An eagle without wings?
When “Greece’s Bach,” the great Manos Hatzidakis, wrote his “Eim’aitos horis ftera” (I am an eagle without wings) in 1963, he certainly was not thinking of the Turkish Air Force (TuAF) in the 21st century. But on this side of the Aegean, a land of bitter ironies, eagles can fly without wings.
At precisely 12:29 am on Aug. 7, Hürriyet’s web page editors put together two pieces of news in twin boxes on top of the page. One box quoted the defense minister as saying that “Turkey’s anti-terror fight was progressing perfectly.” The other one said the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had kidnapped three soldiers. Scroll down the page and a “main story” would tell you how Turkey’s failure to fortify military outposts had paved the way for the most recent PKK attack which killed eight soldiers.
But the Turkish skies are in no better shape. The government’s “Syria challenge” seems to have revealed a number of strategic shortcomings in the TuAF. The mysterious shooting of the reconnaissance plane presumably by Syrian air defenses was the first warning to reveal these operational snags. Six weeks after the incident, the TuAF has not been able to document how its RF-4E was shot down. The plane and its pilots were probably the victims of an ambitious Turkish attempt to test the capabilities of Syria’s air defenses.
Gentlemen, if you are thinking about a military campaign, cool down a minute and see how sluggish most of your procurement programs go. Turkey has not yet selected a contender to build long-range air- and missile-defense systems. The lack of air defenses in the event of a military challenge could expose Turkey to the risk of Syrian long-range missiles, not to mention the possibility of chemical and biological warheads.
The lack of smart weaponry, spy planes and helicopters is not a secret. Smart weapons in the TuAF are a rarity and the present level of provisions cannot support an air campaign against a country with air defense systems of Russian technology. And remember, not a single new helicopter has gone into service in the last 10 years.
Turkey decided to procure attack helicopters in the mid-1990s. It is now 2012, but the first gunship is still a few years away from delivery in even the most optimistic scenario. Separately, the contract with Sikorsky for the procurement of 100 utility helicopters has not even been signed for some mysterious reason. Similarly, the deliveries of CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters under a 2011 deal with Boeing are set for an unknown year in the future. It’s simple: Turkey cannot rely on signed (or unsigned) but uncertain contracts with unknown deliveries in the event of a present-day clash.
I am not going to question how many years we must wait before another program equips Turkish military aircraft with stand-off jammer capabilities. Bets can open at three years and more (Turkey has been seeking these capabilities over the last 10 years).
But this is not the end of the boring waiting list. To increase the TuAF’s firepower, Ankara in 2009 asked for the sale of two MQ-9 reapers (armed drones) and four MQ-1 Predators. Apparently, fearing obstacles, the Pentagon has refrained from notifying Congress about the sale. Then there is the story of the fancy airborne early-warning and control aircraft under a $1.6 billion deal with Boeing. The first deliveries of the 737-300 jets to be converted into spy planes are expected to arrive next year, eight years after a contract was signed. Of course, there is also the minor problem that most Turkish fighter jets fly like innocent seagulls without proper electronic warfare suites. When was this program initiated? About a decade ago.
With quite a few of its generals in jail and/or expelled and pilots deserting, the TuAF is hardly a force to give its enemies cold shivers. It was thus not a coincidence when U.S. State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell warned last week that “Washington did not think Turkey’s further military build-up on the border with Syria was a right way to go.”