U.S. sanctions could leave Turkish aircraft grounded and hinder indigenous projects, experts say

Washington and Ankara have been at odds on numerous issues over the last two years – not least NATO member Turkey’s decision to procure the Russian S-400 air defence system. 

The Trump administration has been applying pressure on its NATO ally for months and U.S. lawmakers have threatened sanctions, as Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar acknowledged on May 22, when he said Turkey was “already preparing” for this eventuality.

The impact of sanctions could be enormous, with Turkey’s military dependent on U.S. hardware for its operations in a wide number of theatres, and the country’s defence sector closely tied in to deals with U.S. firms, including for its indigenous development projects

It is unknown whether Turkey is truly ready for a possible U.S. sanction, but the reality is that the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) heavily depend on U.S.-made equipment. 

The United States is the undisputed leader of the global arms and aerospace industry. Six of the top 10 and 42 of the top 100 arms firms are American.  

As the world’s number one exporter of arms, the United States is also TAF’s biggest arms supplier. 

According to data released by the Defence and Aerospace Industry Manufacturers’ Association (SASAD), Turkish firms’ total defence imports increased by $2.45 billion, or 59 percent, in 2018, and the United States received 41.8 percent of Turkey’s total market share. This amounts to a doubling in Turkey’s arms imports from the United States. 

“I believe this increase means that the Turkish defence firms are stocking up in response to a possible arms embargo” says Dr.Çağlar Kurç, Adjunct Lecturer at Bilkent University’s Department of International Relations. 

This would be a logical step in the face of sanctions, given that TAF uses U.S.-made aircrafts, helicopters, guided missiles and ammunitions, torpedoes and engine systems. According to SIPRI’s data, the arms trade between the two countries is concentrated on the purchase and modernization of this equipment. 

Almost all aircraft and helicopters in the TAF are either U.S.-built or equipped with U.S.-built vital subsystems such as engines, radars and avionics. 

The T129 attack helicopter produced by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is powered by the U.S.-built LHTEC T800 turboshaft engine, while Turkey’s European-made A400M transport aircraft is equipped with radars built by U.S. firm Northrop Grumman. 

Moreover, Ankara has chosen General Electric’s F110 engines to power the prototype and an initial batch of its first indigenous fighter jet, the TF-X.

The Turkish Navy also depends on General Electric’s LM-2500 gas turbines to power Turkey’s indigenous national warships - the Milgem class corvettes and newly built Istanbul-class frigates, as well as Gabya-class frigates, Turkey’s main air-defence warships, and Barbaros-class frigates. 

All surface combatants and submarines in the Turkish Navy are equipped with U.S.-made torpedoes, as well as anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. 

If weapon sanctions are imposed, the Turkish Navy, which is currently engaged in maritime jurisdiction disputes in the eastern Mediterranean, may get by for a while with the stocks currently found in its arsenals. But new ship projects such as the Istanbul-class frigate and TF-2000 air defence destroyer are likely to be hampered. 

Turkey has signed an arms deal with Pakistan in 2018 to sell T129 attack helicopter and Milgem warships, both powered by U.S. made engines. The U.S. sanctions will also have an impact on these agreements. 

Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighters make up the backbone of the Turkish Air Force, and they are supported by Boeing KC-135 tanker aircraft and E-7 air early warning aircraft increase their range and operational effectiveness. The Turkish Air Force has been using these aircraft to flex its muscles in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, but also to conduct anti-terror operations in northern Syria and Iraq. 

These operations may not suffer from arms sanctions in terms of ammunition, as Turkey has developed its own guided bomb kits, bombs and missiles. But long-term sanctions will reduce the number of operational aircraft as the supply of spare parts is cut.   

On condition of anonymity, a source familiar with the Turkish Air Force’s logistics systems told Ahval the regular flow of spare parts from the United States is vital for the dynamic planning that keeps its aircraft operational.

“On an aircraft there are thousands of parts which must be replaced periodically depending on the operating time,” the source said, adding that when the flow of spare parts is interrupted, the lack of a simple spare part may require aircraft to be grounded.

Experts warn that an arms sanctions would also harm Turkish defence industry, a large part of which is tied in to deals with U.S. firms. 

According to SASAD data, the value of Turkey’s arms exports to the United States came close to $700 million in 2018 - 32 percent of Turkey’s total arms exports that year. 

Turkish firms manufacture parts as subcontractors for the U.S. defence giants. Turkish weapons manufacturer ROKETSAN produces parts for Raytheon’s Patriot and ESSM air defence missiles. Many more firms across Turkey also manufacture components for Boeing’s military and civilian aircrafts and helicopters.

“Turkey’s arms export to the United States are not really based on the sale of Turkish indigenous products,” said Kurç. Rather, he said, Turkish firms participate in manufacturing in return for procuring equipment from the United States. 

Following this system, eight Turkish aerospace companies are involved in the production of the 5th generation F-35 stealth fighters, in exchange for purchase of the jets.

This type of close partnership between U.S. defence giants and Turkish firms has also brought technology transfer benefits for Turkey. The joint venture of GE Aviation and Turkish firm TUSAS Engine Industry (TEI) led to the establishment of R&D labs with the creation of the Turkey Technology Center in 2007. 

GE Aviation is an important shareholder of TEI with a 46.2 percent stake, and with the U.S. firm’s backing TEI has been involved in major indigenous projects, including development and manufacture of engines for drones and for the Turkish “Gökbey” multirole helicopter.

“In the short term, it is clear that there will be a great loss” if the sanctions hit, Kurç said. 

“After the sanctions, Turkish defense industry can try to fill the gap by indegenously developing missing technologies such as engines. But I am not sure how long it would take to succeed and mitigate the effects of sanctions,” he said. 

© Ahval English

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

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