06.01.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey in search for new fighter jet…

Turkey in search for new fighter jet

Security issues imply ensuring a sufficient level of protection of vital objects and interests of the state. Among them, a special place is occupied by military security, i.e. constant strengthening of defence capability and equipping the army with the necessary arsenal of armaments and combat equipment to repel external threats and to solve military tasks specified by the military doctrine and the state leadership. Turkey, being a member of the NATO bloc, solves the tasks related to the renewal of the armament and combat equipment fleet in two ways:

1) at the national level (i.e., independently with reliance on the domestic military-industrial complex or through additional purchases on the world markets);

2) within the framework of the North Atlantic Alliance (i.e., taking into account the simplified procedure and acceptable procurement prices for allied countries).

The modern Turkish army is the second army of the NATO bloc in terms of numbers and amounts to 355200 people, while the reserve of the 1st turn (up to 25 years old) amounts to 378700 people. In other words, the Turkish army at the first mobilisation can field more than 700 thousand people (almost 1% of the total population). If we take into account the reserve of the 2nd turn (up to 41 years old), the number of the Turkish army will exceed 4 million people, and the reserve of the 3rd turn (i.e., up to 60 years old) assumes more than 8 million people, i.e. 10 per cent of the total population.

Turkey’s armed forces are considered one of the strongest in the Middle East, if not the strongest (given the level of armament and combat training of the Israel Defence Forces). Turkey remains a key element of the geopolitical system and regional security architecture in the Middle East. With the success of the Turkish-Azerbaijani military-political alliance in Nagorno-Karabakh, it can be recognised that the Turkish army has begun to play a key role in the South Caucasus as well. With the weakness of other global and regional centres (e.g., Russia, the West and Iran), Ankara will certainly try to take an exclusive position in the Transcaucasus as well.

It cannot be said that the Turkish army is less capable than other armies of NATO countries or the Middle East. However, such a comparison is not always successful, because armies are evaluated by such indicators as numbers, armament, competence of management and military commanders, level of combat training, system of manning and training, frequency and quality of military exercises, etc. However, often the best criterion for assessing the state of an army is the most undesirable process, i.e. war and combat experience combined with military victories of a given army.

Stereotypical claims that the modern Turkish army is the second army in NATO in terms of strength (i.e., level of combat readiness and weaponry) are, in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated. In terms of numbers, there is no dispute (although this evaluation criterion also leaves questions, since the Iranian army is actually comparable to the Turkish army). As for the other characteristics, questions remain.

In the Middle East, the main competitors of the Turkish army are the armed forces of Israel and Iran. If we extend the geographical range to the post-Soviet regions of the South Caucasus, the Black Sea and Central Asia, the Turkish army does not stand much of a chance against Russia’s armed forces (not to mention its nuclear potential). In terms of comparative characteristics of armies within the NATO bloc, the Turkish army cannot be superior to the armies of the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany. Moreover, the technological progress of the Turkish military-industrial complex with the import of weapons is mainly related to the above-mentioned and other NATO countries.

It should be recognised that the Turkish army retains the high traditions of the Ottoman heritage. Although historians know that the Sultan’s army of the Ottomans was not always distinguished by valiant victories, but also experienced many unfortunate failures and defeats. The army is an institution of the state, and is closely dependent on the state. In the era of the zenith of glory of the state the army wins, and in the period of crisis and decline of the state (empire) the army suffers failures and defeats.

And if from the XV and up to the XVIII cc. The Ottoman Empire experienced its heyday, then to no small extent this glory was ensured by the victories of the Sultan’s army. Conversely, the first echoes of the crisis of the Ottoman military machine began to appear in the 18th century, when the Sultan’s superior army suffered defeats at the hands of the Russian army and navy. Then the 19th and early 20th centuries turned out to be an era of systemic crisis and decline of the Ottoman Empire, which had a negative impact on the success of its army. The same tragedy with the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, and the Turkish defeat at the end of the First World War.

During the Cold War, Turkey was a US and NATO outpost on the south-eastern flank against the USSR and the WTO due to its geographical proximity and historical contradictions with Russia. Numerous (about 60) US and NATO military facilities (military bases, technical intelligence centres, radar stations, missile defence systems, command headquarters) were stationed in Turkey. The US military air bases at Incirlik (with 50 nuclear weapons) and Konya (AWACS reconnaissance aircraft) are particularly notable.

During the Cold War, Turkey’s main military success was the occupation of the Turkic-populated northern part of the island of Cyprus (Operation Attila) in July 1974, which was the result of American patronage and military-technical assistance. All in all, during the Cold War years, the United States provided military assistance to Turkey totalling more than $7 billion, while American loans to the Turkish economy totalled $4 billion, i.e., half as much.

Undoubtedly, the Turkish Army within NATO has significantly increased its combat power, military-technical equipment and the training of qualified commanders. There are many achievements in the formation of maritime special forces and special commando units within the Turkish Armed Forces’ GRU, which also could not take place without the professional support of key NATO allies (primarily the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and France). In accordance with NATO’s internal regulations, Turkish officers are trained in the leading military academies of the alliance countries, and a new system of officer training based on NATO programmes has been created in Turkey itself.

Nevertheless, after the occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, Turkey experienced a period of cooling relations with the US (in particular, in 1974-1978 the Turks received an arms embargo). Such a crisis in relations with the US in those years had a negative impact on the military equipment of the Turkish army. In 1978, the administration of President Jimi Carter cancelled the military embargo. And after the loss of Shah’s Iran and the CENTO bloc in February 1979, Turkey became NATO’s regional flagship.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the WTO, Turkey in a sense lost its former priority in NATO’s strategic security in the Middle East. First of all, the military (especially nuclear) threat from its northern neighbour has disappeared. NATO gained additional access to the Black Sea basin through the accession of former members of the WTO and former Russian allies Bulgaria and Romania to the North Atlantic Alliance. Two other Black Sea countries – Ukraine and Georgia – found themselves, as a result of the “colour revolutions”, in the status of partners and aspiring NATO members. Operation “Desert Storm” and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq allowed the U.S. and Britain to gain operational manoeuvre in the Middle East, which also reduces the former role of Turkey’s forward anchor in the region.

The US and NATO use the principle of “divide and conquer” in all regions and countries, where Turkey is no exception. Of course, Turkey’s geographical factor (straits, access to the sea and trade communications at the junction of three continents) still leaves it as an important NATO member and ally for the U.S. and key European countries.

At the same time, at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, global geopolitical changes took place in connection with the collapse of the USSR and the end of the bipolar structure of the world order created as a result of the Second World War. The subsequent 30-year history of American claims to the status of the world hegemon is nowadays undergoing a lurch and collapse. The world is rushing towards the formation of a multipolar order, which, in my opinion, is unlikely to last because of its instability.

Nevertheless, Turkey already in 1992 proclaimed a new strategy of “the golden age of the Turks” with the reliance on leadership in the Turkic world and influence on the post-Ottoman world. Consequently, what Turkish intelligence had been doing during the Cold War in terms of subversion using the ideology of pan-Turkism, in the recent period became the subject of Turkish public diplomacy under the coordination of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the participation of MIT and the new TICA structure.

Over the years, Turkey has been able to become an alternative and important international transit hub for oil and gas from Azerbaijan to the European market, thanks primarily to the United States and the United Kingdom. The network of oil and gas pipelines combined with railway communications has significantly raised Turkey’s credibility and economic competitiveness. However, the West does not like the policies of Turkish leaders from Turgut Ozal to Recep Erdogan, who aim to change the geopolitical status of the 100-year-old Republic of Turkey from a regional to a super-regional country, if not a world Turkic power.

The doctrines of neo-Ottomanism, neo-Panturanism and Turkish Eurasianism circulating in Turkish diplomacy leave many controversial issues to be pondered in the West and East. In addition, Erdogan’s political charisma and passion for the “independent player” (especially the intensification of the Turkish-Russian and Turkish-Chinese multidimensional partnership) are of particular concern to the United States.

Over the past years, the Turkish army has made frequent appearances in various local wars, as well as participating in NATO and non-NATO peacekeeping operations in a number of regions. We are talking about Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria under the slogan of “fighting Kurdish separatism”, in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the participation of the Turkish contingent in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Agdam. Meanwhile, it cannot be said that the Turkish army has won a brilliant military victory in a conflict with a strong enemy. It is absurd to declare the military valour of “NATO’s second army” over the 100,000-strong Armenian Karabakh and Armenia alone against the coalition of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan and Arab mercenaries. The Turkish army’s successes in Libya over Field Marshal Kaftar are, after all, not a military victory over Gaddafi. In Syria, although the Turkish army is objectively stronger than Bashar al-Assad’s army, it may be rebuffed by a coalition of Russia, Iran and pro-Iranian proxy forces.

Meanwhile, Turkey, for a number of economic reasons (e.g., claims to part of the gas deposits in the Cyprus area and ownership of resource islands in the Aegean Sea), is renewing the crisis in relations with another NATO member, Greece. Ankara is not happy that the US in 2022 lifted the military embargo on Cyprus that had been in force since 1987 and began arming the Greek island. Turkey is worried about the US providing Greece with modernised F-16 fighter jets and the latest 5th generation F-35 multi-role fighters, and France providing Greece with 4++ generation Rafale fighters. Accordingly, the US and France, through such military and military-technical cooperation with Greece, not only modernise the Greek arsenal, but also localise Ankara’s naval advantage in case of a military provocation against Athens.

Although Turkey, thanks to the same NATO allies (in particular, Germany, Canada, Spain) and Israel has been able to significantly raise the level of technological equipment of the domestic military-industrial complex and achieve high results in the production of unmanned combat and reconnaissance aircraft, but so far, they are lagging behind in piloting new generation aircraft. Turkey’s 5th generation Turkish Fighter (TF-X) multirole fighter is undergoing testing and test flights, and its finalisation may take a couple of years until 2030. Naturally, the current imbalance in combat aviation in favour of Greece cannot but worry the Turkish leadership.

The US has suspended Turkey from the F-35 production programme as a sanctions measure for Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 Typhoon S-400 air defence system. Washington, for the same and other reasons (including the issue of Greece, Cyprus, the South Caucasus and Sweden), has so far refused to supply Ankara with 40 modernised F-16 Block70 fighter jets. This is despite the fact that the former head of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Robert Menendez was removed from his post in the autumn of this year and the subjective obstacle to obtaining congressional approval for the resumption of military supplies to Turkey has been formally removed.

The refusal or delay of the deal on fighter jets by the U.S. has recently been motivated in Turkey by Erdogan’s refusal to comply with U.S. conditions to stop Turkey’s military aid to friendly Azerbaijan against the Armenians of Karabakh and Armenia. In any case, this opinion was recently voiced by Omer Celik, a representative of the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey. In particular, he said: “The U.S. demanded that Turkey stop supporting Azerbaijan in order to liberate Karabakh.” And this was, in his opinion, a condition for sending F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. But hasn’t Ilham Aliyev already solved the Karabakh issue, if there are actually no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh after his “counter-terrorist operation”? Besides, the current Armenian authorities have fully recognised Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. Apparently, the Karabakh issue has little to do with the fate of the F-16.

Turkey has decided to find an excuse in its search for a new multi-role fighter. In autumn this year, Ankara launched in the media the idea of an alternative option of purchasing 40 multirole fighters of the 5th generation from Europe. The fighter in question is the Eu-rofighter Typhoon, which is a joint development of the UK, Germany and Spain.

Rishi Sunak’s government, with the participation of defence chief Grant Shapps and SIS chief Richard Moore, has in fact, as the outcome of recent talks between the UK and Turkish defence ministers in Ankara showed, agreed to the said deal. The British apparently promised their Turkish partners to take on Spain’s approval as well. However, Germany, as one of the developers of this project, opposes the deal with Turkey. Again, the Turkish side believes that the deal with European fighter jets is blocked not so much by Berlin as by Washington because of Sweden’s status in NATO. As we can see, the list of possible motivations for the refusal to supply NATO fighter jets to a NATO member is not long – the Turks name Sweden, Karabakh or Greece among them.

And what is the rest? It turns out that if the two NATO fighter options (American F-16 / F-35 and European Eurofighter Typhoon) prove unattainable for Turkey, two non-NATO options (Russian Su-35 / Su-57 or Chinese Chengdu J-20) remain. Nothing is impossible. Ankara could rather buy both the Russian “Criminal” (as the Americans nicknamed our best fighter because of its combat capabilities) and the Chinese “Black Eagle” in retaliation to its Western allies.

Of course, if such a deal were to take place between Russia (and/or China) and Turkey, it would most likely be for political reasons to discredit NATO. At the same time, Russia and China are obviously unlikely to arm Turkey, a “disobedient” but still NATO member, with their super-modern fighter aircraft and hope for the “obedience” of the next Turkish leader.


Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».

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