Why Turkey will not buy the Russian fighter jets

This is why Turkey will not buy the Russian fighter jets
6 min read
05 September, 2019
Despite showing interest in Russia's Su-35 and Su-57, Ankara will not rush into buying any of those fighter jets, writes Ali Bakeer.
Putin and Erdogan expressed a mutual desire to cooperate in the defence industry [Getty]

On August 27, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a one-day visit to Moscow to discuss bilateral relations and the latest developments in Syria with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

On the same day, the two leaders attended the inauguration ceremony of the annual Russian aviation and space fair (MAKS-2019) and expressed a mutual desire to cooperate in the aviation, space technology, and the defence industry sectors.

While touring in the fair, Putin seized the opportunity to introduce the latest achievements in Russia's aviation and space industry to his guest, including the Su-35 fighter jet, the Ka-52 military helicopter, the Mi-38 heavy helicopter and the Ka-62 medium helicopter among others.

Erdogan thus became the first foreign leader to see Russia's most advanced fighter aircraft the Su-57.

While inspecting the cockpit of the fifth-generation fighter, Putin pitched its technical capabilities to his Turkish guest.

The Turkish president made an off-handed comment about buying the Su-57. Putin who was standing near him paused for a moment before smiling and saying: "You can buy."

Two days later, the Turkish President said that Turkey will ensure it is able to buy and produce fighter jets and that Russian Su-35s and Su-57s are a possible alternative to US planes.

These developments came after the US denied Turkey the right to receive its F-35s or buy new ones, in addition to suspending its participation in the production of the most advanced multi-role stealth warplane in the world.

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Turkey has already paid $1.4 billion to buy F-35 planes from the US. There are eight Turkish defence companies participating in the production process where they are responsible for 937 parts in the F-35, with 400 of those sole-sourced from Turkish firms.

Back in July, US President Donald Trump said that his country will not sell Turkey advanced F-35 fighter jets because Ankara bought the powerful Russian surface-to-air system.

The Pentagon started the process of kicking Ankara out from the F-35 programme claiming that the S-400 is incompatible with NATO's air defence systems and will compromise the operations of the F-35 fighter jets.

Since then, the US has maintained that Ankara cannot get both the S-400 and the F-35 at the same time.

But Trump signalled a reluctance to punish Turkey with major sanctions over its acquisition which leaves the door open to possible compromises in this issue in the future.

While Ankara is trying to use the Russian card to show the US that it has another option, Moscow has a different goal.

Playing on the Turkey-US rift with the hope of expanding the discord between the two NATO allies, Russia approached Turkish officials and expressed its willingness to sell Ankara its most advanced fighter jets.

Despite showing interest in Russia's Su-35 and Su-57, Ankara will not rush into buying any of those fighter jets. The fact that Turkey didn't officially submit any request to the Russian authorities until now supports such a claim. There are several reasons that can explain why Ankara wouldn't take a similar step when it comes to this situation.

Kicking Turkey completely out of the F-35 programme is a long process that is expected to extend until March 2020 – one month before the anticipated deployment of the S-400.

The coming months are critical in terms of determining whether such a compromise will be reached. Only if both sides failed to work it out, then the discussion regarding the Russian fighters might become serious

This means that there is still a slim chance that both Turkey and the US can work out their differences and reach a compromise regarding the issue.

Lately, Senator Lindsey Graham said the US and Turkey "must find a way to avoid the damage to the relationship that comes from Turkey activating the S-400 missile system". 

"When it comes to Turkey, we are looking for a Win-Win, not a Lose-Lose," Graham wrote on Twitter.

The US has reportedly come with an offer to Turkey that if it doesn't activate the S-400, Washington will not sanction Ankara and will be willing to discuss a free-trade agreement with it.

The coming months are critical in terms of determining whether such a compromise will be reached. Only if both sides failed to work it out, then the discussion regarding the Russian fighters might become serious.

But even in this scenario, one has to take into consideration that the SU-35 is a 4.5th generation fighter, this means that it is not the proper alternative to the fifth general fighter F-35. Substituting the second with a less capable fighter will come with more cons than pros.

Moreover, buying a Russian fighter jet with the availability of the European alternatives may also create a new rift not with the US this time but with other NATO countries at a time when Ankara is in no need for a new conflict with its allies.

If Ankara will be compelled to buy a fourth-generation fighter, then it might be more reasonable and rewarding at the same time to buy a European fighter jet (Typhoon, Rafale, etc) rather than a Russian one. This will be compatible with both Ankara's geo-strategic and geo-economic orientation and can pave the way for creating great opportunities for both sides.

Not only does this option politically and economically strengthen the Turkish-European relations, but it also fortifies Ankara's position in the NATO and opens more doors for future military cooperation with European countries too.

Last Friday, Turkey's Foreign Minister implicitly pointed out that option when he said in a statement aired by the NTV broadcaster that, "Turkey remains committed to an agreement with the United States on its participation in the F-35 programme. We want to buy the F-35 fighters, but if we cannot do this, we will look for alternatives. We do not exclude any options, it does not specifically have to be Russia."

As for the Su-57, although it is a stealthy fifth generation fighter and might prove to be a convenient cheaper alternative to the F-35, Turkey would probably want to participate in the production process rather than just buying the jet, yet it would be impossible for Ankara to take such a step before completely losing hope in re-joining the F-35 programme and getting its jets.

Furthermore, Moscow would never agree to allow Ankara to participate in the production process of the Su-57. But even if it agrees, this means that Turkish defence companies will lose business opportunities with the US and Europe and risk US sanctions at the same time.

This scenario will leave implications that go far beyond the F-35 vs S-400 dispute and might seriously affect Turkey's defence sector, while jeopardising Ankara's ambitious plans of developing its own indigenous fifth-generation future fighter aircraft the TF-X.

In other words, accepting the Russian offers – regarding the Su-35 or the Su-57 – right now will block the chances of resolving the F-35 conflict between Turkey and the US.

Furthermore, buying a Russian fighter jet in these circumstances is expected to speed up Washington's sanctions against Ankara, and it is hard to imagine that Turkey would want to march by its own will towards this situation while there is still a hope that it can retain its fighters and resume its role in the F-35 programme.

Ali Bakeer is an Ankara based political analyst/researcher. He holds a PhD in political science and international relations. His interests include Middle East politics with a particular focus on Iran, GCC countries and Turkey.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibakeer