ANKARA, TURKEY — Hidden from the eyes of the general public, an impending decision could rewrite history. Perhaps for the first time, a Chinese fighter will be chosen over an American one. Such a decision, however, will not be because of the indicators of the two destroyers, but because of political, including budgetary differences.
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It is about Turkey. Since the beginning of last week, Ankara has been sending conflicting signals. The American F-16 fighter, which Turkey wants, came into focus again. But Ankara now says it is “possible to withdraw the acquisition request“ made to Lockheed Martin and Washington. Mr. Çagri Erhan, directly connected politically with Turkey’s foreign policy and security policy expressed a similar possibility.
Turkey has the largest foreign fleet of US F-16 fighter jets. 250 F-16s serve in the army of the Balkan-Asian state. One part will be modernized, but Ankara needs not only modernization but a modern fleet. Having lost the battle to acquire the F-35, Turkey is currently being refused by Washington to purchase 40 F-16 fighters. The possibility of own production or purchase from another supplier remains.
Own production is possible but difficult to implement now and at the moment when Ankara needs modern combat aviation. After the horrific earthquake in Turkey in February, spending $20 billion on new US fighters seems like a reckless waste of money. At the same time, Ankara has been trying for years to break away from its deep dependence on American weapons, especially in the area of air-to-air missiles.
Turkey already has an answer to the first equation of this political mix. Peregrin and Merlin, Turkish air-to-air missiles already built and tested, are the answer. The final decision needs to be made. It is “buried” between the European Eurofighter Typhoon, the Russian Su-35 or Su-57, the French Dassault Rafale, and the Chinese Chengdu J-10 Vigorous Dragon.
It is not for nothing that Ankara uses these fighter jets in its political rhetoric directed at the USA. Turkey is trying to show America that it is not the only possible option. “We now have other options such as the Russian Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets, the Chinese J-10C fighter jets that were sold to Pakistan, and the Eurofighter Typhoon,” Mr. Erhan said in a statement.
The two Western European fighters are hard to come by purchase option. In Turkish political circles, they realize that the British or French fighters will not make them as independent as they want. It may turn out that they are a “backdoor” for new American influence. If Washington can pressure and threaten Germany with economic isolation if they do not allow the re-export of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, what prevents it from doing the same in the future, thus controlling some supply processes towards Ankara.
The Su-35 and Su-57 from the Russian Sukhoi complex are not mentioned for the first time in Turkish comments. Could Turkey buy one of the two Russian fighter jets? Yes, maybe, but it showed that decisions are made in the interest of Turkish defense, not the political attitudes of partners and “enemies”. The S-400 air defense complex is the most recent evidence. But will he make such a move? I personally think there won’t be because Russia is currently radiating uncertainty. Turkey has no guarantee that it will get the necessary service and access to technology or spare parts in the future because the war in Ukraine is still changing the situation. The worst thing for Ankara is that it does not know, and no one does, how this war will affect the Russian manufacturing complex after it is over.
That leaves the Chinese J-10C. Beijing currently has military production comparable in scale to that of the United States and Russia. Especially in the field of military shipbuilding and combat aviation. Beijing clearly opposes the decisions made in Washington. However, Beijing does not threaten, does not build military bases around the world, and uses the same weapon as the Americans – its economic power. This is liked in many geographic latitudes around the globe, including Turkey.
Sitting down at the negotiating table between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and ending a feud, is China’s latest lesson in diplomacy. This did not sit well with Washington. In the US, even some media did not cover the news at all, which can be defined as the most significant diplomatic move of the current decade. If it achieves a reduction in tensions in the Middle East, it will be welcomed by Ankara.
Turkey has not worsened its cooperation with China. On the contrary, the turnover over the years is not only preserved but also increases. The J-10C is an option that Ankara would not only consider possible but also the most realistic to achieve. Turkey already has a partner that operates the J-10 – Pakistan. And Islamabad gets not only the latest Turkish drones but also an opportunity to participate in the fifth-generation fighter project of the Turkish Air Force – TF-X.
And if politically Ankara has its moves to the east, technologically the J-10C is in no way inferior to its competitor, the F-16. The two fighters are in the same class. The design of the Chinese fighter is at least a decade more modern than that of the F-16. Especially in the field of weaponry and flight characteristics.
Both fighters are single-engined. But the Chinese have much easier, cheaper, and faster maintenance compared to its competitor in the international markets. Access to spare parts will be much easier for the J-10C than for the F-16. I.e. the requirements for maintenance and its implementation in shorter terms are lower than the American ones.
Existing Turkish F-16s may prove more easily compatible with a new fleet of J-10Cs, especially in the areas of training regimes and armament. But the reverse process is also present. Years ago, China modified its fighter jets on behalf of its foreign partners.
For example, third-generation J-7 fighters [a deep upgrade of the Soviet MiG-21 fighter] sold to Pakistan can use American AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
In addition, Turkey itself plans to phase out American air-to-air weapons from its F-16 fleet, creating its own alternatives, the missiles we have already talked about, which could become a weapon standardization tool like the J-10, and so does the F-16.
If we take a closer look at the characteristics of the J-10C, we will find that this fighter was developed and adapted for anti-ship and strike missions. But not only that – the Chinese fighter can suppress the enemy’s air defense. In addition, many of these systems have no analogs in the F-16 weapons arsenal. Another key advantage of the J-10C is its cost.
China currently produces more aircraft than the US. 200 J-10s have been built since 2018. How many F-16s were built and how many were purchased by the US and partners during this period? Far less. The J-10 becomes the low-cost version of the F-16 with similar, in many cases better, characteristics. Last but not least, China invested far more to modernize the design and systems of the J-10 than the US did for the F-16.
I think China will prefer the J-10C if it withdraws its request to acquire the F-16. The reasons are mainly two – lower costs against the background of the economic situation in Turkey, as well as a much milder Western response to Turkey than if Ankara bought the Russian fighters. Although there are currently reports of talks between Turkey and Russia regarding fighter jets, Ankara may choose the supplier that is most painless for it, for national security, and for “taming the west”.
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