Mike Benitez and Aaron Stein – Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. —– Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
September 19, 2016 – On July 15, 2016, members of the Turkish Air Force and Army attempted to topple Turkey’s elected government by coup. In the wake of the failed coup, over 80,000 civil servants have been suspended, including over 100 admirals and generals. Among those, an astonishing 274 Turkish Air Force pilots have been discharged — comparable to the entire annual production of fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. As a result, Turkey — a crucial ally with historic (and current) strategic geography and a key player in the fight against the Islamic State — will likely face long-term gaps in self-defense and its ability to actively contribute to its military and alliance commitments.
The Coup Pilot Exodus
In an air force, a pilot shortage is simple to compute, but difficult to comprehend. It is generally thought of as either a production issue (recruitment and/or training) or retention issue (separation from service, attrition to warfare, etc.). Though comprehending the contributing factors are often difficult (note the current U.S. Air Force pilot retention crisis), Turkey’s situation is quite simple in this regard.
Owing to the purges, Turkey now faces an acute fighter pilot shortage, with the number of F-16 pilots dropping from a healthy (by Western standards) 1.25:1 pilot-to-cockpit ratio to a paltry 0.8:1 following the discharges. A 1.25:1 ratio is the accepted norm for sustainment in numerous air forces.
A large number of officers from various branches of the Turkish armed forces were present at Akinci air base on the night of the coup attempt. Akinci is home to the Turkish Air Force’s 11th fighter wing and three F-16 squadrons. At least one of the Akinci squadrons was involved in the coup attempt, alongside other elements of the Turkish Air Force based at different air bases around the country. To re-balance the crew ratio to an operationally feasible level, there are now plans to shutter five F-16 squadrons based at Akinci (141st, 142nd, and 143rd) and at Bandirma (161st and 162nd). The two bases affected will both be converted into reserve bases and their F-16s will disperse to other bases. This represents a drawdown from 240 inventoried F-16s to an estimated 140 useful jets — a 41 percent slash to their air defense and air interdiction capacity.
Turkey has maintained a near-constant air presence along the Syrian border since the 2012 escalation of the civil war, an alert posture that taxes aircraft maintenance and operators alike.
Following Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 in November 2015, the number of Turkish aircraft assigned to combat air patrol (CAP) surged to 12. Ankara also requested that the United States increase its presence in Turkey, largely to deter further Russian aggression, according to an author interview with an official of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Yet Turkey’s air presence along the border has dropped back down after its recent rapprochement with Russia, a summary of the Turkish military’s daily activities reveals (The TSK’s “daily activities” press release is not archived). If the recent U.S.-Russian agreement to limit the Syrian regime and better coordinate the bombing of Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is implemented, Turkish pilots could scale back their CAPs even further. Recent reporting on the Turkish military website indicates Turkey is flying 8 F-16 CAP missions per day, with an additional two likely on alert.
Akinci is located just outside of Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, while Bandirma is located on the Sea of Marmara, just north of the Dardanelles. The bases supporting Turkey’s current air operations in Iraq, southeastern Turkey, and Syria appear to be F-16s at Diyarbakir and remotely piloted aircraft (often referred to as drones) based in Batman. Turkey may have also moved some F-16s and pilots to Incirlik, the hub for international flight operations against the Islamic State — not typically a Turkish F-16 base. These bases are located within 100 miles of the border with Syria and, in the case of Diyarbakir, are less than 150 miles from Iraqi airspace.
Diyarbakir airbase appears to predominantly support operations for operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State, while Bandirma or Balikesir based F-16s may support Turkey’s ongoing CAP missions along the border. For current operations in southeastern Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, Turkey maintains a relatively slow tempo of operations, striking targets daily, according to Turkish military press releases.
Coup Prognosis on Operations
The pilot shortage could affect Turkish strategy in Syria, in addition to negatively affecting the air force’s ability to conduct CAPs along the Syrian border and the tempo of operations for the current counterinsurgency campaign in Turkey’s southeast against the (PKK). The Turkish Air Force is also now striking targets in Syria, largely in support of Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s military intervention along the border. This is predominately performed by its fleet of F-16s.
Turkey fielded seven F-16 squadrons with strike or attack as their primary mission before the coup attempt. However, of those original seven, four are now being shuttered, leaving three squadrons designated for strike and attack. Turkey likely uses the 182nd squadron (Diyarbakir) and 192nd (Balikesir) for CAPs, leaving the 181st and 191st for strike missions in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish Air Force may also still be able to use F-16s at Bandirma for CAP or strike missions, although the status of the squadrons at the base are unclear amid reports of impending closure.
In the near-term, the Turkish Air Force plans on reallocating strike aircraft from shuttered squadrons to different airbases, but the pilot shortage may ultimately prevent the use of these aircraft. To offset this pilot shortage, the air force may borrow a page from the U.S. Air Force’s contingency operation model by shifting the burden onto tankers. Turkey’s seven KC-135 tankers, based at Incirlik’s 101st Squadron, increase the on-station time for its fighters and extend the aircraft regeneration time while reducing the amount of F-16 pilots needed per day. By comparison, based on the military experience of one of the authors, deployed U.S. fighters often fly sorties of four to eight hours daily (depending on which base) thanks to the herculean support of tankers.
This, of course, depends on the status of Turkish tanker pilots. During the coup attempt, the former Turkish commander of Incirlik Air Force Base, Bekir Ercan Van, joined with the putschists. At least two (and perhaps as many as four) of the seven KC-135s previously under his command refueled rogue F-16s. To date, at least one tanker has flown in support of Euphrates Shield, despite a reported 30 pilots from the 101st squadron being discharged for alleged involvement in the coup attempt. It is unclear what the current tempo of operations Turkey’s tankers can reliably sustain, but a purge of 30 pilots would suggest a pilot deficit on par with the F-16 pilot shortage. This crisis is seen in the recent call by the Turkish Air Force to former military pilots to return to duty. According to Al Monitor, as many as 140 pilots have reportedly answered the call, although Turkey’s state owned Anadolu Agency reports that only six pilots have expressed interest in returning to the military. In either case, military pilot skill atrophy will still take time to overcome, regardless of the number of pilots that decide to return.
This air support is growing increasingly important due to expanding efforts to protect its ground forces involved in Operation Euphrates Shield. The lack of air support has made the conventional tanks vulnerable to attack by unconventional forces. To date, six of an estimated 40 deployed tanks have been destroyed by man-portable anti-tank missiles. The Turkish Air Force has no aircraft comparable to the American A-10, a platform designed for close air support, but it does possess a small number of F-16s dedicated to the mission.
Turkey also has attack helicopters, including the recently produced T-129, though the track record of helicopter survivability in Syria has been less than stellar. They could also rely more on indigenous 155 mm artillery for fire support, a tactic the Turkish military already appears to be employing.
Turkey’s Military Capacity: A Real Cause for Concern
Turkey is vital for any near- or long-term successes in Syria. The coalition must quickly comprehend Turkey’s endgame and exit strategy before its military capacity limit is reached and it scales back operations. If the coalition wishes to leverage Turkey’s ground forces to capitalize on a push toward Al Bab, an Islamic State stronghold 20 miles south of the Turkish-Syrian border, it likely has a finite window in which to seize the initiative to do so with coalition air support. Turkey’s fighter shortage may also preclude an expansion of Ankara’s ground offensive to include Manbij, a city currently under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF’s most important fighting force, the YPG, is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the militia currently fighting an insurgent campaign in Turkey’s southeast.
The Turkish Air Force also strikes targets in support of ground forces fighting on this front, carrying out routine airstrikes in Turkey and over the border in northern Iraq. Ankara would be further expanding its military commitments at a time when its air force is already stretched thin— a prospect that would appear to rule out a major expansion of Ankara’s ambitions in Syria independent of the coalition.
The Turkish Air Force is now being called upon to do more with fewer pilots. The Turkish government has sought to recruit new pilots, but even if this program turns out to be successful, it will still take time to replace the expertise and experience lost following the post-coup attempt discharges.
The coup attempt has been a disaster for the Turkish Air Force. The long-term impact of the pilot exodus is likely to take the better part of 10 years to repair. These changes come amid continued security challenges and Turkey’s intervention of choice in Syria. Assuming Turkey’s military was correctly sized for its national security before the coup, the United States and NATO must remain mindful of this vulnerability when making assessments about the capabilities of the Turkish Air Force.
Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow.
Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.