Is Turkey’s potential return to the F-35 programme aligned with evolving defence priorities?
Turkey’s quest for a modern air force has raised several questions as the country navigates complex negotiations and strategic decisions in its pursuit of advanced fighter aircraft.
Just a week after the US has approved the Greek F-35 and Turkish F-16 sales, a US official said it would be open to welcoming Turkey back to the F-35 programme. With the F-16 jet sale and modernisation deals on track – for now – and Turkey’s indigenous TF-X Kaan fighter programme ahead of schedule, the question arises whether the country actually needs the fifth-generation Lockheed Martin fighter after all.
Ankara was kicked out of the Joint Fighter Programme (JFP) in 2019 after procuring Russian S-400 air defence missile systems.
“We were in the process of negotiating the Patriot sale, and while those negotiations were going on, Turkey went in another direction,” Victoria Nuland, acting deputy secretary of state for the US, said.
“Frankly, if we can resolve this S-400 issue, which we want to do, the US would be pleased to welcome Turkey back into the F-35 family. But we must solve this other issue first. And while we solve it, we must also ensure that Turkey has a strong air defence.”
Does Turkey still need the F-35?
Dr Can Kasapoglu, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, believes that the US fighter could still prove to be an important asset to the Turkish Air Force.
“From an airpower standpoint, the F-35 will still be important,” he told Shephard. “Kaan will not be equipping the squadrons until [the] mid-2030s. The country needs a fifth-generation, tactical military aviation edge to avoid lagging behind contemporary defence technological trends.”
Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, thinks similarly.
“Given the increasing ubiquity of the F-35 in NATO member states, it would not be surprising were Turkey to still profess an interest in the Lighting II,” he said. “Such interest could also serve as leverage in any negotiations with other combat aircraft manufacturers, I would imagine.
“Ankara would also be mindful, however, of how the US blocked access to the aircraft almost irrespective of the cause.”
Despite the US declaring its intention to cease opposition to the sale of 40 F-16 Block 70 jets to Turkey, the actual arrival of these aircraft remains uncertain. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)
Interestingly, days after the F-16 deal was greenlit, an anonymous Turkish defence official said that Turkey still wanted to buy Eurofighter Typhoons. Ankara confirmed last November it had been in talks with the UK and Spain to purchase 40 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, amid concerns about a possible blockade from Germany.
It was not clear whether the interest was genuine or mere brinkmanship. It was also not the first time Ankara has eyed up the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon since the F-16 deal began faltering. As Shephard reported in March, Turkish officials threatened to ditch the F-16 request in favour of non-US alternatives.
“The F-16V deal has not killed the Eurofighter Typhoon plans, not at all,” Kasapoglu stressed. “Nonetheless, Ankara would still want to see modern tranches in addition to the Tranche 1s in its arsenal. Another issue would be indigenous munitions certification which would require source codes.”
Turkish F-16 procurement is not a done deal
Ankara’s attempt to join the F-35 programme serves as a great reminder that, despite the US declaring its intention to cease opposition to the sale of 40 F-16 Block 70 jets to Turkey, the actual arrival of these aircraft remains uncertain.
At the time of its expulsion from the JFP, Turkey had accepted six of the 100 F-35As it intended to acquire, but the jets remained in American soil. The status of these fighter remains unclear, however, some reports claimed they were subsumed into the US Air Force (USAF). Other unsubstantiated reports have claimed that Washington is now reportedly seeking compensation from Ankara for the maintenance of the six fighters it has been storing.
The US State Department referred Shephard to the Joint Program Office for clarification which did not immediately respond.
“Even though Turkey will maintain an upgraded F-16 fleet following the recent deal approved by the Biden administration, and while the TF-X Kaan is programmed to replace Turkey’s F-16s by the end of this decade, Turkey is likely to continue to look for ways to receive the F-35s it has purchased from the US,” Jeff Jager, non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Shephard.
Expressing continuous interest in the European fighter could indicate that Türkiye wants to ensure that Eurofighter discussions do not stop until it is certain it will receive the new F-16s. Alternatively, Ankara indeed seeks to operate fighter fleets consisting of F-16s, F-35s, TF-X and Eurofighters.
“Several countries maintain multiple different fighter jet types,” Jager noted. “And while this increases maintenance, logistics and training costs, the acquisition of F-35s by Turkey during the planned transition from F-16s to TF-X Kaans, with or without the additional acquisition of Eurofighter…would position Turkey well for delivering air power.”
He added that this is likely of increased priority for Ankara, given the announcement that Greece will now receive F-35s. Kasapoglu believes the Turkish Eurofighter procurement “is not a London or Ankara decision – the ball is in Berlin's court now.”
Timelines of fighter programmes and the S-400 issue
Jager said there are a number of ways Turkey and the US could work together to resolve the S-400 conundrum.
“One would be for the US to finally offer a Patriot-based air defence capability package to Turkey at a reasonable price and within a reasonable timeframe,” he said. “As part of this process…to come to some agreement on the sort of disposition of the S-400 systems, the US would accept in return for greenlighting Turkey's re-entry into the F-35 programme.”
This, Jager said, could include mothballing the S-400s for long-term storage once the US delivered Patriots and Turkey brought them to full operational capacity.
Importantly, the part-Balkan-part Asian country does not even need the S-400, Kasapoglu pointed out. As Shephard previously reported, the homegrown Siper surface-to-air missile (SAM) system could serve as an indigenous replacement for the Russian S-400. Haluk Gorgun, chairman of Turkish defence firm Aselsan Elektronik Sanayi, said last year that his country need no longer rely on the Russian air defence system.
Turkish media have suggested that the Siper system would enter service at the end of 2023, but it would likely take a few more years to fully deploy and validate its effectiveness.
A Turkish defence official said that Turkey was still interested in buying Eurofighter Typhoons. (Photo: Bundeswher)
“Solving the S-400 issue comes first, and after years of talks, perhaps the US' newly found interest in working with Turkey to do so will lead to a breakthrough,” Jager emphasised.
Resolving the S-400 conundrum, whether by substituting it with Sipers or Patriots, could take at least two-three years. Kaan fighter production en masse is expected to begin in 2028, a two-year advancement from previous projections, with two aircraft rolling off the production line every month by 2029.
While readmitting Turkey back to the F-35 programme could be faster than settling negotiations with new customer, still the timeline from contract signing to initiating jet deliveries currently stands at approximately six years. Consequently, the Turkish air force would not be anticipated to field a complete squadron of F-35s before 2032.
The Turkish Air Force could pursue two fifth-generation fighter procurement programmes simultaneously, but this might not be the best use of funds despite the increased defence budget for 2024. For instance, Turkey’s KC-135 transport/tanker fleet is due to be retired by 2030, with no formal replacement requirement identified. Additionally, the Turkish Army is undergoing arguably the biggest overhaul in the wider Middle Eastern region.
The Turkish participation in the F-35 programme, however, was not limited to the Turkish Air Force's procurement plans, Kasapoglu pointed out.
“Before its exodus from the programme, the Turkish industry, within the Tier 3 partner status, was enjoying billions of dollars of production portfolio,” he noted. “A Turkish return would also mark a serious opportunity for the defence technological an industrial base.”
Kasapoglu added that Türkiye was also meant to operate a major F-35 maintenance facility.
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