In the run-up to the presidential election on May 14, incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made Turkey’s defense industry a crucial part of his campaign. This sector, which should generally be kept separate from everyday political discourse due to its close connection to national security, has been exploited for political gain and to inflame nationalist sentiment among the people. The capabilities of domestically produced defense products have been exaggerated, creating the impression that Turkey is now self-sufficient in meeting its defense needs, thereby eliminating foreign dependence.
However, the politicization of the defense industry and Erdoğan’s portrayal of it as an untouchable sector have prevented objectively assessing its shortcomings. The reality is quite different. Turkey’s geopolitical position makes it vulnerable to potential crises due to its lack of a capable air force. More than ever, Turkey needs a robust and competent military power for its national security. Unfortunately, the glorification of the defense industry has overshadowed this pressing need.
One of the defense industry products highlighted in the election rhetoric was the jet-powered Kızılelma unmanned combat air system (UCAS) manufactured by Baykar Defense, which is owned by Erdoğan’s son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar and his brother Haluk Bayraktar. According to the propaganda spread by Erdoğan loyalists, the Kızılelma will give the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) superior airpower capabilities, better than even fifth-generation fighter jets.
According to Baykar Defense, Kızılelma will have a maximum takeoff weight of 6 tons, including 1.5 tons of ammunition, and fly at an altitude of 35,000-40,000 feet. The prototype flies at a speed of 0.6-0.9 mph. Kızılelma can stay in the air for up to four or five hours and will be controlled by satellite via the SATCOM antenna. It is powered by AI-322F turbofan engines made by Ukraine’s Ivchenko-Progress company. It will be equipped with an AESA radar made by ASELSAN and capable of launching indigenous Bozdoğan and Gökdoğan air-to-air missiles.
Gökdoğan and Bozdoğan within and beyond visual range Air to Air Missiles (AAM) are manufactured by the Defense Industries Research and Development Institute (SAGE) of the Scientific Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK). However, equipping the Kızılelma with AAMs does not make it a platform that can fight for air superiority like a fourth or fifth-generation fighter jet. To assign Kızılelma to a dogfight with fighter jets requires artificial intelligence (AI)-based mission algorithms to provide Kızılelma with the ability to respond to unexpected situations or make quick decisions during the engagement.
Recent trials conducted by the US Air Force suggest it may be premature to deploy AI-driven UCASs for tasks typically undertaken by fourth or fifth-generation fighter jets. According to Insider Col. Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton, the head of the Air Force’s AI Test and Operations, speaking at a conference in London warned about the unpredictable and potentially dangerous behavior of AI-enabled technology. He referenced a simulated test in which an AI-powered drone identifying enemy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) acted contrary to the human operator’s directives. The drone, fixated on eliminating the identified threat to earn points, eventually “attacked” the operator, hindering its progress. Despite having been programmed not to harm the operator, it began to target the communication tower used by the operator for control. But after reports of the talk emerged on Thursday, the colonel said he misspoke and that the “simulation” he described was a “thought experiment” that never happened.
Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek had denied the existence of such a simulation, underscoring the Air Force’s dedication to the ethical and responsible use of AI technology.
Unlike the US, Turkey still needs sufficient technological infrastructure, budget and experience to develop such algorithms. Therefore, there is much progress to be made by Turkey. Under these circumstances, it is unrealistic to expect that an AI-driven Kızılelma UCAS will soon be used in missions of air superiority like a fourth or fifth-generation fighter jet.
Erdoğan was re-elected president. It is time to wake up and face reality. The Turkish Air Force (TAF) was in crisis following a failed coup in July 2016. The coup attempt led to a halving of TAF’s pilot pool — from 1,350 to 680. TAF had to recruit Pakistani pilots to train its own F-16 pilots. TAF has a total of 270 F-16C/D aircraft in its inventory, all of them Block 30/40/50 models. Additionally, the Turkish F-16 fleet has been heavily employed for border patrol since the start of the Syrian civil war, counter-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) missions since 2015 and in support of Turkish operations in Syria’s Idlib in 2020. Most of these aircraft will have to be phased out over the next 10 to 15 years, depending on their upgrades. Turkey’s removal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in response to its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system and the aging of its existing F-16s will result in significant deficiencies in its aerial warfare capability. At the same time, as Greece, Israel and Egypt strengthen their air forces, Turkey’s security in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean may deteriorate as the balance of air power shifts against it.
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 TAF inventory to the Block 70 level. Earlier, in January 2023, the Biden administration had informed Congress about a potential $20 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
In order for Turkey to receive F-16 Block 70s and modernization kits, Congress must approve the sale. Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the sale of F-16s to Turkey and Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership are two different issues, it is a fact that Turkey’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership would speed up the sale. Therefore, in order to speed up the F-16 Block 70s and Viper modernization kits sales process, the Erdoğan administration will likely approve Sweden’s NATO membership by the time of the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Lithuania on July 11-12 because Turkey’s current air force is far from meeting Turkey’s national security needs.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.