China's J-10C may be one option for Turkey. Photo: Supplied

Turkey is looking at alternatives to the F-35 fighter jet after US sanctions and its disqualification from the F-35 program. 

Turkey had previously announced plans to acquire 100 F-35 jets, but the US removed the country from its program in 2019 after it bought S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia.

Turkey insisted it had turned to Russia after failing to reach an agreement with the US over acquiring the Patriot missile systems, and that the S-400 poses no risk to the F-35. 

However, US officials warned that operating the S-400 near the F-35 could allow Russian intelligence services to learn about its capabilities, helping Russia and other S-400 operators to develop counter-measures against it. 

Despite US sanctions, last year Turkey made a formal request to the US for 40 F-16 fighters and 80 modernization kits for its existing units. If the US chooses to grant Turkey’s request, such a move may repair frayed relations between the two countries.

However, the US has significant reservations in approving Turkey’s request, among them Turkey’s human rights record and the US pro-Greece lobby. 

Turkey has also embarked on an indigenous fighter jet program that aims to produce a working aircraft by 2025 to be put into deployment by 2029. Turkey’s TF-X fighter program was started in 2016 and aims to replace the country’s aging F-16 fleet.

The TF-X fighter is envisioned to be a twin-engine multi-role aircraft, focusing on air-to-air capabilities, but will also have air-to-surface roles.

The TF-X will feature both US and Russian technologies. It is planned to be powered by a license-produced General Electric F110 jet engine. However, analysts say this choice is too optimistic, as the US Congress will most likely block jet engine technology transfers to Turkey. 

An armed and ready Turkish F-16. Photo: AFP / Andalou Agency

Russian alternatives

Turkey is also looking at Russia as an alternative source of key fighter technologies, such as jet engines, avionics, propulsion systems, radars, sensors, ejection seats and data link systems. 

In line with developing its own fighter, Turkey is already producing its own light fighter jet trainer aircraft. Last month, Turkey announced it was beginning mass-production of its TAI Hürjet supersonic jet trainer, an advanced jet trainer and light attack aircraft in the class of the Boeing T-7, the KAI T-50 and Yakovlev Yak-130.

Turkey has also offered this type of trainer jet to Malaysia’s light combat aircraft program. 

Another option for Turkey is to buy Russian jets. After the US removed Turkey from the F35 program, Turkey threatened to buy the Su-35 and possibly the newer Su-57 jets from Russia.

Russia has already said it was willing to sell its Su-35 fighter jet should Turkey want to buy it. 

However, Turkey may face interoperability and cost concerns if it decided to buy Russian fighters. Turkey’s air force is built around the F-16 jet and shifting to another type would entail replacing entire training programs, supply and logistics chains and maintenance regimes.

Plus, the prospect of harsher US sanctions, antagonizing NATO and the poor state of the Turkish economy could serve as a further deterrent to such plans. Also, the cost of this major shift may prove to be prohibitive. 

Apart from buying Russian jets, Turkey may also look at acquiring Chinese fighters. Turkey may look into acquiring China’s J-10C Firebird fighter, which Pakistan previously ordered. In addition, Turkey and China already have a substantial defense relationship, with Turkey developing its Bora missile based on China’s B-611 ballistic missile. 

However, buying Chinese fighters would present the same interoperability, cost and sanctions issues with Russian aircraft, although the J-10C would cost substantially less than Russian airframes. Western analysts have speculated about the Turkish acquisition of Chinese fighters for some time.

Paul Iddon, an analyst for Forbes, wrote last month: “The J-10C is a considerably cheaper and arguably more advanced 4.5-generation jet than the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 since it has active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

“The Su-35 still relies on less advanced passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar. The J-10C is also compatible with China’s PL-15 long-range beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM).”

Russia’s SU-35. Photo: WikiCommons

The China connection

This purchase would deepen Turkey’s drift into China’s sphere of influence. Considering Turkey’s frayed political and military relations with the West, China is poised to position itself as an alternative partner in view of its geopolitical interests.

Under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Turkey-China cooperation covers transportation, energy, telecommunications, intelligence and cyberwarfare. 

Just as China’s money helps shore up Turkey’s economy, Turkey’s potential purchase of China’s J-10C might provide a substitute for domestic or Russian fighters. China’s J-10C fighters can also deepen the already substantial Turkish-Pakistan defense relationship.

Turkey is building four MILGEM corvettes for Pakistan and has modernized the latter’s Agosta 90B submarines. These jets could facilitate further training and modernization programs between Turkey and Pakistan. 

By hedging its fighter options between competing parties and developing its own fighter program, Turkey has signaled its desire to play an independent role in strategic affairs.