F-35 suspension reveals fake defence reports in Turkish media

Turkey’s defence industry has been the focus of growing public interest, thanks to the government’s policy like the controversial purchase of Russian-built defence systems, but also due to huge investment that has brought several manufacturers to global prominence.

Turkey has completed important defence projects since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. And it is no surprise that the ruling party is using this fact during election rallies as well as in media.

However, the crumbs of information on military issues where most of the projects are carried out in secrecy are served to the public only after being embellished with fake claims. This type of unhealthy news story is especially prevalent during election periods, which Turkey has gone through almost every year since 2014.

“I think the purpose of this is in line with the general purpose of the government” said Çağlar Kurç, Adjunct Lecturer at Bilkent University’s Department of International Relations. “It is to acquire prestige in domestic policy through defence industry success.”

One of the main issues occupying Turkish media for the last three years is Turkey's dream of owning an aircraft carrier and the procurement of F-35B aircrafts, capable of short take-off-vertical landing, to be deployed on this carrier.

Aircraft carriers are an important force multiplier, a symbol of power and a crisis response tool owned by the most powerful countries in the world. 

Only eight countries currently own ships that are capable of operating with fixed-wing aircraft. Taking its place alongside these countries would be an important sign of prestige for Turkey.

“Turkey's carrier dream is 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,” said Ryan Gingeras of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

This has made procurement of an aircraft carrier a major goal for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In 2016, during a ceremony marking the production of the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship Anadolu, Erdoğan called Turkey’s lack of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier "a great shortcoming for Turkey".

“I hope we will build our own aircraft carrier. We are determined and I don’t have any doubts about it,” he said a year later, during another shipbuilding ceremony.

After these statements from Erdoğan, the Turkish press started to cover the TCG Anadolu, which was originally designed as an amphibious assault ship, as an aircraft carrier.

Moreover, stories began to appear that the latest generation U.S.-built F-35B fighter jets were set to be deployed to the vessel. The F-35B, unlike the F-35A variant which Turkey had planned to buy 100 units of, is equipped with short-take-off-vertical landing capability. Some news sources reported that the Anadolu and its planned complement had caused panic in Israel, Greece and Cyprus.

In November 2018, the Star newspaper claimed that the Turkish Navy had ordered 16 F-35Bs, and even that two Harrier jets would be purchased from Britain in order to prepare pilots for the F-35Bs and their vertical take-off capabilities.

One month later, Akşam newspaper wrote that the pilots who would receive F-35B training in the United States had been selected and sent to the Second Main Jet Base Command in the western city of Izmir for training.

Foreign press also covered news regarding these developments in Turkey. The fact that Turkey would obtain 16 F-35Bs in addition to the 100 F-35As on order made its way even to prominent foreign defence journals.

The dream of the F-35s collapsed this month, when Turkey defied U.S. warnings to go through with its purchase of Russian S-400 air defence systems. Washington says this could compromise NATO defence systems, and followed through with its threat to remove Turkey from the F-35 programme days after the S-400s arrived.

As this news was reported, Turkey Defence Industries President Ismail Demir said acquiring F-35Bs for the Anadolu had never been on the agenda.

Stating that the purchase of the jets had only been discussed as an option, Demir said, “there has never been a finalised decision about deploying the F-35Bs on this ship. So, I don’t think it will have a negative effect on the TCG Anadolu project.”

This statement from the top of the defence industry showed that the news regarding the aircraft carrier and F-35Bs in the Turkish media had, at least in large part, been fake.  

Kurç said Demir’s denial of serious plans to purchase the F-35Bs had been unconvincing, noting that the Anadolu had been equipped with a ski-jump to assist in vertical take-offs.

Yet the hysteria over the coming F-35Bs was based almost entirely on speculation. The news of the purchase of Harriers, for example, could have been dispelled with a minimum of research: the fighters have been out of production for 15 years, and Britain sold all its remaining Harriers in inventory to the United States seven years ago.

This, Kurç said, was typical of a mainstream media in Turkey that mostly serves as a propaganda machine rather than giving objective news.

The media has published reports written by journalists with no qualifications to write on defence, and without consulting experts on the subject.

Defence news reports are quickly put together at a newspaper office with a minimum of research, then spread by other media outlets without fact checking. 

As long as the media continues to serve government interests, we should take reports on Turkey’s defence industry with a grain of salt.