Indispensable ally for NATO, Turkey to make most of domestic, foreign alternatives for fighter jets

ELIF ERŞEN @elifbiniciersen
Published 21.07.2019 00:28
Updated 21.07.2019 15:52
The Akıncı unmanned combat aerial vehicle, developed by Turkish drone maker Baykar Makina, will begin test flights soon and is expected to be operational by next year.
The Akıncı unmanned combat aerial vehicle, developed by Turkish drone maker Baykar Makina, will begin test flights soon and is expected to be operational by next year.

Prioritizing the development and accomplishment of national defense projects and weighing potential projects with long-term NATO partners, Turkey now looks to mitigate the repercussions of the exclusion from the F-35 program

Turkey's exclusion from the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program at the expense of rising costs for the other countries over Ankara's purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system might have raised questions regarding its relations with the U.S. and NATO.

Although the U.S. suspended Turkey's participation in the F-35 program, partners in Washington and elsewhere in Europe and NATO are well aware of the fact that Turkey cannot be alienated from the alliance as the stakes would be higher – a fact acknowledged on many occasions by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Pentagon officials. Therefore, Ankara and NATO will have to work to prevent an identity crisis within the pact and eliminate further geopolitical risks, defense and security experts told Daily Sabah.

Since the defense partnership has been a very significant dimension of the partnership, Turkey and NATO will continue to look for alternative projects with other partners. "For sure, it is not the best times for the allied cohesion. Ankara is an important NATO ally, and should prevent the current deterioration to be translated into a North Atlantic geopolitical identity crisis," Can Kasapoğlu, the director of the Defense Research program at the Istanbul-based think tank, the Center of Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said in an exchange with Daily Sabah.

Turkey may participate in the development of the SAMP/T anti-aircraft missile system with the consortium of Eurosam, ASELSAN and ROKETSAN and look to join a European fighter jet project by launched by Spain, France and Germany. More importantly, Turkey is now to direct all its energy and resources to developing and expediting its national defense projects, including TF-X National Fighter Jet, Hürkuş, Hürjet and the modernization of F-16 Block 30, according to experts on Turkey's options.

"Turkey can still mitigate the capability losses emanating from being cut-off from the Joint Strike Fighter Program. First, Ankara should reinforce its defense ties with its European partners," Kasapoğlu said.

Turan Oğuz, a defense industry analyst, also said in the next decade or so, Turkey will have national fighter jet and training and light attack aircraft by 2025, in addition to armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) projects. "The domestic projects and the modernization of existing F-16 jets will strengthen Turkey's air capacity. But in times of urgent need, if the Turkish army deems necessary, the country can also look for alternatives abroad," Oğuz said. Turkey has been one of the major partners of the $428 billion massive defense project as its companies are contracted for the production of 937 parts of the fifth-generation stealth fighter jet and has invested $1.25 billion in the project. In the last year, the country has received four F-35 jets located at Luke Air Base in Arizona where Turkish pilots and engineering staff had been participating in training until May. They are now scheduled to return home by July 31.

Excluding Turkey from the project will negatively impact NATO's southeastern wing, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday. "Expecting from the U.S. to avoid steps that could harm relations of the two countries is most natural right of Turkey as a strategic partner," Akar told Anadolu Agency (AA). "The unilateral and unfair decision" to try to remove Turkey from the F-

35 project "is not based on legitimate justifications," he said.

EBB and flow of Turkey-NATO relations

Ankara has been disappointed a number of times by the actions and policies of its security and military partners at NATO, particularly when the U.S. decided to arm, equip and train terror groups in northern Syria that threaten Turkey's national security in 2015. The NATO partners also abandoned Turkey during a military conflict with Russia in November 2015 when it downed a Russian jet over the violation of its border with Syria. The incident took place after the U.S. and Germany pulled Patriot missiles from Turkey, which were placed in early 2013 and removed in October 2015. The NATO partners even declared a "no-support policy" for Turkey in case of a military conflict with Russia.

Despite a fluctuating relationship with the U.S. and NATO since Turkey joined the alliance in 1952, Turkey has still maintained a strong alliance with the partners in the West, given its role in NATO counterterror operations. "Turkey's contribution to NATO runs much deeper and much broader than the F-35. That is important," said Stoltenberg in his speech at the Aspen Institute's annual security forum in Colorado on Wednesday. The secretary-general added that the international coalition in Syria was able to defeat Daesh because of the contributions of Turkey.

Furthermore, U.S. President Donald Trump has also been vocal about why Turkey had to buy a Russian-made air defense system, although he did not refrain from sending mixed signals.

"The previous administration made some very big mistakes with regard to Turkey and it was too bad," Trump said in the Oval Office on Thursday while hosting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. "So we're looking at it, we'll see what we do. We haven't announced that yet."

Trump said earlier Tuesday: "The [Barack] Obama administration would not sell them the Patriot missiles. They needed the Patriot missiles for defense. They would not sell them under any circumstance. And Turkey tried very hard to buy them and they wouldn't sell them, and this went on for a long period of time." In a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the G20 in late June, the U.S. president has also then put the blame on his predecessor and underscored that the current situation with Turkey over the F-35 jets was not fair, as the country wanted to buy U.S. Patriot missiles before but Washington refused at the time.

When Obama supplied massive arms to the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist group, in late 2015 as part of a train-and-equip program in the fight against Daesh, Turkish-American relations witnessed a new low point. The PKK is a U.S. and EU-designated terrorist group that has been threatening Turkish national security for the last four decades and its members have killed thousands of civilians and soldiers in the country. During Obama's term, U.S. Congress declined the sale of the Patriot PAC-3 batteries worth $7.8 billion at the time to Turkey. Not selling the necessary missile systems to its NATO ally, Washington continued to provide extensive arms support to terror groups in Syria that have continuously attacked Turkey and claimed hundreds of lives.

In January, the U.S. made an official offer to Turkey for a $3.5 billion sale of the Patriot missile and air defense system during a visit of a U.S. delegation.

"I think the S-400 was not the only source of the crisis. Had the U.S. handled its Syria policy better, and not promoted the PKK offshoots PYD/YPG [Democratic Union Party/People's Protection Units] by neglecting a key NATO ally's security concerns, probably Turkey's strategic SAM procurement choices would have been different," Kasapoğlu remarked.

He recalled that Russia opened up Syrian airspace for Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch. "Moscow's geopolitical calculus paid off. The U.S. circles could not see that the key to change Ankara's mind about the S-400 procurement was not the late coming Patriot offer and CAATSA [Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions] 'carrot and stick' concept," he summarized the bulk of the crisis. What would be a more acceptable solution on the part of the U.S., Kasapoğlu explained, was the changing their policy in Syria.

Domestic, foreign alternatives for Turkey

Being cut off from the F-35 program, which would immensely augment Turkey's air combat capability, the country still has a wide range of options, including domestic projects and potential foreign suppliers.

The first project that Turkey can accelerate is the development and manufacturing of Turkish Aerospace Industries' (TAI) TF-X national combat aircraft. "The 5th generation airpower cooperation for the MMU [the National Combat Aircraft] with the British BAE Systems remains invaluable at this stage," Kasapoğlu said.

According to the current plan, the TF-X will make first flight will see rollout in 2023, make the first flight in 2025 and hit the skies in 2029 or 2030. The aircraft has new generation features including low visibility, internal gun housing, high maneuverability, increased situational awareness and sensor fusion.

But until this project has been realized in the next decade or more, Turkey's main priority should be the accomplishment of national projects and the nationalization of the existing system, Oğuz remarked.

Turkey has the advantage to benefit from an invigorated air combat capacity with Hürjet, which will come in two configurations, one is to serve for training purposes and the other is the armed varied capable to have launch control radar, external load and fire control systems and various task systems, defense expert Oğuz pointed out. Turkish Aerospace Industries in July 2017 under Defense Industry Directorate coordination and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is expecting to have the first Hürjets in its inventory in 2025.

Oğuz drew attention to several other armed unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UAV) projects, particularly TAI's Aksungur and Baykar Makina's Akıncı. "Turkey is well capable of compensating for the loss from the F-35 with the most advanced armed unmanned aerial vehicles," he said. TAI plans to integrate weapon packages and put the Aksungur into production in early 202, he added.

Baykar Makina's Akıncı, which will begin test flights soon, is expected to be operational next year. It will have a takeoff weight of 4.5 tons and a wingspan of 20 meters. To be operated with two turbine engines, the Akıncı will carry nearly 1.5 tons in useful load with 900 kilograms external and 450 kilograms of internal load. The platform can be controlled via domestically developed satellites.

The armed drone Akıncı will have wide range of air-to-ground munitions including MAM-L, MAM-C, CIRIT, Mk81 and Mk82 general-purpose bombs, smart munitions with various guidance kits and SOM ALCM. It may also be equipped with air-to-air missile systems domestically developed in Turkey and may be deployed in air-to-air missions. With these qualities, Turkey will be one of the three countries in the world that have an armed drone in this class, according to the Defense Industry Directorate (SSB).

"Boosting in the national light attack aircraft Hürkuş-C orders, and investing more in the unmanned systems with high payloads (such as the Akıncı and the Aksungur) could make stopgap measures to bear the burden of F-16s in the air-ground missions in counter-terrorism campaigns," Kasapoğlu indicated since Turkey's F-16s are about to complete their service period of nearly 40 years due to country's fight against terror.

In further elaboration, Oğuz also recalled that Turkey is currently carrying out a modernization project for 35 4th generation F-16 Block 30 jets. The modernization project consists of two steps, Oğuz explained and said, "While the body of the F-16 jets will be complete by around 2023, the avionic modernization is planned to be until 2021 according to ASELSAN's project schedule," Oğuz. By the end of the modernization process, Turkey's 35 F-16 Block 30 jets will be upgraded to Block 70 qualities, all by domestic and national equipment and systems, he emphasized.

Oğuz also underscored that military electronics company ASELSAN is also preparing active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for modernized F-16s. He particularly remarked that ASELSAN and the Özgür project, which means free and unbounded in Turkish, is enabling Turkey to integrate non-U.S. subsystems and avionics into Turkish F-16s. This will allow Turkey to use all the ammunition and systems independently, he said.

Speaking of foreign alternatives, Kasapoğlu pointed out that EUROSAM and Turkey's cooperation with this consortium for co-producing a strategic air and missile defense system is very valuable. For the replacement of fourth-generation fighters, he suggested, "For these, I would say, keeping Turkey–U.K. defense ties strong would be key. In other words, keeping the MMU [TF-X national combat aircraft] project running is essential," he said, stressing the importance of strengthened partnership with the British BAE systems and resolving the engine problems with the Rolls-Royce.

Economic Development Foundation (IKV) Chairman Ayhan Zeytinoğlu also highlighted the importance of concentrating on the EUROSAM SAMP/T project, recalling that Turkey inked a deal for the development of long-range missile system with the Franco-Italian consortium with two Turkish defense giants ASELSAN and ROKETSAN in January 2018.

Zeytinoğlu suggested that the same project partnership model could be applied to the Eurofighter project which will be developed by Spain, Germany and France. "Turkey can weigh European alternatives for F-35 fighter jet and Turkey's participation in the Eurofighter project could be evaluated," he said. The first prototype for this aircraft is expected to be developed by 2026.

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