Turkey is now seeking new ways to sidestep difficulties in the procurement of F-16 fighter planes, which it has been jointly producing with the US since 1987, due to the delayed delivery by the US authorities of some of the plane’s parts and accessories. There have been serious doubts as to whether Turkey’s plan to purchase 100 F-35 fighter planes would ever materialize, as the country is thinking about withdrawing from the consortium following the hike in costs that resulted from other countries leaving from the consortium.
With 240 F-16s, Turkey has the third largest fleet of these fighter jets after the US and Israel. Turkey chose the F-16 to use in its air force in the early 1980s, and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAİ) was established soon after the decision. Between 1987 and 1995, TAİ assembled 152 planes in the first phase of the F-16 project. The second phase took place between 1995 and 1999, and 80 planes were assembled. Turkey received its first overseas order for F-16 planes in 1993 from the Egyptian air force and assembled 46 planes for them.
Recently TAI upgraded the first of 17 planes for Jordan’s air force within the context of a modernization program. Several Turkey-made planes have also been dispatched to Pakistan.
In total TAİ has assembled 278 F-16s since it first began operations in 1987. During production, 29 planes were produced with no mistakes and three of them were considered “perfect.” Considering that only nine F-16 planes are produced as perfect out of 4,000 fighter jets in the world, Turkey’s success is conspicuous.
Turkey suspended production of the F-16 in 2000, but these fighter jets still remain the backbone of the Turkish armed forces.
Strained ties delayed delivery of plane accessories
As the agreement between the US and Turkey expired in 2000, Turkey has continued to work with Israel in modernizing the F-16s. Turkey has attempted to compensate for several mistakes that occurred while working with the US through several deals with Israel. The fundamental problem was that the US did not hand the F-16s directly to the Turkish Air Forces and it required TAİ-made planes be tested in the US before the eventual delivery to the Turkish Air Forces.
The US had also refused to provide source codes for the software of F-16s to Turkey since the inception of the joint production. Tensions in the relations between the US and Turkey have recently spawned a series of crises in this particular sphere, a possibility which Turkey has overlooked for years.
A senior official at the Turkish Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM) confided in Today’s Zaman that the US is not willing to provide vital parts of the F-16 planes to Turkey in contrast to agreements the two countries have signed in the past few years.
The same senior official said the US delayed the fulfillment its duties specified in the agreements it signed with Turkey between 1987 and 1995 and that this has caused serious problems in modernization of F-16s.
The official lamented that Turkey is experiencing very serious problems in obtaining parts and accessories for the planes as ties with Israel collapsed, and that he finds it noteworthy to stress that the US administration has made congressional approval a precondition of selling any sort of weaponry and military equipment.
Last October the US expressed concerns that Turkey was using US-made F-16s in the Turkey-China aerial exercises, which took place in the Central Anatolian town of Konya, but Turkey reassured the US administration that no US-made jets were used in the joint drill.
Turkey decided to modernize 165 F-16 planes on Dec. 11, 2009 and several Israeli firms were competing to win the tender, along with Turkey’s TUSAŞ and HAVELSAN. All projects between Turkey and Israel in the areas of military training and cooperation were frozen in mid-June after the lethal May 31 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, leaving left nine civilians dead. The two countries were set to realize a $757 million plane and tank modernization project but this project was also shelved. The Turkish government decided to give the modernization tender to Turkish firms after Turkish-Israeli ties became strained.
A $240 million modernization project was given to Turkish companies, but 30 percent of the plane’s parts will be provided by the US military behemoth Lockheed Martin.
Turkey is also considering its participation in the world’s largest military consortium that is planning to produce 3,000 F-35 fighter jets. Turkey is the ninth country to take part in the production process of the F-35 warplane project. The other countries are the US, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Canada and Norway. Turkey is expected to purchase 100 F-35 jets in the next 15 to 20 years. Rising costs pushed several countries to withdraw from the $280 billion project, and the same senior official said Turkey might also consider withdrawing.
The Defense Industry Executive Committee (SSİK), under the aegis of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will make its final decision in April. The SSİK is seeking ways to jointly produce some parts of F-35 fighter planes with the American General Electric Co. and the Rolls-Royce Group in Turkey.
Turkey is also deliberating the exchange of its F-16s for F-35s within a reasonable time period. Turkey is expected to pay nearly $11 billion for 100 F-35 fighter jets. Citing rising costs in production, the consortium is asking Turkey for an additional $4 billion for the F-35s, but Turkey is reluctant to pay this amount. As some countries have withdrawn from the project, Turkey will reportedly have to pay up to $25 billion for the project.
Turkey is planning joint warplane production with Gulf countries
Turkey has made a radical shift recently, deciding to produce its first fleet of national fighter jets following crises in F-16 and F-35 projects with the US and Israel.
Turkish authorities decided during a Defense Industry Executive Committee (SSİK) meeting last December to begin production on the first Turkish fighter jets in 2020 in order to meet the needs of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). TUSAŞ Engine Industries Inc. (TEİ) and TAİ will be the leading companies that will undertake production of these fighter jets, planning to design and produce plane engines by 2015.
Israel claimed that Turkey will fail to produce these jets as no country in the world would dare to build its own planes without participating in a consortium due to the high costs.
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Adana deputy Kürşat Atılgan told Today’s Zaman that no country could produce a fighter jet by itself and for lucrative production, there needs to be at least 400 jets produced. Considering this fact, Turkey had been secretly trying to build a consortium with neighboring and friendly countries. In last month’s SSİK meeting, Gönül also talked about the possibility of joint production of fighter jets with South Korean companies. This issue was raised during Erdoğan’s recent visit to Gulf countries. Turkey thinks it will be easier to produce its own fighter jets with five countries involved in the region.