S-400 Purchase: Turkey Faces Serious Fighter Shortages

The Turkish Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) has published a report concluding that the Turkish air force risks falling “behind world trends” as a result of leaving the F-35 programme. Its third-generation F-4s and fourth-generation F-16s are nearing the end of their useful lives, and the indigenous TF-X fighter is unlikely to be ready in time to replace them.

The author of the report, Can Kasapoglu, director of EDAM’s security and defence programme wrote that: “Turkey and the Turkish Air Force’s air warfare capabilities face a serious test over the next 10 to 20 years.”

But another report by Nordic Monitor has highlighted an even more pressing problem, which may exacerbate an existing pilot shortage, putting further pressure on an already over-stretched training system.

Nordic Monitor reported that in May 2019 the Turkish Air Force Intelligence Directorate filed criminal complaints against some 681 air force personnel suspected of having links with the Gülen movement, blamed for the abortive coup attempt five years ago, in July 2016.

The Directorate provided no evidence of any wrongdoing, but instead levelled charges on the basis of ‘profiling’ – including the use of the messaging app ByLock by the accused, or on the basis of their age, education and proficiency in foreign languages! Expressing pro-NATO and pro-Western sentiments was another reason for charges.

Even before the 2016 coup, the Turkish air force was struggling to retain experience pilots, and this situation was exacerbated by a 2012 law that reduced the compulsory term of service to 13 years. Some 251 experienced pilots resigned, before an amendment was put in place to stem the flow. By May 2016, the Turkish air force had 1,275 pilots in total with 378 assigned to the F-4E and F-16, and there was an identified shortfall of 554 pilots, including 190 fast jet pilots.

It has been reported that four out of every five Turkish Air Force pilots were dismissed or jailed by the government following the coup. Media reports indicate that 600-716 pilots were unexpectedly arrested or purged following the coup, until the frontline had a pilot to aircraft ratio of less than 0.4:1!

In an effort to plug the gap, in 2017 the Turkish government tried to force 300 former fighter pilots, most of whom worked in civil aviation to return to the air force, but only 40 responded to this call to return to duty. Turkey also wanted to recruit Pakistani pilots for its F-16s, but this was blocked by the US, which had the right to approve third-country access to the Turkish F-16s based on the terms of the original bilateral contract.

In desperation the air force recalled 1,040 military pilot candidates who had previously been rejected. Some 830 of these reportedly then passed new aptitude tests and entered the training system.

After graduating from the academy, Pilot Candidate Officers move to the 2nd Main Jet Base at İzmir Çiğli, for training on five different aircraft/helicopter types at Çiğli and Kaklıç.

The course consists of a 44 hour Initial Flying Training phase on the SIAI-Marchetti (Leonardo) SF-260Ds of the 123rd Squadron (aiming to solo after 16 sorties/20 hours), followed by a Basic Flying Training phase of 112 hours (69 sorties) and 18 hours of Advanced Flying Training on the KT-1Ts of the 122nd ‘Scorpion’ Squadron. The KT-1T is an export version of the KAI KT-1 Woongbi. The Basic phase is preceded by a 35 sortie course using KT-1T simulators, which include two KT-1T Aircraft Operational Flight Training (OFT) Simulators, two KT-1T Aircraft Instrument Flight Training (IFT) Simulators, and two Aircraft Training Devices (ATD)

Pilots are then ‘streamed’ to go on to jet, transport or helicopter training.

Those destined to fly jet aircraft start their Advanced Jet Training on the Northrop T-38M with the 121st Squadron, flying 69 sorties during the six month course, including 12 solo flights. Pilots also fly 35 sorties in the simulator during this phase of training.

The simulators used include two T-38M Aircraft Operational Flight Training (OFT) Simulators, which emulate visual flight conditions and have a wide-angle display system and a front cockpit, two T-38M Aircraft Instrument Flight Training (IFT) Simulators with a normal angle-of-view display system and both front and rear cockpits and four Debriefing Systems. Pilots are awarded their wings after successfully completing one and a half years of intense training before being assigned to the F-4E/2020, F-16, E-7T, and KC-135R.

Pilots are sent to different Squadrons to receive Transition to Combat Readiness Training depending on the aircraft type. F-16 Combat Readiness Training is delivered by the T-38M trainers of the 121st Squadron, while F-4E/2020 aircrew go to the 111th Squadron at Eskişehir. E-7T Combat Readiness Training is simulator-based and is provided by the 131st Squadron and the Turkish Airlines Training Center. KC-135R Combat Readiness Training is provided by the 101st Tanker Squadron at Incirlik.

Transport and Helicopter Pilots are posted to the 125th Training Squadron at Çiğli-İzmir for a six-month course. Transport pilots fly 52 sorties on the CN-235-100M aircraft with 18 sorties in the simulator, before being posted to the 221st and 222nd Squadrons at the 12th Air Transportation Main Base Command in Kayseri for Combat Readiness Training on the C-130B/E, or C-160D, and to the 212th Squadron at the Ankara for CN-235-100M Combat Readiness Training.

Helicopter pilots fly 50 sorties on the Bell UH-1H before continuing on to Combat Readiness Training with the same unit.

The Turkish air force recognises that the existing training aircraft and synthetics are not well suited to training pilots for the next-generation fighters, and new equipment is being acquired. The indigenous TAI Hürkuş is being built to meet the Turkish Air Force requirement for a replacement for the KT-1T, while the TAI Hürjet is a single-engine, tandem seat, supersonic advanced trainer and light combat aircraft, being developed as a replacement for the T-38M.

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