In 2017, the Turkish Ministry of Defense planned to reactivate the pilot pool by bringing back resigned and retired pilots. Turkey had issued a decree threatening 300 pilots with the revocation of their civilian pilot’s license unless they returned to air force service for four years. This compulsory recall was the most drastic step so far in Turkey’s scramble to plug a gaping at the air force.[1] However, the participation of elderly pilots who have been away from the air force for many years cannot remedy the weakening of the command and operational capabilities of the TurAF. It takes at least 4-5 years for a fighter pilot to complete basic flight training and then become an experienced pilot in fleets. Therefore, the experienced pilot-to-cockpit ratio in the air force is still insufficient.

TurAF pilots are flying longer hours to maintain the level of combat operations against PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) militants, as well as patrols over the Aegean Sea and along the borders with Syria and Iraq. TurAF does not have enough instructors and experienced pilots, both of which are necessary for pilot training and recently graduated fighter pilots to gain the requisite number of flight hours in the operational units. Active and experienced fighter pilot shortages will reach a critical level after the resignations and retirement petitions of pilots in a few years.

The TurAF operates squadrons of fourth-generation F-16 C/D and obsolete F-4 Phantom 2020 in its operations. Today, the TurAF has a total of 238 F-16 C/D (Block 30/40/50/50+ models) and 30 F-4 Phantom 2020 aircraft in its inventory. Depending on their modifications, the majority of them will have to be phased out during the next two decades. Turkey definitely needs to modernize its old planes and acquire modern 5th generation fighters to replace its aging squadrons as soon as possible.

Turkey, once a partner in the F-35 program and set to buy 100 F-35A conventional takeoff-and-landing models, was expelled from the program after accepting delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The US has objected to Turkey buying the S-400 system, saying that operating it alongside the F-35 would compromise the fighter’s hi-tech secrets. The US has repeatedly announced that it will not allow F-35s to operate in the airspace where the Russian S-400 system is active. Finally, in April 2021, the US Department of Defense officially notified Ankara of Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program due to Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions.[2]

Turkey’s defense sector played a prominent role in the development and manufacture of the F-35. Turkish suppliers made more than 900 parts for the F-35. At first, these parts will be picked up by American suppliers, but they will be open to other partner nations in the months ahead. The US remains in active consultations with Turkey over resolving an ongoing row concerning Ankara’s expulsion from the F-35 program.

Turkey increasingly looks to its own national arms industry to meet its military needs. In order to meet TurAF requirements beyond the 2030s, an indigenous design and development TF-X program aims to replace the aging F-16 fleet of TurAF.[3] The aim of the TF-X project is to develop an aircraft that has the features of the 5th generation combat aircraft, such as low detection, sensor fusion, advanced AESA radar, communications, electronic warfare systems, and high aerodynamic performance. The TF-X aircraft is planned to be kept operational in the TurAF inventory until the 2070s and will be interoperable with other critical assets of the TurAF. The TF-X aircraft will be a multi-role fighter. It will be designed primarily for air-to-air missions, with consideration given to air-to-surface missions as well. The realization of the TF-X project depends on the successful management of some huge risks, such as technological deficiencies, staff shortages, cost and budget constraints, timeline, etc. Yet, even under the most optimistic timeline, this aircraft is not expected to be operationally ready until the mid-2030s. In previous plans, TurAF had expected to replace F-16s with an order of 100 F-35s. In this case, Turkey has very few options for compensating for the gap in air capabilities between today and the potential delivery of the TF-X. Turkey could have to make a hasty purchase of new fighter jets in a short time.

Turkey has invested in the $1.4 billion F-35 joint fighter jet program and it is currently in talks with the US government over compensation for the amount.[4] Turkey submitted a request to purchase new F-16s and some modernization kits after the process of expelling them from the F-35 program in 2021. In this direction, there are ongoing negotiations between Turkey and the US regarding the potential purchase of 40 F-16V “Block 70 Viper” fighters and the modernization of up to 80 Turkish F-16s.[5] The deal is potentially worth $6 billion. Any deal struck between the US and Turkey for this procurement will continue to be fraught with difficulty. The failure to obtain approval from the US Congress is the deal’s most serious challenge. Democratic and Republican US lawmakers urged President Joe Biden’s administration not to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey and said they were confident Congress would block any such exports in October 2021.[6]

The new F-16V draws much of its technology from the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It offers the F-35’s advanced combat capabilities in a scalable and affordable package. But, most notably, the F-16V is the first of its type with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. This is the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 scalable agile beam radar (SABR) based on technology from the F-35’s APG-81. These two radars have more than 90% software partnership and more than 70% hardware partnership.[7] Additionally, the new F-16V has more advanced capabilities that the US may be unwilling to sell to Turkey due to the S-400 air defense systems. US concerns stem from the fact that this sale could put sensitive information and technology at risk. If the US rejects the sale of the F-16V, Turkey will likely have to purchase fighters from other countries, including Russia.[8]

Turkey has been conducting air defense almost solely with aircraft for a long time because the TurAF continues to operate obsolete air defense systems. Not only air defense but also missile defense has been a security issue for Turkey recently. Therefore, Turkey started Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system procurement in the mid-2000s as well. Competing bids for the Turkish T-LORAMIDS (Turkish Long Range Air and Missile Defense System) contract were placed by US firm Raytheon with the Patriot, Franco-Italian firm Eurosam with the SAMP/T, and the Chinese CPMIEC Corporation with the FD-2000 (HQ-9). Turkey also requested joint production and technology transfer from candidate companies. The winner was declared a Chinese CPMIEC corporation, which offered a price of $3.4 billion in 2013.[9]Despite the Chinese win, the Presidency of Defense Industries never excluded European and US contenders. Finally, in November 2015, Turkey canceled this procurement and made the decision to launch its own project to develop the system.[10]

Turkey signed a contract with Russia to acquire the S-400 air defense missile system in 2017. The S-400 is Russia’s most advanced long-range anti-aircraft missile system, with the capacity to carry three types of missiles that can destroy ballistic and cruise missiles as well. Under a deal that is almost complete, Russia will sell Turkey two systems (four batteries) of S-400 surface-to-air missiles for $2.5 billion. The first system, two batteries of the S-400, was deployed at Murted Air Base near Ankara in 2019. Therefore, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate, its chief Ismail Demir and three other employees in December 2020.[11] In an interview with American broadcaster CBS News on September 26, 2021, Turkish President Erdoğan said Turkey would make its own choices on its defense systems. Erdoğan has also said that Turkey would consider buying a new batch of Russian missile systems despite US opposition.[12] The US also continues to threaten to impose new sanctions on Turkey if it buys more major weapons systems from Russia. Despite these threats, negotiations regarding the delivery of the second system between Russia and Turkey are still ongoing.

Turkey took a critical S-400 decision without taking into account the security concerns expressed by other members of the NATO alliance. NATO insisted the Russian technology was not compatible with the evolving ballistic missile shield being built in Europe.[13] Officials in the US also argued that Russia’s missile defense system would be incompatible with NATO systems, exposing the country’s fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet to possible Russian espionage.[14] Turkey has consistently emphasized that the S-400 will be used as a completely independent (stand-alone) platform and that it would pose no threat to the alliance’s interests or its armaments.[15] The stand-alone platform means it will not be integrated with any of the early warning, command and control, communications, or intelligence segments of NATO systems. The most important condition for the safe use of air and missile defense systems is that they work in integration with national and NATO command and control systems. Stand-alone usage will limit the operation of the long-range S-400 system and pose a great danger to friendly and civilian aircraft in the airspace. In addition, it is not possible for Turkey to intercept ballistic missiles without early warning from NATO either. In this case, the S-400 system will not be able to be used safely, effectively, and actively in air and missile defense by the TurAF.

Turkey is looking to have an integrated and complex layered air and missile defense system, which will be developed and built up by national firms. Turkish defense companies such as Aselsan, Roketsan, and the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey design, develop, and produce air defense missile systems for defensive purposes, such as the Hisar and Siper families.[16] Turkey successfully tested the long-range indigenous Siper Controlled Test Missile (CTM) version in November 2021.[17] The CTM is not equipped with a live seeker or a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) in the tail section. The Siper Air Defense System is planned to enter the inventory in 2023.[18] However, considering that the mid-range Hisar project was developed in 10 years, there is a very long development, testing, and production process to be taken in the long-range Siper project. Considering its current situation, it is unlikely to be completed before at least five years.

The tension between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean has escalated rapidly since the new hydrocarbon deposits were discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean. The airspace and sea problems in the Aegean Sea from the past were added to the maritime jurisdiction problem in the Mediterranean Sea. Greece is continuing a new comprehensive armament program in a bid for military superiority against Turkey in recent years.

The Greek Air Force operates 229 combat aircraft, including 32 F-16 Block 30, 38 F-16 Block 50, 54 F-16 Block 52+, 30 F-16 Block 52+ Advanced, 42 Mirage 2000, and 33 F-4E. In 2017, Greece started the FMS (Foreign Military Sales) process with the US to upgrade its 84 F-16 Block 52+/52+ Advanced aircraft to the F-16V (Block 72 Viper) level. The F-16V will be capable of operating alongside 5th generation aircraft. In January 2021, Athens placed an order for 18 of the Rafael fighters, 12 of them second-hand, in a 2.5-billion-euro deal.[19] In September 2021, the Greek Prime Minister revealed plans to acquire an additional 6 Rafael fighters.[20] Greece also sent a letter of request to the Pentagon to buy 18 to 24 new or used F-35s in 2020.[21] Moreover, Greece has quite a formidable air and missile defense system. Thus, Greece aims to establish airspace superiority against Turkey with new aircraft purchases in a short time.

The Turkish Air Force operates 268 combat aircraft, including 36 F-16 Block 30, 102 F-16 Block 40, 71 F-16 Block 50, 29 F-16 Block 50+ and 30 F-4E/2020. Under the current political and economic conditions, it seems very difficult for Turkey to purchase new 5th generation combat aircraft in a short time. Turkey maintains a program to extend the structural life of Block 30 F-16s, but this program may not close the gap between the Turkish and Greek air forces. Due to the S-400 procurement, Turkey is facing obstacles to buying 40 F-16V Block 70 and modernizing its other aging F-16 fleet. In addition to this situation, operational effectiveness has decreased due to the high number of purged staff and pilots after the July 15 coup attempt. Thus, in a few years, Turkey could lose its airspace superiority to Greece. At best, it will take at least one decade to regain airspace superiority.

As a result, in addition to political developments and increasing security risks, the ongoing regional arms race has also led to increased threats to Turkish airspace. It is not possible for the Turkish Air Force to regain its former power in the short term. Compensating for the knowledge and operational experience of the personnel lost in recent years remains the biggest problem facing the air force. In addition, there is not yet an adequate and efficient air and missile defense system in the inventory. 

Although some recovery is expected in the medium term, risks such as the shortage of trained and experienced personnel, the need to acquire 5th generation fighter aircraft, the modernization necessity of obsolete aircraft, and possible US sanctions or restrictions increase uncertainty for TurAF. The pilot-to-cockpit ratio is not expected to return to its previous ratio before the 2030s.

In the long term, the realization of national projects such as the TF-X and the Siper Air Defense System projects will take a long time, and the uncertainty will continue as to whether they will achieve the desired performance. The technologies associated with the development of such strategic systems are critical. Due to their strategic importance, it is not possible to share or transfer them. In addition, Turkey has been facing economic problems in recent years. If economic fluctuations continue in the upcoming period, it will become more costly for Turkey to develop or procure 5th generation aircraft and long-range SAM systems.

From a political perspective, the purchase of more Russian weapon systems that are not compatible with NATO systems will increase interoperability and integration problems. In addition, Turkey will find itself in a more difficult political scenario with other NATO countries, especially with the US.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/ecdb3ff0-9934-11e7-a652-cde3f882dd7b

[2] https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/us-formally-removes-turkey-from-f-35-programme-46112

[3] https://www.tusas.com/en/products/new-projects/original-development/tf

[4] https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/ankara-s-f-16-bid-will-test-us-approach-towards-turkey-51843

[5] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkey-seeks-40-f-16-jets-upgrade-air-force-sources-2021-10-07/

[6] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/us-lawmakers-express-concern-over-reports-potential-turkey-f-16-purchase-2021-10-26/

[7] https://www.timesaerospace.aero/features/lockheeds-blockbusters

[8] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/21/turkey-russia-fighter-jets-purchase-nato/

[9] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-china-defence-idUSBRE99205L20131003

[10] https://www.theindependentbd.com/arcprint/details/23335/2015-11-17

[11] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55311099

[12] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-turkish-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan-face-the-nation-09-26-2021/

[13] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_168183.htm?selectedLocale=en

[14] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/07/12/what-is-russian-s-air-defense-system-why-is-us-upset-turkey-bought-it/

[15] https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/turkey-bought-s-400-because-us-backtracked-on-its-commitments-28266

[16] https://www.aselsan.com.tr/en/capabilities

[17] https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/turkey-tests-indigenous-long-range-missile-defence-system-51414

[18] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/economy/turkey-test-fires-air-defense-missile-siper/2413750

[19] https://www.reuters.com/world/greek-parliament-approves-purchase-rafale-fighters-france-2021-01-14/

[20] https://www.france24.com/en/europe/20210912-france-confirms-deal-with-greece-for-six-more-rafale-fighter-jets

[21] https://www.airforcemag.com/greece-wants-f-35s-so-quickly-its-willing-to-accept-used-aircraft/

 

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