Turkey’s original plans for acquiring a fifth-generation fighter jet have been turned upside down after Washington removed Ankara from the multinational F-35 programme in early 2020 in response to its purchase of the S-400 air defense system. Although the military-technical cooperation between Washington and Ankara has not been terminated, the question of which type the Turkish Air Force will operate in the future and what will happen to the 1.4 billion dollars paid by Ankara remains unresolved. A potential new way of settlement has emerged in recent days, but it is possible that the deal could end up with an unexpected Russian twist.
In the recent weeks an interesting development has emerged regarding Ankara’s latest plan for the Turkish Air Force. As Reuters reported, citing unnamed defense industry sources, Turkey is planning to modernize its current fighter fleet and acquire newly built F-16s, partly at Washington’s expense. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly stressed, his country has so far invested a total of $1.4 billion in the fifth-generation F-35 program.
„But since 2019, Washington has gradually limited Ankara’s participation, and last spring the US even removed Turkey from the program altogether. As a result, the Turkish side has neither been able to obtain the state-of-the-art aircrafts already produced, nor has received a refund for the investment”
Alongside Syria and the problem regarding territorial waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the purchase of the S-400 regiment and the sanctions imposed in connection with it remained the most sensitive point in Turkish-US relations, which have deteriorated significantly in recent years.
Loading and unloading elements of the S-400 air defense system in July 2019
But, in addition to Reuters’ reports, Erdogan’s recent statements have raised hopes of a possible solution. Washington could eventually compensate Ankara for its exclusion from the F-35 program by supplying F-16 fighters. The Turkish side would order a total of 40 new production F-16V fighters from the United States, plus some 80 upgrade packages, presumably also to F-16V ‘Viper’ level. The total cost of the package is estimated to be well in excess of $6 billion. This would be partially covered by the 1.4 billion mentioned above, the final use of which the parties have not yet been able to agree on.
Although the Pentagon declined to officially comment on the reports, the Biden administration is clearly not opposed to the deal. It is true that relations between the two countries are not exactly smooth on the political level, but Ankara still has the second largest military in NATO, which is also the guarantor of the southern flank. Moreover, as noted by the well-known Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, tensions seem to have eased recently, with the White House’s statements once again referring to Turkey as an ‘irreplaceable strategic partner’.
The issue of F-16 purchase was also raised at the Biden-Erdogan summit at the 2021 G20 Rome summit, but beyond the usual pleasantries and promises, no real progress was made. Despite Biden’s pledge to try to convince the Senate to accept the deal and its usefulness for the United States, even the anti-Turkey forces within his own party may not be disarmed in the foreseeable future.
„But what does Russia have to do with all this?”
While probably there would be no obstacles from the government or the defense industry – with its considerable lobbying capacities – against the multi-billion dollar deal, the situation is much more complicated. Even the opening of negotiations would not mean that all problems have been averted for Ankara. This is because the Turkish deal still has to be approved by the Senate in Washington under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, which regulates US arms exports. But in the upper house of the legislature, bipartisan cooperation has been growing in recent years to increase pressure on Turkey.
„In recent days, several congressmen have addressed a statement to the Pentagon and personally to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to block the possible the agreement. According to them, Ankara, despite its status as an ally, treats the US as an adversary and there is a significant national security risk if Turkey were to receive the fighter jets it has requested”
Moreover, in addition to the units already in service, Turkey is seeking to buy an additional S-400 regiment from Russia, which has been the subject of long-standing negotiations between Ankara and Moscow. This will definitely further fuel the already considerable congressional opposition to Turkey. Even if the Senate were to approve the purchase, it would do so under extremely strict conditions. Presumably, it would tie its blessing not only to the cancellation of the second S-400 battery, but also to the suspension of all military cooperation with Russia. The latter would, of course, be unacceptable to Ankara.
But as Ismail Demir, the head of the civilian-controlled Presidency of Defense Industries – which is responsible for overseeing the Turkish defense industry – pointed out in a statement to NTV television, if Ankara fails to reach an agreement with Washington, Turkey will not be left without options and can look for alternative purchases.
„This would mean nothing less than the introduction of the Su-35 or even the Su-57, of which the latter is only in service in small numbers in the Russian Air Force”
The latter is backed up by Erdogan’s visit to the 2019 Moscow International Air and Space Show (MAKS), where he was able to personally inspect the Su-57E modification of the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jet, designed specifically for the export market. The question is, of course, exactly how the export variant differs from the Russian domestic one, since the development of the Su-57 – formerly known as the PAK-FA – is not even completely finalised. Just think of the Izdeliye 30 engine, which according to official statements will enter production not earlier than 2022-23.
Erdogan’s visit to the MAKS 2019
So, after the S-400, Ankara would extend its military cooperation with Russia to a further area? Well, even Russian military experts are divided on the question of how seriously one should take Demir’s words about the likelihood of a possible Turkish acquisition. While the majority of them do not consider the idea to be completely unrealistic, many express doubts about the chances of its realisation. As Ruslan Puhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Gazeta.ru, despite the S-400 acquisition and all the sanctions imposed, the United States has not yet broken off its defense industrial cooperation with Turkey.
„According to him, the F-16 purchase could be the decisive point in the relationship between Washington and Ankara, as its refusal would push the US strategic partner towards Russia”
In fact, it is not the S-400 or even any Sukhoi that would be the first Russian contender for Turkish military procurement, as one only has to think of the two-seater Ka-50-2 ‘Erdogan’, which served as the basis for the later Ka-52 – despite the similarity in name, the helicopter has nothing to do with the current president – and which ran unsuccessfully in the 1997 Turkish combat helicopter tender. Yet, at this point, Ankara’s reference to Russian aircraft seems more like a bazaar bargaining position with Washington than a serious idea. After all, let us not forget that a similar situation has already occurred in the history of Turkish military purchases, when in 2013, to everyone’s surprise, the Chinese HQ-9 – essentially a copy of the S-300 – won the T-LORAMIDS tender. As it turned out, in practice, Turkey’s aim was to force a price reduction on European and US bids. Of course, it is another question how the 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent change of political direction ultimately led to the deployment of the S-400.
„However, either with the Su-35 or the Su-57, Turkey would create a rather wide strategic maneuver space for itself, since the United States has no influence on the operation and use of these aircraft, and at the same time no restrictions. As in the case of the S-400”
But it is also not impossible that Turkey, like China, will use Russian aircrafts as sort of a carrier platform for its later indigenously developed weaponry. On the other hand, even if it wanted to, Ankara would not be able to use any US armaments on the Russian planes, as their integration would require Washington’s consent, which it is unlikely to get approval for such a deal. On the other hand, even if it wanted to, Ankara would not be able to use any US armament on the Russian planes, as their integration would require Washington’s consent, which it is unlikely to get approved for such a deal.
Of course, the acquisition of Russian equipment from both sides has its own specific problems. Among other things, in recent decades the training of Turkish pilots has been closely intertwined with the American designs in service. Also on the personnel side, the introduction of the Su-35 or even the Su-57 would require a major retraining, as these models are created according to a different design philosophy. On the other hand, Russian fighters also require a completely separate ground and support infrastructure due to the lack of compatibility with US systems.
„From the Russian side, the possibility of transferring or even copying its sensitive equipment could arise as a legitimate concern. Furthermore, in the event of a change in the political climate, Russian fighter jets in Turkish hands could potentially face Russia itself. Introducing of a fighter aircraft has many more pitfalls and obstacles than an air defense system”
Nevertheless, besides a possible modernisation, the Turkish Air Force is in dire need of a possible update, as beyond the F-16s – which represent the backbone of the fleet – there are still a significant number of F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Freedom Fighters in service. Despite all efforts these fighters are becoming obsolete as they are nearing the end of their service life. In addition, half of the nearly 250 F-16s in the fleet were produced between 1987 and 1994, meaning that the first F-16s are approaching the end of their service life as they enter their thirties. Turkey is one of only five unique countries licensed to locally build F-16 fighters and parts for its air force, and also the third largest operator of the aircraft after the United States and Israel.
„Similarly to the F-16, the initial Turkish order for some 100 F-35s was presumably just the beginning”
The possible further purchase of the CTOL (conventional take-off and landing) version of the F-35 could have been complemented by the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) F-35B variant to enhance Turkey’s maritime capabilities. It was no coincidence that Ankara abandoned a possible F-16 modernisation in the early 2010s. According to plans at the time, the 5th generation F-35 would have become the most modern and important aircraft in the air force, once again with significant local contribution.
Whether the Russian or the US bid wins out eventually for the modernisation of Turkey’s fighter fleet, Ankara is unlikely to be completely satisfied. Even with the possibility of local production and the installation of indigenous components rather than the original ones, Turkey will still be technologically dependent on the supplier state. Moreover, if the US F-16 proposal or the also 4th generation Su-35 ends up winning, the 5th generation and its unquestionable tactical advantages – such as low observability or sensor fusion – will be missing from the Turkish Air Force’s inventory.
„The long-awaited independence could come from the priority project of the locally developed 5th generation fighter, the TF-X”
The latter is also being developed with significant Western contribution, notably from the UK’s BAE Systems, but Russian state-owned Rostec has also offered possible cooperation in the project. Although the first functional example’s promised delivery is scheduled for the 100th anniversary of the Republic’s proclamation, it is unlikely that this program will be able to proceed without delays, not least because of its complexity. And its entry into service could happen much later, no sooner than the 2030s.
As demonstrated by recent Turkish developments, Ankara’s long-term goal is not only to achieve greater domestic added value in the defense sector, but also to achieve strategic autonomy in as broad a spectrum of areas as possible.
„So while it may seem surprising, for example, that a country of 83 million is developing an indigenous 5th generation fighter aircraft or commissioning its own helicopter carrier, all of these ultimately converge in the goal of Ankara’s emergence as a sovereign player both in the great power arena and, in this context, on the global arms market”
Given this perspective, it is no coincidence that Ankara’s foreign policy has also undergone a major transformation, as part of which Turkey is increasingly seeking to increase its influence as a center of power in its own right, from the Middle East to the Caucasus and Central Asia.