The Future of the Turkiye Air Force, Choose TF-X Or Return to US F-35

The Future of the Turkiye Air Force, Choose TF-X Or Return to US F-35
The Future of the Turkiye Air Force, Choose TF-X Or Return to US F-35

Ankara - May 28, 2023 will determine whether Turkiye will return to being 'oriented' to the United States (US) or remain an unruly 'bad boy'. Turkey has been kicked out of the F-35 program by the US because under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey opposed Washington's policy of prohibiting the purchase of S-400 Air Defense Systems from Russia. Washington says the S-400 poses a danger to the F-35 because it is incompatible with NATO systems.

Turkiye presidential election was held on May 14, but has not yet produced a majority of votes that can pass a candidate to become president. This is because Erdogan's highest vote tally has not yet crossed the threshold of 50% + 1 as an absolute condition for victory.

Erdogan only got 49% of the vote, 5% ahead of his toughest competitor, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who got 44% of the vote. The Turkiye presidential election will also enter the second round on May 28 to determine the winner. If Kilicdaroglu wins, he carries the promise of a return to 'true democracy'. Turkiye could begin to reorient itself towards the West and better align itself with its NATO partners. Turkiye will also unite with NATO's policy against Russian aggression in Ukraine, writes Airforce Technology.

Meanwhile, if Erdogan can retain power again, as he has for decades, it is likely that Ankara will continue to reposition itself geopolitically. Turkiye will be a 'bridge' between East and West but potentially more aligned with Moscow. Turkiye's shift away from Western power structures and towards Russia has been a theme for several years, with Ankara likely feeling snubbed by the European Union's protracted membership.

Could Turkiye re-enter the F-35 program?

James Marques, aerospace and defense analyst at GlobalData said, it is possible that Turkiye may return to the F-35 Program. However, even if that is the scenario, Ankara will have to carry out a broader reassessment of the country's entire defense industry strategy.

“The program will bring many economic benefits at a time when Turkey is struggling, and the new deal could be a symbol for a fraught reset of relations with the West. But it's not as simple as it seems, the US will likely want something in return," Marques said.

Defense Minister Turkiye is currently insisting that all they want is a refund of the money they have put in the F-35, but this could be a bluff and he may leave soon, he added. The single biggest hurdle to Turkiye's re-entry into the F-35 program, according to Marques, is the S-400 missile system it acquired from Russia in 2019.

"The US has tried to get access to these systems both for their intelligence and for possible donations to Ukraine - but they also may never deliver Turkiye F-35s while they have 400," Marques said. Even with the prospects of both, competing technologies within the same military were seen as too great an intelligence risk.

Turkiye will continue to invest in domestic defense projects over the long term but has also shown a willingness to purchase a combination of foreign equipment while developing their own capabilities.

According to Marques, the Turkish military favors a strategy of investing in a mix of new equipment while also upgrading old systems, which it describes as a high-low mix. Turkiye sees high-end platforms used against bigger threats and more affordable tools for smaller ones for everyday needs.

“You can see this in their current jet fleet with the old F-4s and new F-16s and Army tanks. The TF-X is currently unproven, and the costs may be too high, especially with the bad economic situation. A new government can also change things. But Turkey often wants to mix foreign and domestic kits,” explained Marques.

Time will tell whether Turkiye will again be trusted by the US with capabilities reserved only for its closest allies or not. Everything will be decided by President Turkiye-elect at the end of this month.

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