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[OPINION] The air force on NATO’s southern flank gutted

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Abdullah Bozkurt

The Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gutted the NATO alliance’s second largest army, depleting what used to be a robust air force with a well-maintained F-16 fighter jet fleet. It has all taken place under the pretext of battling a false flag coup bid in July 2016 while NATO, under the stewardship of Norwegian politician Jens Stoltenberg, is doing practically nothing to stem the wave of arrests of distinguished officers on dubious charges.

Erdoğan has so far managed to purge 150 generals, 7,595 lower-ranking officers and 5,723 noncommissioned officers of various ranks from the military since 2016 on mostly abusive terrorism charges and some on coup-plotting allegations. In total, 15,153 well-trained personnel were dismissed from the military according to testimony in Parliament by Hulusi Akar, the defense minister and former chief of general staff, on Nov. 1, 2018. Most of them had nothing to do with the coup attempt and some in fact were posted to overseas missions at the time. Yet they were rounded up on completely fabricated charges by the government and thrown in jail with no real evidence of any crime whatsoever. They were accused of affiliation with the Gülen movement, a civic group that is staunchly critical of the Erdoğan government and which was made a scapegoat by Erdoğan for all the wrongs that have taken place under his watch.

The unprecedented purge has taken a huge toll on the Turkish Air Force, considered to be the backbone of Turkey’s defense doctrine given the fact that the country lacks a long-range air missile defense system to deter aerial attacks. Turkey has long opted to maintain a strong fighter jet fleet to control its airspace and maintain the capability to launch strikes across the border when needed. The fleet is mainly composed of F-16s, with new generation F-35 stealth fighter jets expected to soon join the force. The most intensive purge took place in the Air Force, which suggests the Erdoğan government has specifically targeted the people in this branch of the military. Among the 4,215 military members fired from the Air Force by executive decisions, 32 were generals, 2,059 were lower-ranking officers and 1,993 were noncommissioned officers.

The purge took out the most precious asset of the Air Force — the pilots, who are required to undergo rigorous, years-long training and careful screening before being allowed to fly multimillion-dollar war machines. The government dismissed 716 pilots through executive decrees under a state of emergency that are not subject to any effective judicial, military or legislative oversight. This corresponds to some 70 percent of all active duty pilots who were serving in the Air Force. Many of the veteran staff members, especially at the operations and logistics centers that help pilots fly successful missions, were also removed, hampering the close coordination between air and land elements of the Air Force. Hundreds of engineers on the ground were also removed. I think if an enemy had successfully invaded Turkey, it could not have done this much damage to the Air Force.

This also lays bare the false flag aspect of the coup attempt. If all these pilots and other high-ranking officers in the Air Force were actually involved in the coup, there would simply be no chance for the government to suppress it given the sheer force these people can project. It would have been impossible for any civilian government to defeat such brute force. Of those purged, 231 pilots had staff rank, which means they were in charge of bases, fleets and squadrons, In other words, even the remaining 30 percent of pilots who were not dismissed could not simply refuse orders from commanding officers when most were in fact involved in the attempt as the government alleges to be the case. The truth of the matter is that no such real attempt took place and most had nothing to do with a very limited mobilization that corresponded only to 1 percent of the Turkish military.

Since flying sophisticated warplanes requires highly skilled pilots, the Erdoğan government has been confronted with a huge shortage of Air Force pilots since the mass purge. Perhaps that was the intention after all, and authorities thought they could compensate for that quickly. That proved to be a challenging, to say the least, however. Ankara asked the Pakistani government to send trainers to the fly F-16s, for which Pakistan, long an ally of Turkey, happily obliged. But the United States vetoed such a request from the Turkish government, which sought prior approval from Washington to make F-16s available to non-Turkish nationals in line with the sales contract for the F-16s. In the past, the US allowed Turkey to train Saudi and Qatari pilots on Turkish F-16s, but this time Washington denied Pakistani pilots permission to fly them. This was a clear signal that the Pentagon was not happy with Erdoğan’s witch-hunt in the Turkish Air Force, which took down most, if not all, pro-NATO officers.

To replace the pilots who were dismissed en masse, the Erdoğan government also adopted a new measure to pave the way for Turkish pilots who left the service or received dishonorable discharges in past years to return to the Air Force. But only some 50 pilots decided to re-enlist, while most opted to remain in the private sector, which pays higher salaries. When the incentive failed, the government issued an executive decree extending the compulsory service for military pilots to 18 years from 14.5 years before they were allowed to leave, for example, to fly passenger aircraft in civil aviation. Many pilots who saw their wingmen unjustly persecuted wanted to leave the Air Force. The government estimated that some 100 F-16 pilots would be required to come back, but even that legal obligation proved to be of no use for the Air Force.

The fact that the Erdoğan government declared a culling season on cadets studying at the Air Force Academy and jailed and purged so many of them on dubious charges has worsened the already troubled Air Force. Moreover, in a hurried move, the government shut down this long-established military institution right after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Although the evidence showed none of the cadets were actually involved in the incidents, prosecutors acting under orders from the government launched criminal probes and filed indictments against hundreds of Air Force Academy students, demanding life sentences. For example, on July 11, 2016 the Air Force Academy in Istanbul sent 142 students for parachute training to be held at the Land Forces War Academy in Ankara. Yet after the coup attempt, prosecutors ordered the detention of all these students and indicted 51 of them on various charges and asked the court to sentence the students to three aggravated life sentences plus up to 15 years in prison. The prosecution went on despite an Air Force investigation that concluded they were in Ankara as part of the training order issued by then-Air Force Commander Abidin Ünal long before July 15. The trials of the cadets continued amid an outcry from their families.

Likewise, another group of cadets who were studying at the Air Force Academy were brought to several locations in Istanbul on the night of the coup under the pretext of military drills. They had no idea that they were being made into scapegoats when they were instructed to get on the busses. The plot was designed by former Air Force Gen. Ünal, who was one of the masterminds behind the false flag. In an unusual move, Ünal visited the Military Academy Applied Training Camp at the Yalova Airfield Command on the afternoon of July 15, hours before the coup attempt was launched. He told the officers at the camp to give the cadets some off time and said, “Don’t tire the boys out, they’ll get tired in the evening.” Again in a surprise move, he ordered the cancellation of the physical training sessions and the flag-raising ceremony for the cadets, a first in the academy’s history. Something was definitely off.

After the coup attempt started, the Air Force Academy students at this camp were transported in groups by bus to different places in İstanbul including the Bosporus Bridge as reinforcements. During the court proceedings, the cadets testified that they were told the trip was part of training for a terrorist attack or a suicide bombing. It turned out that Col. Hüseyin Ergezen at the camp had ordered 10 buses from a company in Yalova on July 14, a day before the attempt took place. On the day of the incident, 450 students were put on the buses and sent to İstanbul. The buses took 80 students to Sabiha Gökçen Airport, 300 to Digiturk and 70 to the bridge. Everything was planned to give the appearance that a real coup was taking place when in fact the cadets, most without firearms, were sent to what was touted as a drill. On May 19, 2018 an Istanbul court sentenced hundreds of these students to life although the prosecutors presented no credible evidence of a crime.

Unlike other branches of the security forces where the government filled the empty slots with partisans and zealots with or little or no training, it was not so easy to replace the veteran pilots to fly the highly advanced fighter jets. The issue was discussed in Ankara during a visit of US Defense Secretary James Mattis in August 2017 when Turkish officials requested the training of new pilots in the US. The Pentagon is still reviewing the request. Strangely enough the government not only closed the Air Force Academy on July 25, 2016 and stripped the title of officer from all of that year’s new graduates, it also transferred cadets who had not graduated or were still studying to other universities that have nothing to do with military training. It reopened the Air Force Academy again in February 2017 under the newly established National Defense University but found it difficult to attract new students.

Behind this massive transformation lies Erdoğan’s agenda to turn the Turkish military, especially the Air Force, into a partisan tool to advance his personal goals. He wants to flex his Islamist government’s muscles to back up his endeavor of exporting political Islamist ideology with hard power. For example, one of the changes his government introduced after setting up the National Defense University was to start accepting candidates from religious imam-hatip high schools, where Erdoğan had studied. The government also appointed a history professor, an Islamist and neo-Ottomanist figure, as rector of the university, which trains officers for all branches of the Turkish military. His name is Erhan Afyoncu, who often engages in Ottoman nostalgia and writes regularly for the Sabah daily, owned by Erdoğan’s family. Some of his writings tell the tale. For example, he wrote how Europe considers Muslim Turkey an enemy, how Austrians are terrified of Turks and how the United States paid taxes to the Ottomans. He talks about Ottoman expansion in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world and tries to draw parallels between Erdoğan’s leadership to that of the Ottoman sultans.

While students were screened to determine if they complied with the Erdoğan government’s Islamist and neo-nationalist ideology before they were accepted by the Defense University and war academies, the government also staffed the senior ranks of the military with civilians and awarded them officer rank such as colonel and general. The commission that selects personnel for officers’ positions was controlled by Adnan Tanrıverdi, a retired Islamist lieutenant general who was given the official position of chief military advisor to the president in August 2016, a month after the failed coup. He is the point man who will be reshaping NATO’s largest army after the US by steering recruitment policy until 2020. Tanrıverdi is known for his Islamist ideology and has counseled Erdoğan for years, albeit in an unofficial capacity.  Tanrıverdi owns the paramilitary group SADAT, which has been training militant Islamist jihadists fighting in Libya and Syria.

The Air Force has been hard hit by the Erdoğan regime, bringing the ratio of pilots to aircraft to 0.8 (0.6 according to some reports) to 1, which is quite low. But the story of other forces in the Turkish military is no different than this terrible tale. This is not only the most fundamental challenge to Turkey’s long-term interests and strategic security needs but also a growing threat to the NATO alliance’s security structure, one that cannot be taken lightly given the far-reaching implications of this transformation in Turkey for allied nations.

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