Turkey’s modern air force with a 240-strong fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons serving as the main spearhead of its striking power is more than capable enough to counter newly emerging threats in Syria, the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea.
That was the response I received to my query to Combat Air Force Commander Gen. Abidin Ünal during a visit to the Combatant Air Force and Air Missile Defense Command in Eskişehir last week. Many are worried whether the air force with its precious pool of fighter pilots is stretched thin against the background of increased instances of foreign fighter jets buzzing around Turkish airspace in recent years and harassing the nation. Commanders at both the General Staff and the air force say they have the situation under control and feel they can act rapidly to neutralize any threat.
In addition to the four-year-long conflict in neighboring Syria, which requires constant vigilance and monitoring by a squadron of Turkish fighter jets, more and more Russian aircraft have been flying along Turkish airspace over the Black Sea, often prompting Turkish jets to scramble and intercept them. In a move to project hard power, Moscow has been firing across the bow of Turkey to send a message to NATO just as it does over the airspace in the Baltic Sea.
In a classic knee-jerk reaction to create a distraction for its own public amid economic hardship, the new government in Greece turned to the nationalistic fever and increased belligerent actions in and over the Aegean as well. The controversial visit in January by Greece’s new defense minister, Panos Kammenos, to the Aegean islets of Imia/Kardak, whose status remains controversial and almost led to a war between the two neighbors in the 1990s, received a quick response on Feb. 19 from Turkey when the commander of the Turkish Air Forces, Gen. Akın Öztürk, personally led a group of eight Turkish warplanes in a low-altitude flight over international waters near the Greek islands. Gen. Ünal also joined in similar patrols. It is no coincidence that the number of dogfights between Turkish and Greek fighter jets has recently increased.
The unresolved Cyprus problem and the disputed offshore drilling and poor ties with Israel have also raised the threats for Turkey, requiring the air force to keep a closer watch over the airspace in the eastern Mediterranean in addition to the presence of the Turkish naval forces. In May 2012, Turkey had to scramble two F-16s from İncirlik Air Base to intercept an Israeli plane that violated the airspace of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC). Air support was also provided for the protection of Turkey’s work to carry out oil and gas exploration in offshore areas around northern Cyprus.
On top of this, Turkey has to fulfill its obligations as part of NATO to provide protection for allies and partners and as such commissions air force pilots and fighter jets to run surveillance flights over the airspace of other NATO member countries. For example, Turkey joined NATO’s Baltic air-policing mission to provide protection for the airspace of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I remember Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves expressing his appreciation of the Turkish Air Forces for the aerial defense of his country during the interview I conducted in his office in Tallinn a while back.
The message communicated last week by Combat Air Force Commander Gen. Ünal was very clear. He recalled that while the air force was mourning the terrible loss of its pilots who were killed in recent crashes involving two RF-4E jets and one F-4 2020 Phantom jet, Turkish F-16s were intercepting Russian and Greek jets over the Black Sea and the Aegean. He acknowledged that the burden on the air force has increased in recent years, resulting in more shifts for pilots but vowed that the air force is capable of undertaking multiple missions at the same time to provide aerial security in several theaters. “Even when we are in pain, attending the funerals of our pilots, we do take care of our business,” Ünal stated.
Turkey has been building more muscle for its air force with new generation and modernized F-16s as well as the next generation fighter aircraft F-35s that are planned to be delivered to Turkey starting in 2018. Turkey had already announced that it plans to buy 100 F-35s for $16 billion. Last year, it incorporated the first A400M Atlas cargo aircraft into its fleet. The commanders in Eskişehir told me that the ultimate aim is to manufacture a national fighter jet soon. The Turkish government decided to move forward on this project in January, and the procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM), recently released a Request for Information (RFI) to collect data on the capabilities of various companies and suppliers that are interested in taking part in the design, development and production of an indigenous fighter jet.
Considering how impressive the air force’s engine service and maintenance center in Eskişehir is, there is no doubt that this can happen. Both Turkish Aircraft Industries Inc. (TUSAŞ) and First Air Supply and Maintenance Military Center (HIBM) have enough engineers, technicians, technology and expertise to make that a reality. Technical teams already overhaul F-16 and F-4 2020 engines and parts in this state-of-the-art facility.
On a yearly basis, the HIBM services 250 jet engines of 27 various types while overhauling, replacing and repairing more than 35,000 parts The HIBM is the first military-industrial entity in Europe to receive an AS9110 certificate, which is the industry-recognized standard of quality and risk management in aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul.
I was told that the inspection, maintenance and repair of engines for NATO’s Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) planes are carried out at the Eskişehir plant as well. So far, more than 100 AWACS have been served in this facility, although the initial contract was only for some 30 engines. After rigorous testing, NATO was very happy with the quality and performance of maintenance for AWACS and officials decided to extend the contract.
What is more, in December, the Eskişehir facility was selected as the overhaul and repair center for the European region for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet engines. The selection of Turkey among other European partners the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway is a testament to the reliability of a high maintenance record kept at the Eskişehir plant. The program will start in 2018, with Norway and the Netherlands lining up to provide additional capability a few years later. Turkish industry already manufactures several airframe and engine components of the F-35 aircraft.
Turkey has developed significant capability while overhauling its F-4 2020 Phantom fighter jets, from software to avionics. It also procured several precision-guided missiles and weapons with domestic technology to mount to the twin-engine F-4 2020s. For example, the turbojet-powered SOM with a range of 250 kilometers is an air-launched weapon that is designed for use against heavily defended targets. Another example is the production of the HGK precision guidance kit, which uses GPS/INS guidance with flap-out wings, which converts 2,000-pound Mark 84 bombs into smart weapons. It enables precision strike capabilities in all weather conditions.
Faced with serious challenges in its own neighborhood, Turkey must feel proud of its robust air force, which compensates for the nation’s weakness in long-range air defense systems. Hopefully, the decision on the $4 billion tender for air defense systems will be made quickly so that more co-production possibilities and transfer of missile technology will be available for the air defense industry in Turkey. In short and medium-range missiles, Turkish companies have already made significant progress with successful tests. The fact that the air force has been moving forward on obtaining more agility and better innovation in aircraft and missile technologies provides some relief for those who remain concerned about national security in the tough region in which Turkey finds itself.