Broken Wings

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Turkish Air Force has been direly impacted by the recent purge and the effects were felt very quickly in the battlefield. Despite having close to 300 fighters in the inventory and operating in a rather small operational arena, Turkey resorted asking the US for air support for the ground forces. The well-publicized “joint” operations with Russia has been detrimental rather than instrumental, as recent suspiciously timed “friendly fire” incident during an air strike claimed the lives of 3 Turkish soldiers living 9 wounded.

The self-evident question is “Why is Turkish Air Forces not able to carry her own weight and provide the ground support required?” Certainly, it is not the lack of material, as it has more fighters currently than any other Air Force in Europe. The answer lies within the human factor, as Turkey has lost more than half of its pilots due to ongoing purge, resulting in abysmal operational capability.

A REAL CONCERN FOR TURKEY

After the latest published decree with force of law regarding measures to be taken under the State of Emergency, the number of the Turkish Air Force pilots purged since 15th July 2016 has exceeded 550.

Measures taken under the State of Emergency[1] Pilots Purged from Turkish Air Force
Decree-Law NO. 668 of 27 July 2016 284
Decree-Law NO. 670 of 17 August 2016 8
Decree-Law NO. 675 of 29 October 2016 9
Decree-Law NO. 677 of 22 November 2016 90
Decree-Law NO. 679 of 06 January 2017 32
MOD Administrative decrees of  September/October 2016 128
TOTAL 551

During a press interview on 15 August 2016, government spokesmen have declared that pilot/seat ratio has fallen to 0.8 after decree 668[2]. Since then, 267 more pilots have been purged, which brings down the pilot/seat ratio to a disastrous number of 0.4[3]. Also, it is important to point out that purge is still continuing and also some of the remaining pilots are suspended and waiting for an indeterminate future.

In a desperation effort, Turkish government doubled the pilot salaries[4] with a decree and asked hundreds of pilots that had served mandatory service time and had left for the “Big White Aircraft – aka Civilian Airlines” to come back to service. The Turkish government had hoped and Ministry of Defence announced that hundreds of pilots would return “back home” from civilian airline companies. However, results were heartbreaking and only 12 came back[5] which interestingly was paraded as a big success.

On the other hand, side effects of doubling pilot salaries are yet to surface. Even before the doubling act, the large salary gap between pilots and other specialties were a source of discontent amongst the latter. After the dust settles, no doubt the “doubled” discontent will cause friction among ranks of Air Force.

The government sponsored media constantly tries to downplay the situation. In a recent news,[6] it is announced that the pilot shortage is decreasing significantly, as 225 new pilots were “ready to fly”. A closer look into this claim reveals that they have been talking about the number of pilot candidates planned for flight school, which will take years before they could be combat ready.

Even before the purge Turkish Air Force was struggling with manning the cockpits. In 2012, a decrease in mandatory service time from 15 years to 10 years was introduced. This change cost Air Force extra, as 53 additional pilots left service on average each year since 2012[7]. An average of 100 pilots graduate from Flight School in the Air Force per year and approximately 100 pilots leave Turkish Air Force to work at the commercial airlines each year, however, the unexpected increase of departures from 100 to 153 already had a big impact for Turkish Air Force. Concern was so severe that the issue was brought up at both Council of Ministers and Turkish Grand National Assembly several times[8]. The pre-purge pilot shortages combined with additional 550 pilots purged since, sets and undeniably grim picture.

Turkish Air Force Commander General Abidin ÜNAL at the inauguration ceremony for 153rd SQ on November 2016. Small number of pilots for a squadron providing initial training for F-16

As the operations pick up in southern border, with old flames being rekindled in the West, the immediate threat that needs to be remedied is the number of combat-ready pilots and the number of experienced pilots who plays a key role in planning and execution of operations[9]. Keeping in mind that the flight school has the capacity to train average 100 pilots a year at a maximum rate, pilot shortage will continue to be a major concern at least for the next 10 years[10]. However, most of the pilots that left during both pre-purge and purge periods were experienced instructor pilots, which brings up the question whether the pilot production rate can even catch up to the previous levels. Combined with increased operational tempo in the south, Air Force will have to make a decision on where they will employ the small number of experienced pilots. Most likely scenario is, immediate concerns on the operational front will override the mid-long term concerns, which will deepen the hole, Air Force is already in.

Another temporary solution created by the new decree is to give a second chance to the officers washed out from pilot training[11] years ago and are serving in different specialties such as intelligence officer, infantry officer etc. “Internal sourcing” approach will have the benefit of shortening the transition period compared to a civilian recruit, however fixing one hole by pulling the cork from another hole is hardly a wise approach for saving the ship. Specialties such as air space controllers, targeteers have long training periods. The role of non-flyer specialties in combat effectiveness should not be overlooked. The pilot-centric mentality is a thing of the past, as operations get more and more complicated and increased tempo requires more from the ground crews. Another problem with “Internal Sourcing” approach is the fact that it will undeniably lead to decreased standards in pilot training. Those candidates formerly washed-out due to failing to reach the standards will not suddenly find a newfound talent, and instructors will be forced to accept sub-standard candidates due to pressure from upper echelons to increase pilot output.

A REAL CONCERN FOR NATO

Expertise and experience lost following the military pilot purge is hard to regain since the remaining few are being used and abused in the dangerously high operational tempo in Euphrates Shield. The requirements for the air support in Operation Euphrates Shield is growing, as lack of adequate close air support has already cost 54 tanks/armored vehicles. The tremendous loss of fighter pilots restricts the Turkish Air Force operational tempo which in turn caused Turkey to urge US/European Allies to support operation in Al-Bab. In fact, so dire is the situation that Turkey resorted asking “New Strategic Ally – Russian Air Force” for close air support marking a highly unusual military partnership between a NATO member and Moscow[12].

The purge of combat pilots will not just produce consequences for Turkish Armed Forces but also to NATO’s both peacetime and combat establishment as well. Turkey has a significant number of officer posts in NATO’s command structure of which considerable of them are pilots[13]. In an interview on early December, SACEUR General Curtis Scaparrotti expressed the effect of empty Turkish posts as “I had talented, capable people here, and I am taking a degradation of my staff for the skill, the expertise and the work they produced”. It will be very difficult for Turkey to fill these posts with experienced and qualified cadre as Turkey will no doubt choose to utilize those scarce assets in operations or training.

General Scaparotti’s concern is likely not limited to the command structure. Turkish contribution to NATO’s strike power is also under question. NATO must keep in mind this serious critical capability shortfall since Turkey has more fighter jets than they could realistically fly and sustain in combat. This poses a grave vulnerability for the southern flank of NATO as Turkey is one of the largest providers of fighter aircraft in NATO.

In light of recent strategic shift towards Russia, whether Turkey would be willing to contribute to a major scale enduring NATO ops in the region, both in aircraft and basing, is the real troubling question amidst Erdogan’s post-purge “Strategic Adventurism”.

Click the link for the pdf version. Broken-wings2

[1] Decrees with force of law can be found at http://www.resmigazete.gov.tr/default.aspx.

[2] “Numan Kurtulmuş: Ayrılanlar dönecek”, 15 August 2016, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/numan-kurtulmus-ayrilanlar-donecek-40195302.

[3] Turkey has approximately 600 total Aircraft.

[4] Nobody should expect that doubling pilot salaries to keep the moral and motivation of pilots high while they are surrounded by continuous purge atmosphere, in which no one is safe.

[5] “Basın Odası/ Hv.K.K.lığından Haberler”, https://www.hvkk.tsk.tr/en-us/.

[6] http://www.haberturk.com/gundem/haber/1362829-tsknin-pilot-acigi-azaliyor

[7] The extra bleeding of pilots should normally end in 2017.

[8] “Hava Kuvvetlerini bu yasa vurdu”, 12 March 2015, http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2015/gundem/hava-kuvvetlerini-bu-yasa-vurdu-769765/, “100 pilot istifa etti”, 14 March 2013, http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2013/gundem/100-pilot-istifa-etti-247496/

[9] Turkish Air Force depends on the pilots to a great extent for operational and tactical planning. So a portion of already scanty pilot cadre will have to be used for planning.

[10] Ten years assessment could also be found in the analysis at https://warontherocks.com/2016/09/the-post-coup-purge-of-turkeys-air-force/

[11] Due to either medical reasons or elimination from flight school.

[12] Friendly fire incidents on 24 November 2016 (Although Officially culprit is not yet found) and 09 February 2017 which left more than 10 Turkish soldiers dead and more than 20 wounded should force Turkey to consider the effectiveness of the Russian cooperation.

[13] Turkish Planner posts in AIRCOM, CAOCs and TUR JFAC are mostly manned by pilots.

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