Pairing the Turkish KAANs with the American F-35s is possible

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Recent indicators suggest that Turkey has developed a heightened seriousness toward its leading-edge, fifth-generation fighter project, the KAAN. However, there is still uncertainty regarding whether Turkey will resume its participation in the F-35 development project, and subsequently, proceed with its acquisition. 

Photo credit: DIA

An interesting factor here is Turkey’s potential to maintain a unique balance between the KAAN and the F-35. Both of these advanced fighter planes might compete within the export market, an intriguing scenario further discussed in a recent edition of Defense Security Asia. In light of Nuland’s recent remarks, there’s escalating speculation among Turkish sectors hinting at the removal of the Washington-imposed CAATSA [Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act] restrictions. This could potentially clear the path for Ankara to recommence its pursuit of 100 F-35 fighter jets. 

At this point, it’s crucial to underline that these Turkish analysts base their conjectures on a statement from US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Nuland clarified that once the “S-400 problem” is addressed, she doesn’t anticipate any barriers to re-inviting Turkey back into the program. In addition, Jeff Flake, the US Ambassador to Turkey, also shared that during her visit to Turkey in January, Nuland had broached a “proposed solution” for Turkey’s F-35 acquisition predicament.

Photo by Sergeant Craig Barrett

The possibilities

When we consider the actions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan concerning the procurement of the Russian S-400 air defense system, it’s clear that his focus lies in ensuring national security. Erdogan firmly believes that the asking price for the Patriot from Washington didn’t competitively measure up to the S-400. A few years ago, at the height of the S-400 debate, Erdogan underscored his point by stating, “Turkey has a vast territory that requires defense”

As of now, the US stance remains unchanged – Turkey must abandon the S-400 system. However, this resistance has various facets. One regularly expressed stance is Turkey’s declaration that they would never deploy the S-400 for combat. This is indeed a long-standing issue. There have even been instances when S-400 trials were conducted concurrently with the F-16. 

Photo credit: Twitter

On the other hand, Nuland’s recent mention of a “solution” indicates that Washington might be considering one of Erdogan’s suggestions. This proposition involves forming a joint commission with American and Turkish experts. They would examine the potential and functionality of the S-400 system, provided it isn’t integrated into national defense but operates as a standalone unit.

S-400 – the issue

The U.S. perceives the Turkish S-400 as a problem for the F-35 due to various reasons. The primary concern is related to operational security. If Turkey, a NATO member, operates both the F-35 and the S-400, there’s a risk that Russia could gain access to sensitive data about the F-35’s capabilities. 

Another issue is the potential for the S-400 system to compromise the F-35’s stealth capabilities. The S-400 radar system is among the most advanced in the world and could potentially gather data about the F-35, improving the system’s ability to detect and track the aircraft. 

Furthermore, the purchase of the S-400 by Turkey, a NATO member, raises geopolitical concerns. If Turkey is allowed to purchase and operate the S-400 without consequences, other NATO members might follow suit, leading to a broader erosion of the alliance’s collective defense capabilities. This could potentially weaken NATO’s overall effectiveness and its ability to respond to threats.

CAATSA is a solution but also a problem

Photo credit: Il Manifesto

Several years following the enforcement of CAATSA, it’s becoming evident that there are some critical concerns with the law. Surprisingly, these issues significantly affect the US more than the countries that CAATSA targets. The legislation primarily aims to inhibit the procurement of weapons systems from Russia, Iran, and North Korea. An underlying notion is that the impacted countries would pivot to the USA to source equivalent weaponry. However, it raises the question: did the strategy work out as planned?  

Let’s consider Indonesia as an example. Instead of the Su-35, they chose the Rafale. India, meanwhile, continues with the S-400 and their ongoing production of the Russian Su-30MKI aircraft. Interestingly, India collaborates with Russia in manufacturing the BrahMos cruise missile and AK Kalashnikov assault rifles. Turkey, on the other hand, decided to revive the KAAN project and successfully developed it to the first flight test stage. Importantly, Turkey has made significant strides in the development of local substitutes for American missiles and radar systems, potentially impacting their air-to-ground and air-to-air operations. This progress is so substantial that it has provided the US with a suitable reason to sell F-16s to Turkey and update its aging F-16 fleet. 

While Russia may not be directly engaged in warfare with Ukraine, it’s actively setting up bases in select African countries. The country has sold weaponry ranging from land vehicles to fighter jets, effectively countering French influence in Africa through PMC Wagner contracts with African governments. This might be the reason why the French president is suggesting a direct confrontation with Russia – not necessarily due to concerns around Ukraine, but due to the losses incurred in Africa because of Russia’s overtures.

Turkey won the first battle

The emergence of the F-16 in Turkey marks Erdogan’s initial victory. Over the previous five years, Ankara has skillfully engineered a domestic upgrade to its older F-16 fleet. Recognizing Ankara’s progress, Washington granted approval for the purchase.

Meanwhile, the production of six Turkish F-35s has been completed. Ankara has advanced a payment of $1.4 billion towards the program for obtaining a hundred F-35s. According to reports from BulgarianMilitary.com, an offer to opt out of the acquisition and recover the paid amount exists. However, Turkey is bound to pay a compensation of $30 million to the US, as the plane has been partially manufactured there and requires periodic maintenance while in storage. As a result, if the reimbursement option is chosen, the net amount to be received will be approximately $1.37 billion.

Simultaneously, Turkey continues on its upward trajectory in manufacturing the KAAN, anticipated to be its premier fighter for its future air force. The unveiling of the KAAN was successfully achieved on Wednesday, February 21, 2024, in Ankara.

KAAN and F-35

Military analyst Murat Yesiltas reveals that KAAN has the potential to fundamentally transform the sustainability of the global defense industry. He elaborates, “Techno-nationalism is emerging as a fresh, vibrant derivative of traditional nationalism, reinvigorating the socio-political narrative that encompasses the development of the defense industry.” 

Furthermore, the broad endorsement of Erdogan’s approach in the defense sector supports Yesiltas’ confidence in KAAN’s transformative potential. “Erdogan’s successful enlargement of local and national defense means essentially amplifies the strategic insights gathered from the success stories in Turkey’s defense industry,” notes Yesiltas. 

The portrayal of KAAN as a ‘game-changer’ for the global aerospace industry sets it up as a formidable competitor to the F-35 in the battle for export market dominance. Breaking the hold of Western manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Dassault Aviation, is indeed feasible with the introduction of this KAI-designed fighter jet. From the Turkish perspective, combining the KAAN and F-35 could greatly strengthen the air force. The question of whether Turkey can actualize this vision of harmonizing KAAN with the F-35 in a single military unit is something we’re eager to find out.

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