This is not the first time the Turkish Republic is involved in a deep crisis regarding supplies for its air force, and particularly in terms of new generation fighter jets. Turkey’s history is full of unsuccessful attempts to establish a national aeronautical industry. In 1925, the first airplane factory was planned in Kayseri. In 1935, Nuri Demirağ, a private entrepreneur, established a light aircraft factory in Istanbul. In 1941, the state-owned Turkish Aeronautical Institution (THK) opened an airplane and engine production facility in Ankara. Back in the 1960s, there was a campaign to locally produce fighter jet parts. But none of these attempts were sustainable and despite some very promising early results, there has never been a fully “national” industrial production operation in this sector to speak of.
The Turkish Air Force was in dire straits back in 1974, when the military intervened in Cyprus, to stop the ethnic cleansing of Turkish Cypriots in the hands of Greek putschists. Turkey used outdated F-100s to provide air cover for the entire operation, whereas relatively advanced F-104 planes were kept in reserve in the Western regions of Turkey, to counter a possible Greek attack through Thrace and the Aegean.
The U.S. had launched the F-16 project by then, but they were delivered to Turkey only in the 1990s. A whole industry flourished alongside this delivery; most of the F-16s were assembled in Turkey. Still, it was only a complementary industry, albeit a sophisticated one.
The F-35 project has been devised with the same perspective, giving Turkish industrial input a much bigger share this time. The project kicked off in 2002 and envisaged not only the production of a jet fighter but implementing a whole advanced integrated system of new generation weapons.
After some unfortunate developments regarding Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, it looks very likely Turkey will be excluded from the F-35 project. All the time, money and effort spent on this very important project look to have been in vain. This is a major setback for the Turkish defense strategy. Already alternative solutions are envisaged. This is precisely the hard part.
Then comes the obvious candidate: Europe, with its dependable and state-of-the-art military industry, especially the aeronautical industry, located in Europe, specifically in France, the U.K., Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden.
Turkish industrial infrastructure and tradition have been largely inspired by the European industries. Standards are identical, joint ventures and production under European licenses are the general rules. Most of our military equipment is also European. A missile system, produced jointly by France and Italy, is already in use in Turkey, with a very important cooperation perspective as a huge advantage.
Nobody, except the president of the Economic Development Foundation (IKV), thought about a better, deeper, long-term cooperative enterprise – chiefly with France and other EU countries for a fifth-generation fighter plane – that would also encompass Turkey as a full-fledged partner.
Despite some valuable efforts from both sides, the levels of division, distrust and suspicion there remain abysmal. Nobody seriously will envisage in Turkey establishing a vital coalition with France on such an important issue. This is extremely surprising and difficult to understand. The existing atmosphere of mistrust is poisoning both countries’ futures. The recent crisis with the F-35 project has brought this anomaly between Turkey and France to the agenda again. We do not have the luxury of remaining so deeply hostile and maybe this opportunity can be turned into a valuable beginning of a new phase in mutual understanding. It is anyhow worth thinking and writing about.