Facing difficulties in reaching an agreement with the United States, Turkey could once again turn to Russia to renew its fighter fleet.
A difficult negotiation
An order for more than 100 F-35 stealth fighter jets from Turkey was scrapped after tensions arose between Washington and Ankara as the latter chose to procure Russian-made S-400 missile systems. Since then, the Turkish Air Force has been in need of an alternative to modernize its aging fighter fleet, composed of older variants of the General Dynamics F-16 as well as a number of antique McDonnell Douglas F-4 jets.
Once the diplomatic dust settled between the two nations, Turkey sent a request to the United States in October 2021 to acquire 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets as well as 80 kits to upgrade the ones its air force already operates.
But concerns remain among US lawmakers, and the negotiations seem to have stalled.
In an amendment passed by the House of Representatives, Congress demanded that President Joe Biden certify Turkey has not “violated the sovereignty of Greece, including through territorial overflights” for at least 120 days prior to the sale of F-16 fighters. Both countries have different boundary delineations over the Aegean Sea, leading to Turkish fighters regularly overflying inhabited Greek islands.
On August 15, 2022, a Turkish delegation visited Washington to discuss several conditions to the order deemed “unacceptable” by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
Who can supply fighter jets to Turkey?
Discussions in Washington seemingly fell through, and consequently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revived once again the prospect of acquiring fighter jets from alternative suppliers.
“The United States is not alone in selling fighter jets,” Erdogan told the press on September 9, 2022. “The United Kingdom, France, and Russia also sell it. It is possible to obtain it elsewhere, and some send us signals.”
An order for French Rafales seems unlikely. Indeed, since territorial tensions with Turkey have heightened, France voiced its support for Greece. The two countries signed the first intra-NATO mutual defense agreement in September 2021.
In January 2021, the Hellenic Air Force placed the order for 12 used Dassault Rafale jets of the French Air Force and six new ones, as well as an array of weapons that include Exocet anti-ship missiles and SCALP cruise missiles. The first six Rafale fighters were received a year later, in January 2022.
The United Kingdom may be a more realistic partner. In March 2022, a Turkish diplomat told Defense News a potential order of around 80 Eurofighter Typhoons was being considered as a stop-gap solution until the fifth-generation TF-X enters service. The British engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce is also expected to submit an offer to develop the TF-X powerplant.
Finally, the hypothesis of an order from Russia once again comes to the fore. Moscow had been the first to rush to Turkey’s help following its exclusion from the F-35 program. “If our Turkish colleagues express a desire, we are ready to work out the deliveries of the Su-35,” Sergey Chemezov, head of Rostec, said the day after the exclusion. Since then, rumors of an order for Russian Su-35 fighters or even the fifth-generation Su-57s circulated, though they were each time denied by the Turkish Ministry of National Defense.
One could expect that Turkey’s active support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion, including through the delivery of Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, could have burned that bridge. But in mid-August 2022, around the same time that the Turkish diplomacy was in the United States to discuss the conditions of an F-16 order, the head of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Dmitry Shugaev, said another contract for Russian-made S-400 missile systems had been signed by Ankara.
A Turkish defense official later clarified that discussions were only ongoing for the delivery of the second batch provided for in the original contract and that no new order was signed. But such a communication from the Russian authorities may very well be one of the signals mentioned by Erdogan.