Erdogan wants jets from Moscow, but gets an ice cream cone

There was a big show in Moscow, where Russia showed off all of its latest aerial weapon systems, and other flying things. It was an impressive show. All sorts of “nobs” were there, including the “Sultan” of Turkey, Recep Tayip Erdogan,

by Efthimios Tsiliopoulos

Putin showed off the graceful maneuverability of the Su-57, the latest feat of Russian design. He could not, of course, show off those capabilities that would indeed make the claim that this is a 5G fighter.

Recep asked Vladimir if he could buy the Su-57, to which the Russian leader said yes. Later on, while flying home, when asked if we would buy Russian planes the “Sultan” replied “Why not? We didn’t come here for nothing.”

During the airshow and after viewing the best of Russia’s President Putin had the graciousness to offer the “Sultan” an ice cream cone. You know… the soft machine kind, which is part and parcel of Russia’s Cold War legacy, something Nikita Khruschev brought to the then Soviet Union after sampling the simple, yet tasty treat, during his first visit to the United States.

And it was a fitting gesture because although it would be sweet (for both) if Erdogan could actually have some way out for his impasse concerning new fighters for his air force, but it’s unlikely he will get them from Moscow.

And it’s not that the Czar does not want a sale and the propaganda and marketing that would accompany such a sale. One could almost taste it… envisioning the headlines “Turkey buys excellent planes from Russia, ditches last year’s F-35s”.

But, alas, this is highly improbable, perhaps lingering on the boundary of the impossible. And this for a number of reasons, some political, some technical, and some that are purely doctrinal.

If Erdogan persists in going down the route of becoming more attached to Moscow for weapon system acquisitions he will certainly draw the wrath of the United States and the imposition of a series of sanctions that the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions (CAATSA) would oblige Washington to impose for any significant purchase of military equipment from Russia.

So far Turkey has avoided this despite the purchase of the S-400 system. However, sanctions will be unavoidable, if Turkey proceeds with more major purchases. This will make Erdogan think twice about where he shops for weapons, and what he buys.

A second problem that arises is Russia’s role in all of this. Most military aviation pundits will agree that the Su-57 is just a shell of an aircraft. It has neither the avionics or advanced electronics that would allow it to become part of any air force’s arsenal, let alone be considered a 5G fighter. Moscow at this time lacks the materiel and the funding to bring the Su-57 anywhere close to series production and tactical integration.

On the other hand, buying the Su-35, a fighter already available, would be a conundrum for the Turkish armed forces, as they had been planning their composition and operations based on the F-35 they were set to obtain. In fact, any Russian aircraft would mean a complete volte-face in terms of how the Turkish Air Force operates. The problems are obvious and include a change of philosophy, operational planning, logistics, spares stocks, etc.

The whole philosophy of Russian military aviation is far different from the way the West has organized its airpower doctrine. This is obviously reflected in the design of Russian aircraft. They are built with the idea that in a high-tech conflict such equipment has a very-short life-span, therefore they are as inexpensive as possible, their engines have a tenth of the operational life-span of western aircraft powerplants, but they are rugged and can take punishment.

Inducting such aircraft would mean that the THK would have to operate on two mindsets. It could not use Russian aircraft to such an extent that it uses F-16s to harass the Hellenic Air Force, they just couldn’t take the extensive use. Even if Turkey decided to integrate Russian aircraft into its forces it would take years before some semblance of how to integrate them into operational concepts and doctrine could be worked out!

As for the idea that Russia would help Turkey on designing an indigenous fighter, one must take this in stride, since Moscow is not keen to distribute know-how unless there is some very solid economic dealings to its benefit. If Turkey just wants technology transfer from Moscow it is barking up the wrong tree.

Turkey has long been fumbling the foreign tech transfer ball, as it has always wanted foreigners to provide crucial technologies for indigenous designs, and has consistently had to scale back its expectations and lower the ambitions in terms of know-how acquisition.

Then there is also the very dubious record of Russian support for equipment already delivered, as can be attested by a bevy of dissatisfied customers. Let’s go ask Cyprus since we’re in the neighborhood.

So, the “Sultan” is in a conundrum and his air force is at an impasse for its future. Unfortunately for Erdogan, but also for the military aviation market, the options are very limited and each is fraught with dangers and pitfalls.

P.S. Of course, this is a moot argument if there is no money.