Turkey needs an interim fighter jet solution until the mid-2030s, when the TF-X, Turkey’s next-generation national fighter, is scheduled to become operational. The Turkish Air Force (THK) relies primarily on the 4th-generation F-16, currently operating 234 4th-generation F-16 C/D Fighting Falcons, which are the backbone of the air force and will be retired from service starting in 2030. However, the TF-X is expected to achieve full operational capability by the mid-2030s. Before the US removed Turkey from the F35 Joint Strike Fighter project, Turkey’s plan was to procure between 100 and 120 F-35A and F-35B aircraft from the United States, with the TF-X and F-35A jets becoming the primary force of the THK. Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 long-range air and missile defense system from Russia, which resulted in Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35A project by the US, has changed the entire plan for the THK.
The retirement of the last F-4Es in mid-2020, the lack of F-35As and the timing of the TF-X program will leave the Turkish Air Force with a numerical and qualitative deficit. Due to problems in bilateral relations between Turkey and the US, no result has yet been achieved in delivering the 40 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets and 80 Block 70 modernization packages that Turkey requested from the US on Sept. 30, 2021. In this case, could the purchase of the Eurofighter Typhoon from the UK be a solution to meet the operational needs of the THK until the TF-X aircraft becomes operational?
Turkey’s top priority has always been to have air and naval power superiority in the Aegean and thus to have a deterrent power. However, the balance of air power between Turkey and Greece has been changing in favor of Greece since France agreed to sell 24 Rafale F3-R fighter jets to the Greek Air Force in August 2020. Greece is also upgrading 84 F-16C/D Block 52/52+ aircraft to F-16V Block 72 levels under a program approved by the US government in October 2017.
Meanwhile, on June 30, 2022, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated that an official Letter of Request had been sent to the United States requesting the purchase of 20 F-35 aircraft. The process initiated could lead to the delivery of the first F-35A aircraft to the Hellenic Air Force in 2027 or 2028. Following the acquisition of the 24 Rafale F3-R fighters and the upgrade of 84 F-16C/Ds to the Block 72 V variant, the procurement of F-35A aircraft will further strengthen the country’s deterrence capability.
In order to maintain its airpower deterrence through the 2030s, Turkey has firstly started series modernization of F-16C/D Block 30 aircraft under the Özgür Project; is having them fitted with the indigenous Active Electronic Search Array (AESA) radar being developed by ASELSAN; and is increasing the structural service life of the F-16 Block 30 aircraft.
On Sept. 30, 2021 the Turkish government submitted a Letter of Request to the US government covering the procurement of 40 new-build F-16V Block 70 fighter jets and some 80 upgrade kits for the modernization of 29 Block 50+ and 50 Block 40M aircraft in the Turkish Air Force inventory to the Block 70 level.
If the US Congress refuses to approve the sale of F-16V Block 70s to Turkey, the Turkish Armed Forces has also considered purchasing both used and newly built Eurofighter Typhoon Tranche 4 twin-engine fighter jets as an interim solution. According to domestic and foreign press sources, the United Kingdom is offering to sell Turkey 20 Eurofighter Typhoon Tranche 1 aircraft with the source codes and 60 Tranche 3 or newly built Tranche 4 aircraft without source codes
The THK needs easy-to-maintain, low-cost fighter jets that can operate in a network-centric concept of operations with data fusion capability, that can conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground missions and that are interoperable with naval and land platforms. The Eurofighter Tranche 1 cannot meet these requirements. Tranche 3 and Tranche 4 cannot be equipped with Turkey’s locally developed weapons, so these jets would come with their own payload if procured.
However, Turkey produces its own air-to-air, air-to-surface and cruise missiles such as Gökdoğan, Bozdoğan, Gökhan, Som-j and Bozok as well as indigenous smart guidance kits mounted on different types of bombs. To mount these missiles on Eurofighter Tranche 3 or Tranche 4, the source codes for the mission computer software of these aircraft must be transferred to Turkey. Spain and Germany, members of the Eurofighter consortium, have been imposing an arms embargo on Turkey. Even if the consortium countries do not object to the UK selling the Eurofighter Tranche 3 or Tranche 4 to Turkey, they aren’t inclined to allow the UK to share the source codes with Turkey due to the consortium’s unwillingness to cooperate in defense projects. Eurofighters may be inadequate in dogfights with Russian fighter jets during NATO operations, such as the Baltic Air Policing, and may need USAF F-22 support. Therefore, it cannot be said that the Eurofighters fully meet the requirements of the Turkish Air Force.
Turkey needs F-35 5th generation aircraft to meet its operational needs and ensure its security against geopolitical changes caused by Russia. The F-16 Block 70 and the Eurofighter Typhoon don’t seem to fully meet Turkey’s needs. Therefore, Turkey should immediately reorient its foreign policy, assure the US that it will not use the S-400 weapons system and give parliamentary approval to the NATO accession applications of Sweden and Finland. In return for the radical change in foreign policy that Turkey will make, the US should re-engage Turkey in the F-35 project and hand over the eight F-35 fighter jets Turkey has already paid for as soon as possible. With Russia’s annexation of the four provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson in the south and east of Ukraine, a new era is beginning, and Turkey, as a NATO ally, needs a strong air force for its national security at this time.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.