The sounds of fighter jets and helicopters pierce through the skies over the Aegean Sea as the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) carried out their biennial military exercise named EFES 2022 in the coastal city of Izmir last week. Alongside the nearly 10,000 personnel from 37 nations participating in the drills were some of Turkey’s domestically developed military hardware. Once a nation that was heavily dependent on foreign arms procurement, Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's administration, is now able to meet 80% of its domestic defense industry needs locally. The domestically manufactured weapons portfolio features the fabled Bayraktar TB2 among other effective drones, air defense systems, anti-ship missiles, light armaments and the national warship and tank programs. However, one critical military hardware item has remained elusive and a domestic solution, the TF-X, Turkey’s national fighter jet, is still years away from entering the TSK inventory.
For 35 years, the centerpiece of the Turkish Air Force has been the F-16 fighter jet. Ankara currently has 270 F-16 C/D aircraft in its inventory and is one of five countries that locally produce the jet. The domestic defense industry has also grown around the F-16, providing maintenance and developing many upgrades for the fighter. While the dependable F-16 has met Turkey’s needs over the years, technological advances, a new security environment and increased regional competition have created a glaring need to modernize the Turkish Air Force’s aging fleet. Ankara was scheduled to gradually replace its F-16s fleet with Lockheed Martin’s fifth generation F-35 joint strike fighter. Turkey became a partner in the stealthy jet program in 2007 and planned to initially purchase 100 F-35s. However, after Turkey acquired the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, the United States removed Ankara from the program in July 2019, citing concerns the F-35s stealth capabilities could be compromised.
The removal of Turkey from the F-35 program created a dilemma for its air force on how to proceed with procurement. While the idea of purchasing a different fifth-generation fighter jet was entertained, Ankara decided that doubling down and fast-tracking the development of its national fighter jet project coupled with a mix of buying 40 new F-16 jets and 80 modernization kits for the existing fleet was the most feasible course of action. The request for the F-16 purchase was made to the U.S. in October 2021, kicking off the foreign military sales process. What should normally be viewed as a routine sale among NATO allies has taken on a different dimension. The relationship between Turkey and the U.S. has been plagued by flashpoints over the years. The disagreements among NATO allies are headlined by Ankara’s anger over Washington’s cooperation in Syria with the YPG, which is the local affiliate of the PKK terrorist organization, and the U.S. sanctioning Turkey due to its purchase of Russian S-400s. The deal, which requires approval from the U.S. State Department and Congress, is being slow-walked and with ethnic lobbies working to block the sale and a negative outlook toward Turkey in the Congress, U.S. President Joe Biden may have to spend significant political capital to get it approved. With the current state of affairs between the U.S. and Turkey, the outcome of the F-16 request is a coin toss.
As Ankara awaits Washington’s answer, national security concerns continue to flare up in its neighborhood. The Ukraine conflict, which entered its fourth month, has reintroduced war to the continent of Europe and has the potential to destabilize the region. Russia has increased its presence throughout the Black Sea and continues to create security concerns in Syria by allowing the presence of the YPG terrorist group in the country’s northeast. In the Eastern Mediterranean, a balance of air power has always been an important element in maintaining peace among coastal neighbors. Greece’s recent acquisition of French-made Rafale fighter jets and request to acquire F-35s will shift the pendulum in favor of Athens. These developments are creating a growing sense of urgency that Turkey quickly needs to finalize its fighter jet acquisition and it may be time to start looking at alternatives.
Before Turkey made its decision to purchase new F-16s and modernize the existing fleet with upgrades, Ankara had mulled over a stop-gap acquisition. For an alternative solution to be considered viable, Turkey would need an aircraft with swing role capabilities that can counter a wide variety of threats, provide air superiority, be considered NATO-friendly and interoperable in a mixed fleet which would include F-16s and in the future, the TF-X. Eurofighter’s Typhoon is an option that ticks all of these boxes. The Eurofighter Program, which is developed, produced and maintained by the U.K., Germany, Spain and Italy, has a proven track record and is the backbone of the Allied Air Defense. Since its maiden flight in 1994, the Typhoon has been modernized and upgraded to be the most advanced swing-role fighter jet on the market. Its airframe has been designed to reduce radar cross-section and upgrades are enhancing the stealthy features of the aircraft. Sensor fusion, high situational awareness, cutting-edge avionics and electronics, super-cruise capability, and sovereignty over mission data, would provide the Turkish Air Force with a competitive advantage. In addition, the Typhoon could operate in both Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS or Tempest), allowing Eurofighter and partner companies time to mature technologies on the platform. This also includes areas such as training opportunities in complex multi-domain scenarios. These technological lessons learned could benefit Turkey’s TF-X program. With the new soft and hardware upgrade packages Eurofighter is developing, the Typhoon will be capable of countering threats or challenges that might arise up to the 2060s, making it not only a stop-gap solution but also a complete upgrade in capabilities for the Turkish Air Force.
Other important factors that make the Typhoon the best choice for Ankara are the synergies between Turkish defense firms and Eurofighter partner companies and future opportunities for local upgrades. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is currently collaborating with BAE Systems on Turkey’s national fighter jet project, the TF-X. The TAI also has a long and successful history of partnering with Airbus and Leanardo on projects that include the CN-235 aircraft, Cougar helicopter, A400M transport aircraft and AW129 helicopter. The existing communication channels and mutual respect established over many years of longstanding cooperation will make collaboration on Typhoon procurement easier and the involvement of Turkish companies in all stages with Eurofighter will improve local workforce know-how and experience, increase capability enhancement along the supply chain and provide opportunities for indigenous upgrades and local maintenance which would reduce future expenditures.
After years of dependence on the F-16 and time lost investing in the F-35 project, Turkey’s fall-out with the U.S. has shown Ankara the pitfalls and risks associated with being dependent on a single procurement source. Many regional countries have already initiated the process of diversifying the procurement of critical military hardware. In this regard, Turkey has taken positive steps toward diversifying its air defense system procurement as talk of a Eurosam SAMP/T acquisition has been rekindled. The recent lifting of a U.K. embargo on defense exports to Turkey and Ankara’s warm relations with London, Berlin, Madrid and Rome have created a procurement-friendly atmosphere for Turkey to expand its supplier portfolio and hedge risks. The diversification of suppliers, coupled with the future arrival of a domestically made fighter jet, will give the TSK more flexibility in future planning and resiliency against geopolitical supply shocks.
As geopolitical fundamentals change and new challenges emerge, cooperation on security and collective defense continues to gain importance. Unfortunately, the increasing complexity of political and economic interdependencies and the occasional difference in opinion between Ankara and its allies are exploited by those who question Turkey’s place in the trans-Atlantic alliance. With Turkey out of the F-35 program, the acquisition of Eurofighter Typhoons would not only ensure Ankara’s position as a critical part of NATO’s Air Defense for years to come but also strongly reaffirm Turkey’s commitment to the alliance.
*Yusuf Erim is a Turkish foreign policy expert and editor-at-large at TRT World, Turkey’s English language public broadcaster
**Mohammad Walid bin Siraj is a weapons expert, defense analyst and a former officer in the Bangladesh Armed Forces