Can Turkey find substitute for F-35?

As Ankara readies to take delivery of Russia’s S-400 air defence system next month, Washington has made clear its plan to expel Turkey from its F-35 advanced fighter jet programme. Full removal would mean cancellation of the delivery of 100 F-35s ordered by Turkey and its expulsion from lucrative F-35 production.

Turkish officials have insisted it has alternatives to the F-35, such as Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57. Russia says it is ready to work with Turkey on this. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak suggested that Turkey was also considering the Chinese-made Shenyang J-31.

Only about a dozen working Sukhoi Su-57 prototypes exist today, and just two J-31s. Meanwhile, more than 400 F-35s have been produced thus far, according to Lockheed Martin.

Turkey’s only other option is getting its own Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) TF-X fighter jet project off the ground, but even that may prove problematic.

“The future of Turkish air power is in doubt,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told Ahval. “The F-35 was intended to serve as the backbone of the Turkish Air Force, with the notional TF-X programme as an air-to-air complement to the F-35, and the eventual replacement for the F-16.”

Sebastien Roblin, a defence journalist and contributor to The National Interest, pointed out that Moscow had ordered 76 more Su-57s, which suggests the programme may be more viable than many had thought.

“We don’t know how rapidly series production will proceed,” he said. “Certainly, an injection of money from a Turkish order could further invigorate it.”

China’s J-31, on the other hand, has not entered service. “We can’t be 100 percent sure if it will be exported. So, while it may represent a possible option, it’s one that in the best case would take a while to materialise,” Roblin said.

Even if Russia can manufacture a substantial number of Su-57s to export, he said, the aircraft was no match for the F-35.

“The F-35 is stealthier in all aspects, meaning it can penetrate deep into defended air space and destroy key targets,” Roblin said. “It also has powerful sensors and computers designed to network with friendly forces, turning each fighter into a reconnaissance and command-and-control node.”

The Su-57 is less stealthy, yet faster and much more manoeuvrable, which makes it more dangerous in short range fights, according to Roblin.

If Turkey does ultimately buy either the Su-57 or J-31 it would also need to buy a whole host of Russian or Chinese weapons to go with them – which would of course not be compatible, said Roblin, with Turkey’s Western-built fighters and support systems.

Stein noted that Russia runs some risks itself if it does ultimately export Su-57s to Turkey, a NATO-member country.

“Russia would be banking on the idea that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan will rule forever and never be replaced with a Western-leaning leader that would allow for the U.S. to learn about the future of Russian air power,” Stein said.

While Moscow intends to build more Su-57s, it is doing so for its own air force, not the export market.

“The entirety of the logistical infrastructure in Turkey is of Western origin,” said Stein. “Losing the F-35 contracts is just such a blow. It is just grim.”

Then there is Turkey’s own TF-X project, which is aiming for first flight in 2021 and to enter service a decade later, at a very modest cost of $13 billion, according to Roblin.  

“Perhaps TAI seeks to control costs by accepting a more generous radar-cross-section standard. If its flight performance is decent, such a plane might make a decent F-16 replacement,” he said. “Turkey already produces many advanced jet components, but putting them together into a new design may pose a challenge.”

Turkey has run into some obstacles when it comes to developing the TF-X’s engines. Rolls Royce withdrew its tender to help Turkey build the jet’s engines for fear that its intellectual property would be misused. Ankara presently plans to use U.S. General Electric F110 for its first TF-X aircraft, meaning it will likely have to compromise on its planned stealth capabilities. But it might not even be able to acquire these engines in light of the fallout from the S-400 purchase.

“Certainly there is a pathway where Turkey will lose licenses for U.S. origin kit, including the F-110 engine,” Stein said.

Roblin reasoned the engine deal might not be affected “because Washington is not seeking to torpedo all aspects of defence cooperation with Turkey.”

If defence relations continue to worsen, however, “the deal could come under threat”.

“But Europe and the U.S. still have reasons for wanting to contain the damage of the F-35 affair due to Turkey’s geographic importance,” Roblin said.

Also, Turkey being pushed out of the F-35 programme could leave it without any short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) warplanes for its planned amphibious assault ship, the TCG Anadolu. The F-35B is the most modern STOVL fighter today.

“When it comes to vertical-takeoff capable jets, the Harrier is the only other game in town,” Roblin said.

But even if Turkey can acquire AV-8B Harrier jump-jets for the Anadolu these fighters “are far more limited in capability, particularly in terms of survivability and in the air-to-air role”, he added.

The U.S. Marine Corps still operates Harriers and has acquired the U.K.’s retired fleet. Turkey sought to buy U.S. Harriers in 2017 “as a stop-gap measure until the F-35B” is ready. Ankara had earlier expressed interest in buying 19-20 F-35Bs in addition to the 100 F-35As it ordered for its air force.

“The State Department may not approve a sale of Harriers if relations with Turkey continue their negative trajectory,” Roblin said.  

Nicholas Heras, the Middle East Security Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, outlined the broader context of Turkey’s F-35 and S-400 moves.

“Turkish leaders are trying to re-balance Turkey as a nation that stands apart and on its own,” Heras told Ahval. “Turkey is seeking to build global relationships, including those related to the sale and transfer of military technology, with a range of nations but especially the other great powers, Russia and China.

“Turkey's participation in the F-35 programme was also meant to be a signal to would-be buyers that the Turks had arrived on the big stage and that not only did it fly the best equipment in the world, but that the know-how it gained from being in that programme meant that it was being anointed as one of the premiere military nations in the world,” said Heras.


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