Will S-400 destroy Turkey's aircraft carrier dream?

One of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's defence industry goals is to enable Turkey to build its own aircraft carriers and ultimately become independent in the field of defence.

Few countries have been able to achieve this objective. Only eight navies have flat top aircraft carriers, while another six have warships with full-length flight decks that can be used by aircraft with short take-off requirements and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities. Only nine countries in the world are able to build their own carriers.

Turkey is building two multi-purpose amphibious assault ships, TCG Anadolu and TCG Trakya, modelled on Spanish Navantia's Juan Carlos class carrier. These ships, which will be seen as aircraft carriers by the Turkish public, will be the largest warships in the Turkish fleet, at more than 230 metres in length and with a displacement of nearly 27,500 tonnes.

But Turkey's aircraft carrier dream depends to a great extent on its acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system. Washington appears determined to block this purchase, as U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Ankara of sanctions as well as its possible removal from the F-35 advanced fighter jet programme. 

Turkey plans to buy 100 F-35A jets for its air force and 16 F-35B for the navy to deploy on its carriers. Thus far, four F-35A fighters have technically been delivered to Turkey, though the jets remain in the United States for pilot training. It is not clear when they might be transferred to Turkey, as the Pentagon suspended deliveries of F-35 equipment to Turkey at the beginning of April.

Despite Turkish officials’ repeated statements that the S-400 deal will go ahead, even Erdoğan is concerned about the impact of the U.S. response, particularly with regards to Turkey's aircraft carrier dream.

To join the exclusive aircraft carrier operating club, Turkey has few options. British-designed Harriers have not been produced for nearly two decades and are starting to be decommissioned. Turkey’s only remaining option are the F-35B fighter jets manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

“The F-35B is the only fighter that can fly off TCG Anadolu. As far as I know there aren’t even any other STOVL fighters in development,” said Robert Farley, senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.

“There have been some rumours that Russia or China are working on a new STOVL fighter, but it would be years away, might not be stealthy, and would be a very risky bet,” he said. 

TCG Anadolu is designed to transport an amphibious battalion along with combat and support vehicles, conduct landing operations and provide air support with its helicopters. It could also take part in humanitarian missions, such as disaster relief.

With the F-35B, TCG Anadolu increases its operational range and effectiveness and is able to defend itself better against hostile aircraft and warships, and conduct ground attack and reconnaissance missions, and provide greater air support. “The F-35B is a big part of its high-end combat potential,” said Farley. 

With the F-35B, TCG Anadolu and TCG Trakya would transform Turkey’s regional capabilities into a global force projection capability and serve as a status symbol.

“The TCG Anadolu, combined with the F-35, addresses Turkey’s desire to deploy an air-to-air and air-to-ground platform beyond Turkey’s immediate periphery. One can imagine this would be helpful in the Persian Gulf or Horn of Africa,” said Ryan Gingeras of U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. “Beyond that, it’s clearly a matter of prestige. Having an aircraft carrier carrying fixed-wing aircraft is clearly seen as a marker of being a global power and the leader of Muslim states.”

Now a major obstacle is blocking Turkey's aircraft carrier-sized ambitions: its insistence on purchasing Russia’s S-400 system.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.