Why did an ex-admiral suggest Turkey buy an antique aircraft carrier, troubled Russian jets?

Former Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı recently suggested Turkey could procure an old Brazilian aircraft carrier set to be sold for scrap and buy Su-33 Flanker navy jets from Russia. 

The NAe São Paulo was formerly the flagship of the Brazilian Navy, which acquired it from France in 2000. During its service, it was the oldest active aircraft carrier in the world, suffering many mechanical problems and spending less than a year in total at sea. The carrier previously served as the Foch in the French Navy having been commissioned in the early 1960s. The Brazilians, finding the carrier increasingly difficult to adequately maintain, finally concluded it was more feasible to scrap it than sink millions into maintaining, repairing, and upgrading it. Brazil sold it for scrap in Aliağa, Izmir for under $2 million. 

Yaycı saw an opportunity. He suggested that Turkey could buy the troubled old vessel for its own use. 

However, is it even remotely possible for Ankara, which will soon launch its brand-new flagship, the TCG Anadolu amphibious assault ship, to spend the vast sums required to keep such a maintenance-heavy vessel operational or even serviceable?

“The suggestions are further evidence that Cihat Yaycı is ideologically committed to the idea of Turkey possessing a ‘big fleet’ irrespective of the drawbacks or consequences,” Ryan Gingeras, an expert on Turkey and a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, told Ahval. “Having carriers and expanding the fleet appear to be things that are, in and of themselves, innately of value.”

“It is, however, entirely unclear if anyone in Ankara will heed (Yaycı’s) advice,” Gingeras said. 

By all indications, it won’t. İsmail Demir of Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) outright dismissed the feasibility of the idea.

Yaycı, often described as a “Eurasianist” for advocating that Turkey should further distance itself from NATO in favour of closer ties with Russia, and perhaps best known for arranging the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal in 2019, also suggested Turkey could look into buying Russian Su-33 Flanker naval jets for the vintage carrier

“I have brought up a proposal for the aircraft carrier purchased to be dismantled from Brazil,” Sputnik Turkey quoted Yaycı as saying. “I think it would be useful to carefully examine the Russian origin Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker as an aircraft alternative that we can use with the ship. The unit cost of this aircraft is also reasonable.” 

Russia uses the Su-33 on its navy’s sole aircraft carrier, the deeply troubled Admiral Kuznetsov, but has never exported the fighter. It only built two dozen, which have already been in service for over two decades and proven unreliable and accident-prone. Russia’s only other carrier fighter, the MiG-29K, was exported to India. Over the past year, however, New Delhi has seemingly come to regret the purchase following a spate of deadly accidents.

“In general, the Su-33 just isn’t a reliable aircraft, and I find the whole suggestion to be farcical,” Aaron Stein, Research Director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Ahval.

Even if Turkey were to use the São Paulo carrier and second-hand Russian Su-33s solely for training purposes, that too would be of limited to zero value considering the design of the ship and the type of fighter jet.

The Anadolu can carry helicopters and fighter aircraft with short take-off vertical-landing (STOVL) capabilities. The Su-33, on the other hand, is designed for operating from carriers with short take-off but arrested recovery/barrier arrested recovery (STOBAR) systems, which the Anadolu will not have.

The next-generation F-35B is essentially the only STOVL fighter on the market, with the far older AV-8B Harrier being gradually phased out. Turkey cannot buy the F-35B having been suspended from the joint strike fighter programme by the United States following its contentious purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles.

Turkey had previously sought second-hand Harriers from the United States as a stopgap option for the Anadolu until it could procure F-35Bs. And Yaycı recently revived the idea in the aftermath of the S-400 crisis. However, production of the iconic jump-jets ended in 2003. Outside the U.S. Marine Corps, which uses them for training, only Spain and Italy operate Harrier fighters in their navies today. The latter is presently replacing them with F-35Bs.

Even buying second-hand Italian Harriers would likely prove difficult for Ankara.

“I would imagine that the current state of U.S.-Turkish relations would no doubt frustrate any such plans on Turkey’s part, even with regards to ex-Italian jets, which would also likely be subject, at least in part, to U.S. export restrictions,” military analyst Joseph Trevithick of The War Zone told Ahval.

“I would point to Israel’s relatively recent attempt to sell F-16s to Croatia as an example of the kind of leverage the U.S. government can exert even on prospective sales in which it is not directly involved,” he said.

Furthermore, Turkey’s attempted sale of domestically-built T129 ATAK attack helicopters to Pakistan has been repeatedly blocked by the United States. The helicopters are powered by a U.S.-built engine, which means any sale to a third country requires U.S. export licenses. 

“The Harrier also has U.S. components, so it has export provisions that could complicate any transfer,” Stein said. 

“Ankara’s best option - and the one that I expect them to pursue - is to convert drones to fly off a carrier,” he added. 

Turkey faces significant challenges to reach that goal. However, as Stein pointed out, it probably is achievable and would bring significant benefits. Building naval drones that can efficiently operate from the Anadolu would solve many of Ankara’s “procurement issues and give it a strike and surveillance capability for certain situations”, he said.