The Turkish Gambit

Turkey goes on with an unusual and risky policy in military and technical cooperation, effectively regarding it to be a continuation of Recep Erdogan’s foreign policy agenda. Following a memorable game round when Ankara, much to its own surprise, ended up purchasing Russia’s S-400 ABM systems, Turkey has now decided to update its fighter fleet.

Turkey’s policy could be seen as a “balancing act” between major actors on the international stage. This term, however, usually implies alternating friendly signals, while for Ankara this seems to mean a proportionate share of annoying and blackmailing for all of its “partners”, with the tactics manifested across a broad range of foreign policy action. In this article, we will be focusing on the issues of military and technical cooperation.

The Original Purchasing Sin

The current situation in Turkey’s defence procurement has its roots in the peculiar politics of Recep Erdogan, where the purchase of Russia’s S-400 “Triumf” air defence missile systems came to be a turning point. Ironically, as far as we can tell, it accidentally resulted from a series of concurrent, though unrelated events.

Turkey’s armed forces are rather large and well-armed. The Turkish army is often claimed to be second largest in NATO after that of the United States; while this is true for overall numbers, it may not necessarily be so in terms of combat capabilities. The country is making quite a few efforts to advance the national military-industrial complex, increasingly striving to provide itself with domestically-produced weapons, including hi-tech arms. There remain major “gaps,” however, particularly in the most sophisticated and expensive areas, which is almost indecent for a major military power whose leadership has such daring ambitions.

Until recently, one such sector was ground-based medium range (or—better yet—long-range) air defence missile systems. In the early 2010s, the U.S. MIM-23 “Hawk” XXI was the best such system Turkey had. While Turkey had it undergo a profound modernization on the premises of American and Norwegian companies, it was still a system designed back in the 1960s, failing to meet the requirements of today. In 2007, Turkey sent requests to foreign manufacturers asking for offers on state-of-the-art air and missile systems. The U.S. PATRIOT PAC-3 competed against Europe’s ASTER 30 SAMP/T, Russia’s S-300VM Antey-2500,[1] and China’s HQ-9 in Turkey’s T-LORAMIDS (Turkish Long-Range Air-and Missile-Defence System) tender. NATO allies were considered unquestionable frontrunners, but their price tag far exceeded the cap set by Turkey. Turkey officially announced that it was willing to pay around $1 billion for four companies. This was, of course, an unrealistic lowball offer. While we know nothing of the details of the talks, a 2009 notice to Congress suggests that the American side was looking for $7.8 billion. As a result, Turkey announced in September 2013 its shocking decision to purchase the Chinese HQ-9 that was manufactured in China under a Russian S-300 license. Officially, the deal was $3.4 bn worth.

The level of indignation from Turkey’s senior partners across the ocean was quite understandable, even though it was nothing like what it would have been the case today. The U.S. used the same arguments it had put forward to try and dissuade Turkey from allowing Russia and China to take part in the tender to sell air defence missile systems to a NATO country, warning Ankara that it would be impossible to integrate “alien” systems into NATO’s common scout/attack information infrastructure. Meanwhile, the allies would probably have to consider restricting Ankara’s access to prevent operative information from getting into the hands of “instructors from the East” who are certain to arrive together with the missile systems. In particular, there were claims that anti-missile radars would be unable to assign targets to Chinese missile systems. Apparently, these referred to AN/TPY-2 radars deployed at Kürecik Radar Station in Turkey and Nevatim Air Force Base in Israel. These radars are rather “off-radar” ingredients of the U.S. global missile defence system.

It is likely, however, that Recep Erdogan has from the outset been using China as a means of putting pressure on the United States with a view to getting a better deal regarding price and technology transfer. Negotiations with Beijing were half-hearted, and September 2014 saw a contrived announcement that the deal had fallen through. It was at this time that Turkey started to play the “European card,” with the media believing that Ankara was now favoring the European offer. This is only partially a feint, though, as the later purchase of the S-400 did not prevent the two signing an agreement on the joint development of advanced air defence missile systems with a European consortium, which suggests that Europe was most likely needed to assist in developing Turkey’s own “Hisar” systems.

Things would likely have ended with the purchase of some “allied” system if it had not been for the Turkish Armed Forces, dissatisfied with Recep Erdogan’s politics, that attempted a military coup on July 15–16, 2016. Various estimates suggest that this ill-planned move, failing to take public sentiments into account and ignoring the fact that the secret services would remain loyal to the president, claimed the lives of 240 to 350 people and resulted in large-scale repressions against the army and society. Erdogan was angry with the United States as well, since the Turkish Armed Forces were rightly believed to be pro-American, maintaining unofficial ties with their fellows from American military academies. Washington probably suspected, if not knew for a fact, that the attempted putsch was possible.

That Ankara wanted to get under the skin of the United States was manifested in the spontaneous decision to purchase Russia’s S-400, simply out of spite. At that point, Moscow–Ankara relations were, as we remember, at their lowest ebb over their conflicting stances in Syria. The downing of the Russian Su-24M by a Turkish fighter jet on November 24, 2015 as the Russian aircraft was delivering strikes against pro-Turkish terrorists operating close to Turkey’s border was still fresh in the minds in Russia. However, the suppression of the supposedly “pro-American” coup largely mitigated the attitude of the Russian leadership, which likely saw the advantages of supporting Ankara in its desire to harm its relations with Washington. Besides, and for once, it cost absolutely nothing—on the contrary, Russia could make money and advertise its weaponry.

The contract was signed almost a year to the day after the coup, which speaks to the utterly unique timeframe for approving such a deal. The decision was made at the top level and involved expectations to proceed as quickly as possible. The framework agreement put the cost of two regiments at approximately $2.5 billion. Moreover, the Turkish side requested that subsequent deliveries under the contract be expedited and pushed forward by eight months, something unprecedented for the military-technical area, where deadlines are only pushed back. Deliveries of the first regiment started in July 2019 and continued until October of that year. Currently, the contract for the second regiment is pending approval, while it is expected to be signed by the end of 2021. In October 2020, Turkey conducted first independent practice firing, meaning that the regiment is at least partially combat-ready as of now.

The breakneck speed of striking a deal with Russia, as well as Turkey’s sudden interest in it, were certainly spurred on by Ankara’s deteriorating relations with the United States after the attempted coup. It is hard to say what kind of response Ankara expected to its accusations and demands—in particular, the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, who was accused of masterminding the attempted coup—but repentance was certainly not forthcoming, and the attempt at blackmail by purchasing S-400 prompted pure rage. It was no longer 2013, and a NATO country buying Russian weapons caused much more than a murmur of protest. Subsequently, the United States even imposed sanctions against Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) under CAATSA.

Clipped Wings

However, Turkey’s main “punishment” would be its expulsion from the programme to develop the fifth generation F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. In June 2018, Congress passed a bill suspending Turkey’s participation in the programme—a year later, when the “red line” was crossed with the start of S-400 deliveries, Turkey was entirely cut from the programme. The official notice was sent on April 2021.

The rather unusual format of the programme merits description. Strictly speaking, it is a multi-national programme rather than a purely American project. Alongside the U.S., another eight partner countries are involved the project, having “signed up” during the initial stages: the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey. From a practical point of view, only the United Kingdom makes significant R&D contributions to the project. [2] The other countries have mostly assumed financial obligations in the form of rather small direct financial payments to the R&D programme, also purchasing the first “limited-run” fighter jets used to fine-tune the aircraft and train the pilots. These jets are somewhat unfinished and more expensive than the mass production. However, the rewards far exceed the expenses, with the most significant of them being not even priority deliveries but participation in the mass production. The programme’s slogan is that every F-35 will have parts from every partner state. The U.S., however, is be able to manufacture all, or virtually all, parts—therefore, what is meant here is duplicating and distributing the workload. Still, the programme entails that parts and spares for thousands of jets will be manufactured for decades to come. For instance, Denmark, with its rather small aircraft industry, produces elements of wing centre section, tail section, weapon pylons, gun pods and radar parts. Some companies can “live” off these contracts for many years to come—which is apparently what they are planning to do. This explains why the partner states are so enamoured with the programme. This had led to a number of comic situations. For instance, the Canadian authorities have officially stated that Ottawa will not purchase F-35 fighter jets, yet the country still makes regular payments to the programme and has not officially withdrawn from it, since such a move would cut Canada’s industry off from the related manufacturing orders.

With a rather strong aircraft industry, Turkey could certainly benefit from the programme, especially since it has a rather good experience of similar projects. One example is its state-owned aircraft-building company TAI (Turkish Aerospace Industries), which manufactured the licensed F-16 fighter jets for the Turkish and Egyptian air forces and the spare parts of these fighter jets for other countries since the late 1980s. This time, Turkey planned to purchase at least 100 ground-based F-35A jets. Additional commissions were likely to follow—in particular, for F-35В that could be based on Anadolu-class amphibious assault ships.[3] Turkey would likely have been one of the biggest purchasers of F-35 jets alongside Japan, which has commissioned 147 units.

The rewards for Turkish industry were great. Chief among these were TAI manufacturing the centre sections of the fuselage and power unit components, and the planned opening of a European jet engine servicing facility. All in all, Turkish companies were to manufacture about 900 jet parts. U.S. estimates suggest that Turkish companies will lose $9 billion once expelled from the programme. Still, the painful process of reshaping manufacturing plans and redistributing orders has dragged on for several years, costing the United States some $500–600 million and affecting production speeds. Turkish companies are expected to make final deliveries of the components they manufacture in 2022.

This is only the economic blow. Without F-35s, Turkey faces the ultimate question: What aircraft will the Turkish Air Force use? Today, the F-16 fighter jet family is its principal aircraft: Turkey has 260 jets [4], making it the world’s third-largest fleet after the U.S. and Israel. Additionally, Turkey has a small number of modified, yet significantly outdated and worn-out, F-4 and F-5 fighter jets. These planes are on their last legs and thus should not be taken into account when determining the future of the Turkish Air Force.

Over half of the country’s F-16 are F-16C/D Block 30/40 jets commissioned in 1987–1994. Although they were mostly modified along the lines of the newer Block 50 jets (and work is being done to extend their life even further), older jets are nearing the end of their operational life. Delays in implementing the F-35 programme forced the Turkish leadership to purchase thirty F-16 jets in 2007, which were delivered in 2011–2012. This was a stop-gap measure while Turkey awaited mass deliveries of F-35 jets that were to start in 2015.

It was not until June 18, 2018 that Turkey officially received its first F-35A, and the first flight of a Turkish pilot took place on August 29. An explanation is in order here: the first aircraft manufactured for Turkey, just like for other partner states, remain in the United States, where pilots and technicians undergo centralized training at international training facilities. Subsequently, aircraft can be sent to the relevant country or may remain in the United States. In the case of Turkey, this approach failed: Turkish personnel was reportedly trained in a slipshod manner, and the training was stopped altogether in June 2019, with the trainees told to pack their things and go home—without the aircraft, of course. The handover of the fighter jets that Turkey had paid for and formally owned was legally prohibited, so the aircraft could be considered “sequestered.” This applied to the first six aircraft that had formally been handed over to Turkey and which had already flown with Turkish identification marks. The aircraft that were in various stages of manufacturing were then purchased by U.S. Air Force. It currently has 16 fighter jets that were initially built for Turkey, while 24 aircraft were originally ordered. Closed-door talks on settling grievances are underway, and it is highly unlikely that they will be quick and easy. However, it would be safe to say that that Turkey was not fully compensated for the “American stunts” (and there is nothing to suggest it will be compensated at all). Erdogan has noted that Turkey had spent $1.4 billion on the programme.

The United States has offered a rather comical justification for its actions: the issue was no longer in the impossibility of integrating S-400 into NATO’s information space; instead, they claimed that the very fact of Russian air-defence missile systems operating in the immediate proximity of F-35’s was a security threat, since such systems would secretly collect intelligence and forward it to Moscow. Even Turkey’s statements that it is sending back Russian assistants and that the systems are now “100 per cent under Turkey’s control” produce no tangible outcome. What is funny here is that these fighter jets are sold to Poland, while U.S., British and Israeli aircraft participate in strikes against targets in Syria and U.S. fighter jets visit the Baltic states etc. In all these situations, F-35s find themselves in close proximity to S-400’s operated by Russian personnel.

The arguments about “collecting intelligence” were obviously contrived, and the United States merely wants to punish the obstinate Turkish leader. For similar reasons, NATO became extremely concerned about the plight of Kurds following Turkey’s armed intervention in the north of Syria, and initiated a blocking of military-technical cooperation with Turkey, even though Ankara had regularly conducted anti-Kurdish operations (including operations in adjacent states) in the past. Another round of restrictions was prompted by Turkey’s involvement in the wars in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Naturally, such restrictions are publicly imposed and quietly lifted, being frequently bypassed by the parties concerned, but they still present significant inconveniences for Turkey. At the peak of concerns over U.S. sanctions, Turkey was feverishly scrambling to purchase spare parts for its F-16 aircraft and other equipment originating in the U.S., but no embargo on technical support and maintenance for Turkey’s aircraft fleet was ever imposed.

After all this, the Turkish Air Force found itself without the aircraft around which its entire fighter jet fleet was to be built. Ankara has a national TAI TF-X programme for designing an MMU fighter jet. It entails cooperation with foreign partners (in particular, the UK’s Rolls-Royce is designing the power unit), yet even the most optimistic plans slate the prototype’s unveiling for 2023, with the aircraft entering service in the early 2030s. In such cases, deadlines are usually pushed back, and it is unclear how rocky the start will be and whether mass production will go smoothly. South Korea, Japan and India have similar programmes, but they have no plans to abandon aircraft imports as of right now. Clearly, it is becoming rather urgent for the Turkish Air Force to purchase new fighters.

Ankara, in the meantime, seems posed to go on with its “balancing” policy. Erdogan was the main guest at the MAKS Air Show 2019 in Zhukovsky. Afterwards, Vladimir Putin said they were discussing the possibility of selling Russian Su-35 and Su-57 fighters to Turkey, while the Turkish leader confirmed that this was indeed possible if the United States refused to deliver F-35. The parties launched talks on the subject, and the Turkish media wasted no time in reporting that a contract for the purchase of 36 Su-35 jets would be signed soon. The Turkish Minister of Defence denied these claims, though, saying that Turkey was planning to make sure the United States would deliver the F-35 jets. Contradictory statements are constantly made on the subject.

More fuel was added to the fire on September 30 when reports appeared that Turkey had sent an official request to the Unites States for the purchase of 40 new Block 70 versions of F-16 as well as for 80 kits for upgrading its fighter jets.

As of now, F-16V Viper Block 70 is the latest F-16 modification exclusively developed for exports (the U.S. Air Force’s modernization programme uses only a few similar components). The aircraft was first presented in 2012, although we’d better say this was when the commercial offer for this “configuration” was born. There were only minor differences from the previous build-ups: a new Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar, a cockpit featuring a large 10-inch display in place of analogue equipment, new electronic warfare and communications systems ensuring interaction with fifth-generation fighter jets, a more powerful mainframe computer, an automatic ground collision avoidance system, and a significantly longer airframe life. The U.S. offers both the new version of the aircraft assembled at a new plant in South Carolina (the old plant in Texas only manufactures F-35’s), and parts for modernizing the old F-16 jets. New aircraft were purchased by Taiwan (66), Bahrain (16), Slovakia (14), Bulgaria (8) and, possibly, Morocco (24), as the latter purchase was never officially confirmed, something typical for the country’s procurement practices. What is more, Taiwan, Greece and Bahrain purchased even larger modernization kits. Talks are under way on potential sales to Jordan and the Philippines and on modernizing South Korea’s aircraft fleet.

The new aircraft should make it possible to phase out the last of the F-4 “Phantom II”. The transaction is estimated to be $6–7 billion worth. U.S. and Turkish leaders were expected to discuss it in person at the G20 Rome summit on October 30–31. The issue of F-35 deliveries is expected to be brought up as well.

What ultimately becomes of Turkey’s request will tell us a lot about how the relations between Washington and Ankara will develop moving forward. On the one hand, Turkey really needs fighter jets, and its request is modest enough. Joe Biden has repeatedly said that NATO needs to bolster its defence capabilities and unity. On the other hand, against the backdrop of the request to purchase fighter jets, Turkey’s rhetoric concerning its further S-400 procurements is an insulting dismissal of the grievances put forward by the United States. Erdogan and his policies have not become more popular in the United States over the recent years, which is to put it mildly: in addition to Erdogan’s “friendship” with Putin, Turkey has a questionable human rights record (something that is ideologically important for the incumbent U.S. administration), and the Turkish president is not popular among many of the diasporas in the United States (Armenian, Greek, etc.), which have already launched a campaign against the contract. Were it only a matter to convince the executive branch, Erdogan could stand good chances. In the United States, though, such contracts have to be authorized by the Congress, and it is not at all clear how Turkey could obtain this approval. U.S. legislators will clearly demand steps that the obstinate Turkish leader will deem insulting (such as withdrawing S-400 systems from active duty and putting them into storage or abandoning military-technical and possibly some economic cooperation with Russia).

So far, Washington has responded rather coldly to Erdogan’s recent populist statements that the United States had allegedly offered to sell F-16’s to Turkey as a compensation for the “debt” for the latter’s financing the F-35 programme (Turkey’s own request does not quite jibe with Erdogan’s statements since this request is far more than $1.4 billion worth). The spokesperson for the United States Department of State suggested the Turkish government be asked about the country’s procurement plans but noted that the U.S. has definitely not made any offers concerning Turkey’s request.

On the other hand, denying Turkey’s request—widely and early discussed in the media—may be a real insult and an “absolution” for buying Russian or Chinese fighters. The decision will be difficult, far more difficult than buying air defence missile systems: the officer corps of the Turkish Air Force has been trained by Americans and on American aircraft; this would require new weapons and ground infrastructure to be purchased; and there would be very real integration issues, as well as problems with operations and maintenance. Still, there are countries (such as India, Malaysia and Egypt) that operate aircraft manufactured in different countries. Consequently, this is quite possible, meaning that such “minor” difficulties may not stop the Turkish leader, who has repeatedly demonstrated his readiness to make radical decisions. Additionally, it will serve as useful practice for transitioning to domestic-made aviation. If Turkey’s Western partners refuse to cooperate once again, it could hope for Russia’s assistance in developing its domestic-made fleet. The Russian aviation, independent of American supplies, will serve as a partial insurance against an embargo.

From Russia’s standpoint, the situation is simple enough. Moscow benefits from arguments and schisms in NATO, particularly those between major players. A metaphorical “downing” of a hundred F-35s with a single regiment of S-400s is a fantastic success—at least, Turkey using these aircraft has been delayed for years. For once, Russia may get paid for it, while the United States and NATO bear additional costs. It would thus work in Russia’s favour to offer Su-35’s to Turkey.

The main arguments “against” boil down to the danger of technical secrets and weapons being leaked by a country whose friendly status is highly debatable. The dangers are not to be overestimated, though. First, the Su-35S was designed to be exported. As things stand, export versions are already different in the sensitive aspects of their equipment from those intended for the domestic market. The aircraft had already been intended for countries that were no less likely than Turkey to leak secrets to the United States (the Gulf monarchies, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, etc.). Second, in Turkey’s hands, Russian aviation and other military equipment is less dangerous for Russia than the equipment manufactured in other countries. The manufacturer knows these aircraft and its equipment inside and out, and it is widely believed that something may “suddenly” go awry if these hi-tech weapons are turned against their manufacturer.

  1. There is information that Russia considered offering S-400s during the initial stages of the tender, but the idea was later abandoned.
  2. In particular, Rolls-Royce has designed the engine unit for the vertical landing version of the F-35B fighter jet.
  3. The first TCG Anadolu (L-400) is to join the Turkish Navy in 2022, with the construction of a sistership, Trakya, planned. The assault ship is equipped with a springboard for basing aircraft of shortened takeoff and vertical landing, such as the F-35B.
  4. The Military Balance 2021.

From our partner RIAC

Alexander Yermakov
Alexander Yermakov
Military analyst, RAC expert