Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election strategy for the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for May 14 hinges primarily on public support garnered through the promotion of domestically produced defense industry products. The Turkish defense industry’s popularity among the nation’s youth, coupled with the national excitement and enthusiasm generated by homegrown defense products, has driven Erdoğan to adopt such a strategy before the elections. Another reason for Erdoğan’s reliance on this strategy, which focuses on managing public perception rather than presenting factual information, is its utility in masking the damage caused by the Erdoğan administration’s conscious mistakes in vital projects closely related to Turkey’s defense and security for the sake of its own political future.
Turkey’s largest warship and the flagship of the fleet, the TCG Anadolu Multi-Purpose Amphibious Assault Ship, was delivered to the Turkish Naval Forces Command during a ceremony in Istanbul on April 10 attended by President Erdoğan. At the ceremony, Erdoğan highlighted that TCG Anadolu, capable of accommodating the largest and heaviest helicopters and drones for landing and take-off, is the world’s first warship of its kind. “We view this ship as a symbol that will bolster our standing as an assertive nation on the global stage and a leader in our region during the Century of Turkey,” he stated.
As per navy procedures, TCG Anadolu must complete its acceptance tests before being commissioned into the Turkish Navy. The sea acceptance test for TCG Anadolu commenced in June 2022. Ordinarily, for a complex amphibious assault ship like TCG Anadolu, equipped with complex sensors, units and weapons, the testing process should take at least a year. However, the fact that the sea acceptance tests were conducted within a shortened timeframe of just seven months suggests that not all tests were completed. The hasty handover of TCG Anadolu to the Naval Forces Command before all its subsystems, weapons and sensors were fully tested and prior to the completion of sea acceptance tests can be ascribed to Erdoğan’s electoral strategy rather than military necessity.
Had TCG Anadolu needed to be delivered urgently for military reasons, it should have been done after the earthquakes that struck Turkey on February 6. With its carrying capacity and medical capabilities, TCG Anadolu could have been effectively deployed in humanitarian aid operations to assist earthquake victims immediately after the disaster. However, despite the extensive losses, the Erdoğan administration chose not to implement this option for TCG Anadolu. Consequently, what is the Erdoğan administration attempting to conceal through the intensive perception management and propaganda activities conducted via TCG Anadolu, in addition to securing public support before the elections?
Why did Turkey procure the S-400 missile system?
The Erdoğan administration’s decision to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia was driven by political motivations rather than military necessity. Following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 Erdoğan shifted Turkey’s trajectory from democracy towards autocracy. In order to achieve this political objective, he sought the support of a regional power, ultimately choosing Russia. The relationship between Russia and Turkey had been strained due to a Nov. 24, 2015 incident in which Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russian fighter jet for violating Turkish airspace near the Syrian border. In order to normalize relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that Turkey buy the S-400 missile system as one of the conditions.
Removal from the JSF program affected Turkey’s naval and air power capabilities
The US removed Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program due to its purchase of the S-400 defense system. The removal from the program had the most significant impact on the Turkish Air and Naval Forces’ plans for the future. Turkey lost the ability to deploy fixed-winged air assets onboard TCG Anadolu after the US removed Turkey from the program. When construction of the TCG Anadolu started, Turkey was an active member of the JSF program. Therefore, to accommodate F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft, the Turkish Navy refitted the TCG Anadolu with a fully equipped flight deck (complete with a ski jump ramp in front). The ship’s deck was built with this aircraft in mind; however, it lacks the required length structure, supplies and equipment needed for traditional fixed-wing aircraft landings. The F-35 is the only viable option for TCG Anadolu since its deck was designed only for STOVL air assets.
After Turkey’s expulsion from the JSF program, the Turkish defense industry began developing other alternatives to compensate for the loss of fighter capability and to meet public expectations. The first effort was converting the TCG Anadolu into a drone-carrier ship. Although the Turkish defense industry is attempting to compensate for the F-35’s absence by generating drone programs, it is unrealistic to expect the building of a competent air force just utilizing drones.
The F-35’s capabilities have boosted airpower to greater levels. The main disadvantage of Turkey’s removal from the F-35B program is that the Turkish Armed Forces’ future air force projection plans will be affected. Turkey’s future carrier, the LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) Anadolu, has lost the air force projection capabilities and the F-35’s network-centric combat skills. TCG Anadolu could have been a light aircraft carrier with the F-35, demonstrating the Turkish Navy’s soft and hard power by integrating air and sea forces in a network-centered operational environment. In addition, Turkey’s drones could have been used in hybrid operational concepts of a network-centered operation. Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely that the drones to be deployed on the TCG Anadolu will be able to fill the gap created by the lack of F-35Bs.
Former Turkish Ambassador to the United States Namık Tan made a brief statement on Twitter on what Turkey had lost by its exclusion from the Joint Strike Fighter program. According to Tan’s assessment, being excluded from the F-35 project was one of the most damaging things that has happened to Turkey in the last century. There is no other agreement in the history of the Republic of Turkey that was as advantageous in terms of military or commercial cooperation. Turkey could have had the domestic technological infrastructure to produce the fifth-generation aircraft with the gains from the F-35 project. By being excluded from the program, Turkey has suffered a significant loss both militarily and politically.
As a result, Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia for the political aims of the Erdoğan administration led to the country’s exclusion from the F-35 project and the subsequent imposition of CAATSA sanctions by the US. These developments not only jeopardized the future of the Turkish Air Force but also hindered the TCG Anadolu’s potential use as a light aircraft carrier with the intended deployment of F-35s. Regrettably, Turkey had to relinquish crucial capabilities just as the world entered an era marked by a great power competition, a shift towards a multipolar structure and the highest perceived risk of total war since World War II. President Erdoğan’s focus on the TCG Anadolu and the promotion of domestically produced defense industry products as part of his election strategy serves as a distraction from the consequences of his administration’s decisions that have negatively impacted Turkey’s military capabilities. By highlighting TCG Anadolu’s achievements and masking the drawbacks resulting from the exclusion from the F-35 project and the CAATSA sanctions, Erdoğan aims to maintain public support and deflect attention from the adverse effects of his political choices on Turkey’s defense and security.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.