Turkey risks lagging behind Greek air power

Greece’s air force could be set to eclipse its Turkish counterpart if the current trajectory is set to continue.

Turkey and Greece have similar numbers of fighter jets, but the Greek air force possesses the greater number of highest generation jets.

Greece has awarded a $280 million contract to U.S. firm Lockheed Martin to upgrade the nation's fleet of F-16 jets. Athens had been forced to make steep cuts to its military budget but it still commands a formidable force.

The upgrades to the advanced Viper class are expected to be completed by 2027.

If Turkey does not take action, its air force will lose ground and may be forced to adopt a more defensive doctrine in the face of a possible war with Greece.

The two countries have been increasingly at odds over drilling rights and maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean seas.

The cheapest and the most efficient strategy for Turkey would be to focus on expanding and upgrading its F-16s. Since its engineering and technological infrastructure is fully compatible with F-16 fighter jets, Ankara would not experience any adaptation problems contrary to purchase of new defence systems or aircraft.

The Turkish defence industry has developed national communication systems and necessary additional technologies that are already integrated into the country's F-16s. Though it was reported recently U.S. Congress has for nearly two years frozen weapons sales to Turkey. A follow-on contract for F-16 structural upgrades is one of those sales reportedly not going forward. 

However, if Turkey turns to other systems to close the gap, such as Russia, it would have to deal with extra costs and difficulties.

Firstly, pilots and maintenance teams would be required to be trained for the new systems. Meanwhile, technologies developed for F-16s by the Turkish defence industry are incompatible with Russian jets.

To give a more detailed example to explain the importance of the subject; Turkey's F-16s, F-4s, Airborne Warning and Control System (Awacs), and drones are connected with a system called Link-16.

Thanks to this system, an F-16 can transfer a target that has been locked directly to the screen of the other F-16 next to it, or an AWACS can be transferred to F-4's and F-4 bombs can be dropped at a point marked by the drones.

Even if Turkey plans on developing new domestic systems for Russian jets, Ankara will need to get permission from the Russians to access the source codes to produce technologies according to Russian engineering from scratch. This is not an easy task and it takes time and requires a huge budget.

Meanwhile, there are high hopes for in Turkey for its domestically-produced TF-X fifth generation fighter. Turkish officials have said the aircraft, being developed by aerospace engine manufacturer Turkish Aerospace Industries, would be ready for 2023.

However, critics say the deadline is overly ambitious for the twin-engine all-weather air superiority fighter, citing Turkey’s inability to produce a fully indigenous engine as a significant delay in the fighter jet’s development phase.

The TF-X fighter is unlikely to get off the ground or even be a flyable prototype by the Turkish republic's centennial in 2023. A fully-developed version of the jet will unlikely become operational until at least the early 2030s.

Turkey nevertheless unveiled a full-scale model of the TF-X jet at the Paris Air Show in June last year. But experts were unimpressed.

Turkish and Greek fighter jets regularly engage in mock dogfights in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Therefore, air superiority is vital for Turkey to follow its aggressive policies in the region.

The United States excluded Turkey from an international consortium to build fifth generation F-35 fighter jets and blocked the sale of 100 of the jets to the Turkish military in July last year, after it received Russian S-400 air defence missiles despite Washington's objections.

With F-35 jets out of the scenario and Athens stepped up efforts to modernise its air force, Turkey needs at least a short-term plan to even match Greek air force capacity.