ANKARA, Turkey — War between Turkey’s two Black Sea partners has given an unexpected jolt to the country’s quest for new fighter jets and its domestic program to make new-generation aircraft.
“The war has practically killed all potential Turkish-Russian deals in strategic weapons systems,” said a senior Turkish diplomat, who deals with NATO and security affairs and was not authorized to speak to the press. “This will be a de facto part of our proactive neutrality.”
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has maintained a delicate balance — not giving up on Russia or on Ukraine, as officials have said.
Russia is Turkey’s biggest energy supplier. Russia and Ukraine together are Turkey’s biggest tourist markets and grain suppliers. Turkey faced suspension from the U.S.-led multinational program that builds the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as it insisted on becoming the first NATO ally to deploy on its soil the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Meanwhile, Turkey supplies armed drones to Ukraine.
The U.S. suspension of Turkey’s partnership in the F-35 program has left the country with limited options, given its fleet of F-16s will be phased out in the early 2030s. A Turkish request to acquire a new fleet of F-16 Block 70 aircraft will likely face opposition from U.S. lawmakers. In the past, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan indicated his government’s interest in Russian aircraft in place of the F-35.
One stopgap option for Turkey is to buy scores of the Eurofighter Typhoon and, in return, bargain for European know-how for its own fighter program, the TF-X.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is a multinational, twin-engine, multirole fighter. It was originally designed as an air superiority fighter and is manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo. That group conducts the majority of the project through a joint holding company, Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH. The NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency, representing the U.K., Germany, Italy and Spain, manages the project and is the prime customer.
One Turkish procurement official, was not authorized to speak to the press, agreed that the Typhoon could be an option, potentially involving the purchase of about 80 aircraft. “These aircraft can even be assembled in Turkey, though they would then come with a bigger price tag,” he said.
Top British manufacturers like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce are no strangers to the TF-X program.
In October 2016, engine-maker Rolls-Royce offered a joint production partnership to Turkey with a view to powering planned Turkish platforms and potential sales to third parties. The British company’s proposal involved a production unit in Turkey to manufacture engines for the TF-X, as well as for helicopters, tanks and missiles.
In January 2017, BAE and Turkish Aerospace Industries signed a deal worth more than £100 million (U.S. $131 million) to develop the Turkish fighter jet.
“We work with Turkish Aerospace to bring know-how and engineering expertise to the TF-X program,” BAE said in a tweet on Feb. 15.
In a March 5 television interview, Ismail Demir, Turkey’s top defense procurement official, said that the government would now negotiate a possible engine deal with Rolls-Royce.
“We had some issues [with Rolls-Royce] before,” he said. “These have been resolved. I think we are ready to work together.
“We expect that further talks with British government and industry officials this year will raise the chances for a final deal.”
A Rolls-Royce spokesman in London said the company is “not in a position to comment at this stage.”
A British Ministry of Defence spokesperson told Defense News in an email: “The U.K. and Turkey are close NATO allies with a strong defense relationship. We are working with Turkey to help them develop a ‘fifth-generation’ fighter aircraft (TF-X) and firmly support industry partners engaging with Turkey on this program.”
Some analysts say a Russian fighter option for Turkey was only a political bargaining chip all along.
“That bargaining phase with the West has largely disappeared after the war,” said Özgür Ekşi, a defense and security analyst in Ankara. “Security needs and politics dictate Ankara to remain within the NATO scope in its fighter jet inventory. The only viable options before Turkey flies the TF-X are the Typhoon, Saab and F-16 Block 70.”
Sweden’s Saab manufactures the Gripen fighter; the F-16 jets are made by Lockheed Martin.
Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this report.
Burak Ege Bekdil is a Turkey correspondent for Defense News. He has written for Hurriyet Daily News, and worked as Ankara bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-e television. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum and regularly writes for the Middle East Quarterly and Gatestone Institute.