Executive Summary: Major NATO nations have already begun receiving fifth generation aircraft, while some others, such as France and Germany, have preferred temporarily flying with 4.5 generation platforms in order to make a long jump directly into sixth generation airpower in the coming decades. Against this backdrop, Turkey is in serious trouble. Its exclusion from the F-35 consortium has impaired Ankara’s pitch badly. In addition, engine problems with the indigenous stealth fighter project, Milli Muharip Uçak, will likely deprive the Turkish Air Force of state-of-the-art platforms for at least a decade and perhaps even longer. The fourth generation F-16s will keep forming the backbone of Turkey’s airpower in the 2020s, marking a comparative handicap. Finally, Turkey’s mini-aircraft carrier plans, centered on the forthcoming amphibious assault vessel TCG Anadolu, can remain stillborn in the absence of an additional procurement of the F-35B short take-off/vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. Overall, Turkey’s burgeoning defense sector has worked miracles with unmanned systems, however, the manned aircraft segment is set to suffer from crippled wings before it can take off.
Combat aircraft generational categorization remains a key parameter in airpower and defense strategy assessments. At present, the fifth generation platforms, for example, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, have already introduced a new reality to battle-spaces. The aircraft come with game changing capabilities, such as boosted data fusion in network-centric warfare, stealth features, and advanced multi-spectral sensors. Overall, these novelties go beyond traditional kinematic calculus and manifest in real battle networks flying high even in hostile airspaces. Apart from the fifth generation, some stopgap options fall under the hybrid 4.5 generation, or 4++, categories, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, F/A -18 E/F Super Hornet, and JAS-39 Gripen. These aircraft differ from the legacy fourth generation, for example, the F-16, with their active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, advanced computers suitable for network-centric battle management systems, and low observable aspects (The Royal Australian Air Force, January 2012).
Against this backdrop, Turkey is to face a significant airpower challenge in the 2020s. Following the nation’s exclusion from the F-35 consortium due to the procurement of the S-400 strategic air defense system from Moscow, and given the present timeframe and expected problems with the indigenous fighter aircraft program Milli Muharip Uçak (or MMU, formerly known as the TF-X), the Turkish Air Force will, for at least a decade, not be able to operate any fifth generation platform. Furthermore, amid problematic defense economics plaguing the entire world due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the chances are slim for Turkey to acquire a quick, convenient 4.5 generation stopgap to augment its arsenal. Overall, the air force will have to rely on the fourth generation F-16s—albeit with certain important modernization features in some advanced blocs—to form the backbone of its doctrinal order of battle. In addition, the Turkish Navy’s plans to operate an air-wing of the F-35Bs, of the short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, to embark on what was supposed to be a mini-aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu, might mark a stillborn story.
Ankara’s airpower challenge is waiting for a talismanic touch, if such a way out exists. Many NATO nations are already flying fifth generation aircraft. And those who prefer to skip the fifth generation frenzy, favoring a long jump directly to the sixth generation like the Franco-German Future Combat Air System, have 4.5 generation stopgaps like the Eurofighter Typhoon (Deutsche Welle, February 7, 2019; RUSI, February 11, 2014).
Can Turkey Mitigate the F-35 Loss?
News stories suggest that Ankara could try an eclectic roadmap to compensate for—or minimize, to be more correct—operational shortcomings emanating from its exclusion from the F-35 program. The first measure would be relieving the burden of air-ground roles of the F-16s, which form the backbone of the Turkish airpower deterrent and will commence retirement in the 2030s. To do so, Turkey can opt for buying some time for its F-4 2020 fighter-bombers—around 30 aircraft—by postponing their retirement through a careful maintenance plan. Another idea promoted in the Turkish press is boosting the Akinci heavy drone and Hürkuş-C light attack aircraft into serial production, as they await entry into service, to assume ground-attack roles (Yeni Şafak, July 18, 2019).
Higher operational-class Akinci, produced by Baykar, which also manufactures Turkey’s battle-hardened ‘Pantsir hunter’ Bayraktar TB-2 tactical drone, will have an impressive combat payload of some 1,350 kilograms. Such a capacity will enable the platform to carry some heavy munitions, including the indigenous air-launched cruise missile SOM and smart joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) along with advanced sensors. Combined with its 24 hour-long endurance, Akinci can relieve some of the manned aircraft’s burden in air-ground missions (Baykar). In tandem, Hürkuş-C light-attack aircraft is designed to carry 12.7 and 20mm guns and a variety of air-ground munitions along with some protection such as armored structures and countermeasures against man-portable air defenses (TUSAS). Turkey’s forthcoming light-attack aircraft can provide close air-support in relatively safer airspaces.
In a live, public webinar in May 2020, Turkey’s procurement chief, Professor Ismail Demir, provided some hints as to Turkey’s airpower roadmap. Professor Demir highlighted some critical considerations. First, he ruled out an off-the-shelf 4.5 (or 4++) generation aircraft procurement as a stopgap before Turkey operates its indigenous fifth generation Milli Muharip Uçak (MMU), designed in cooperation with BAE Systems (YouTube, May 29). This remark was important because, when asked about the prospects of a Russian Su-35 acquisition back in 2019, Demir remarked that the aircraft could only be a stopgap measure (Yeni Safak, September 4, 2019). Interestingly, last year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu even stated that Ankara could opt for Su-34 Russian tactical bombers—of course, it is likely this was a slip of the tongue and he meant to reference the Su-35 (Anadolu Agency, April 4, 2019).
Second, Demir said that Turkey’s forthcoming fifth generation fighter, the MMU, will enter into service in several different blocs. In doing so, the initial MMU variants will likely be slightly below the fifth generation standards (YouTube, May 29).
Mini-Aircraft Carrier Plans Falling Through?
In fact, Turkey’s original F-35 acquisition plan was centered on 100 platforms of the conventional variant, the F-35A. However, back in November 2018, the Turkish press reported that the navy was preparing to operate the STOVL variant, the F-35B, to embark on the forthcoming amphibious assault vessel, TCG Anadolu. With this capability, Turkey was to operate the flagship as a mini-aircraft carrier (Yeni Şafak, November 9, 2018). Notably, in December 2018, President Erdogan remarked that Turkey had been gearing up to acquire 120 F-35s instead of the planned 100 (Haberturk, December 16, 2018). Meaningfully, in the IDEF-2019 exhibition, a small-scale make-up of the vessel was showcased with F-35s embarked on its deck (YouTube, May 4). TCG Anadolu, still under construction at the time of writing, already went through certain modifications in accordance with the mini-aircraft carrier goal, including a ski-jump (CNNTurk, February 1).
Based on the Spanish Juan Carlos-1 class, TCG Anadolu will bring an unprecedented blue-water capability to the Turkish Navy. Thanks to its capacity to carry a small air-wing of STOVL aircraft, the Spanish Navy officially considers ‘aircraft carrier substitution’ to be one of the core missions of the Juan Carlos-1 class along with marine operations, power projection, and humanitarian tasks (The Spanish Navy). In tandem, the Turkish Navy’s assessments draw attention to the vessel’s ability to carry an embarked air-wing as a critical feature in close air-support to amphibious assaults as well as anti-air warfare (The Turkish Navy, February 2, 2019).
The F-35B remains the only alternative in serial production to form an air-wing for TCG Anadolu. In the absence of such capability, Turkey will only have an amphibious assault vessel, not a mini-aircraft carrier. The Australians operate their ships in kind, with the Canberra-class based on the Juan Carlos-1, solely as amphibious assets without going for the carrier option (Aksam, November 25, 2019). The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, however, prefers embarking its F-35Bs on its Izumo-class helicopter carriers (Japan Times, May 23, 2019). Therefore, theoretically, both ways are possible for Turkey’s TCG Anadolu. Yet, given the growing expeditionary posture of the Turkish military, an operational mini-aircraft carrier would still mark a significant difference in capabilities over the coming years. The Libyan campaign’s trajectory, for example, could have gone in a drastically different direction had Turkey possessed such a game changing overseas deep-strike capacity.
An idea promoted by Turkish defense planners is to translate the successful ‘dronization’ trend into naval aviation and equip the next Turkish flagship’s future air-wing with new unmanned systems (TRT Haber, June 11). Nevertheless, no known unmanned capability can replace the F-35B.
Tough Years on the Horizon
Turkey’s initial plan was to begin operating the F-35s by now, and in the meantime, develop its own national combat aircraft. While the former fell through, the latter now has to overcome problematic defense economics and a particular technology problem associated with developing the engine for such a sophisticated platform. Overall, the Turkish Air Force now faces the risk of falling short of becoming a fifth generation aircraft operator even by the early 2030s. Although Turkey’s defense technological and industrial base has been working miracles with unmanned systems, the manned aircraft segment is in serious trouble.
The 2020s and even 2030s might prove to be difficult years for Turkish airpower. At present, the Turkish Air Force’s most modern fighters and multirole platforms are the modernized F-16 variants. Last year, ASELSAN, a Turkish defense corporation, kicked-off an ambitious modernization project to equip these aircraft with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars (Anadolu Agency, March 24, 2019). But again, Turkey’s current airpower remains a textbook fourth generation one and the situation is unlikely to change soon. Even in optimistic scenarios, Turkey’s indigenous fifth generation fighter will not enter into service until at least the 2030s. Besides, even if the Turkish administration manages to somehow secure a miraculous 4.5 generation stopgap procurement, the F-35’s unmatched information superiority cannot be replaced by any known multirole platform. Finally, the Turkish defense ecosystem will keep suffering from the inauspicious exodus from a multi-billion-dollar project, broad co-production advantages, and a real breakthrough in technological know-how. Bizarrely enough, Turkey has risked a joint production, fifth generation aircraft project for an off-the-shelf Russian SAM system purchase with no technology transfer or co-production option anywhere in sight.