Russia started the delivery of the first S-400 air defence system on July 12th. The components of the system were transported to Murted Air Force Base in Ankara by Il-76 and An-124 cargo aircraft. The delivery lasted for about two weeks.
Almost immediately after the first units of the system arrived in Ankara, the United States government announced that Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 programme was suspended. This action was followed by statements from Turkish government mentioning Turkey might look for alternatives in the event of Turkey’s total removal from the programme and withholding the delivery of the aircraft. Not surprisingly, Russian officials started talking about Russia being ready to offer Su-35 fighter to Turkey.
These statements immediately sparked discussions about which alternatives Turkey might look for. Depending on a number of factors not directly related with aerospace and defence matters, the range of these alternatives wary between wide to not-so-much. One of the is the Eurofighter Typhoon
Current State of Turkish Air Force
Turkish Air Force (TurAF) has one of the largest F-16 fleet in the world. It took delivery of a total of 270 F-16C/Ds between 1987 and 2012. Currently it has around 240 F-16s, about 30 of which are older Block 30 version whereas 180 or so are Block 40 and 50’s and 30 are of the latest Block 50+. Block 40 and 50s received an extensive avionics upgrade under Peace Onyx III project. Block 30s are to receive structural upgrades to extend their service lives by 4,000 hours. These aircraft can be expected to see the end of 2020s, where later Block’s will need to be replaced by 2030s and 40s.
TurAF is one of the last users of the legendary F-4E Phantom II with a total of 182 F-4Es and 54 RF-4Es entering service between 1974 and 1994. 54 of the F-4Es were modernized by IAI of Israel between 2000 and 2003 under a project called ‘Terminator’. These aircraft, re-designated as F-4E/2020 received ELM-2032 radars, new cockpit avionics, modern comms and navigation systems as well as capability to use ELL-8233 electronic warfare pods and Popeye 1 air launched precision strike missiles.
Today, less than 40 F-4E/2020s are in service. They still shoulder strike missions against terrorist PKK targets inside and outside the country. However, the Terminator fleet is having its last days, with gradual retirement of the last flyable examples expected to start next year.
The future plan for the TurAF combat fleet had two stages: Replace F-4E/2020s with the F-35 and F-16s with the TFX, the indigenous fighter aircraft.
The first F-35As were planned to be delivered to 171st Squadron of 7th Main Jet Base at Erhac, Malatya at the end of this year. The second squadron to be equipped with the type was 172nd of the same base. Afterwards, consecutive F-35As were to be delivered to 111 and 112nd squadrons of 1st Main Jet Base at Eskisehir.
TFX, conceptual design phase of which was started in 2011 is planned to make the first flight sometime around 2025 and reach initial operational capability (IOC) around 2027-28. However ambitious it might be, this timeframe overlaps with the retirement plans of the F-16. Risks associated with the development, testing and manufacture of the aircraft, especially the engine which is targeted to be indigenous, might push those milestones further right.
Meanwhile, other countries in the region are investing heavily to modernise their air forces: Greece is upgrading 84 of its F-16s to F-16V standard and is reported to have an interest in acquiring at least a squadron of F-35s. Israel has taken delivery of 16 F-35As and is expected to get at least 50 of the aircraft and is also discussing of getting extra F-15s. Egypt is acquiring Rafales from France and MiG-35s from Russia and is also reportedly in negotiation with the latter for Su-35s. Syria, while its once formidable air force is decimated, fields S-300 air defence system. The security situation in the Eastern Mediterranean can be compared to a ticking time bomb.
Bottom line: Turkey needs to keep its combat aircraft capabilities up to date, regardless of the outcome of the F-35 issue or the coming of TFX.
Turkey and the Typhoon: Could it be?
Many would naturally expect the S-400 to be followed by other weapon systems such as a combat aircraft. But acquiring a modern fighter aircraft from Russia would probably have much more complex military, strategic and political consequences involved, and it would turn into a side-effect of a much more intricate strategic problem. The same would also apply for China. In other words, getting fighter aircraft from either of these two countries, although not entirely impossible, seem to be very unlikely to be realized. Time and budget required to induct and absorb these aircraft, their weapon and mission systems, their supply chain, training and doctrine and required infrastructure would be huge. The same also applies for procurement of a new type of fighter from the West, albeit significantly lower cost for weapons procurement because TurAF already fields similar, interoperable weapons.
Eurofighter Typhoon is frequently discussed among aviation circles in both Turkey and elsewhere, especially because of the relatively good relations of the country with UK and Italy. It is indeed ironic that the name of this aircraft comes to agenda every once in a long while depending on the course of relations with the US and Europe.
Turkey was officially invited to the Eurofighter program in 1984, during the then Minister of National Defence Zeki Yavuzturk’s visit to UK in September that year. Back then, Turkey was having serious economic difficulties and the focus was given to the F-16 project: The selection was announced previous year and preparations were underway for establishment of assembly line for the aircraft and the engine. Alas, involvement did not happen.
Two decades later, Italy, which was responsible of marketing of the Typhoon to Turkey, came with a seemingly lucrative offer: The Eurofighter consortium offered Turkey an equal partnership. During early 2000s, Turkey’s relations with the EU were promising: The country was formally accepted as a EU-member candidate and diplomatic and economic relations rapidly flourished. Pilots from TurAF made test flights with the Typhoon in Italy. Alas, Turkey went for 30 F-16 Block 50+s.
Italy did not give up: Around 2009-10, they renewed their offer in the form of Typhoon 2020 with additional capabilities, again equal industrial partnership and transfer of technology. Press reports stated that the offer covered 40 aircraft, worth of two squadrons. Turkey rejected the offer and started the TFX program.
Today, realisation of this alternative might depend on two main factors. Economy (or budget) and the direction of US – Turkish relations.
Getting brand new Typhoon’s would be very costly. On the other hand, getting used ones would be a cheaper solution. Italy is known to have been offering some of its Typhoons’s in the second hand market for some time. These might indeed be considered as a stop gap solution. Seemingly more feasible than getting brand new aircraft in terms of delivery time and cost, again achieving IOC would take a couple of years.
And also, there is another factor: US involvement. US sourced technology and components that are subject to ITAR and other export control mechanism are found in virtually all Western combat aircraft in various percentages. Typhoon is no exception. Depending on the severity of Turkish – US ties, Washington might pursue more aggressive measures against Turkey to directly or indirectly; formally or informally block transfer of advanced technology. This scenario is unlikely, but then again, it is a risk factor that has to be taken into account.
S-400 seems to have changed many things…
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Arda Mevlutoglu is an astronautical engineer. He is currently working as the VP of an international trading and consultancy company, focusing on defense and aerospace sector. He is currently working as the Vice President of Defense Programs at an international trading and consultancy company. His research focuses on defense industry technology, policies and geopolitical assessments, with a focus to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. His works have been published in various local and international journals such as Air Forces Monthly, Air International, Combat Aircraft, EurasiaCritic, ORSAM Middle East Analysis. He has been quoted by Financial Times, Reuters, BBC, Al Monitor, CNN Turk and TRT on issues covering Turkish defence industry and military developments.