With an active strength of 60,000 military personnel and operates approximately 668 manned aircraft in about 33 Squadrons, the Turkish Air Force is a major power.
Eleven squadrons operate a mix of Block 30, Block 40 and Block 50 F-16s, one of them equipped with DB-110 EO reconnaissance pods and assigned to recce duties, two remaining ‘combat’ squadrons operate about 49 F-4E-2000 Phantoms, in the upgraded ‘Terminator’ configuration, while the Türk Yildizlari (Turkish Stars) form a squadron equipped with 23 Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighters upgraded locally to NF-5A-2000 and NF-5B-2000 configuration. The Phantoms and some of the older F-16s will be replaced by 116 Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, and there are already two squadrons operating unmanned platforms, one flying armed Heron, Predator and Reaper UCAVs and one flying ISTAR roled Heron, Harpy, I-GNAT ER and Anka UAVs.
Seven transport squadrons and three base flights between them operate two of the eight A400M on order, about 15 C-130B/E, 16 C-160 Transall and 43 CN235 transport aircraft, 20 AS532 Cougar and 59 UH-1H helicopters. There is also one tanker squadron with seven Boeing KC-135R air to air refueling aircraft, two squadrons operating three Boeing E-7T AEW&C aircraft and two CN235EW Elint/EW aircraft, as well as eight surface-to-air missile (SAM) squadrons. Six training squadrons operate about 36 SF-260 primary trainers, 40 KT-1T and 20 Hurkus B basic trainers, and 68 T-38M advanced/lead in trainers.
Until recently, the frontline squadrons were spread between two Tactical Air Force Commands, headquartered at Eskişehir and Diyarbakır, each with five main bases. In August 2014, the two Tactical Air Force Commands were merged into a single Combat Air Force Command, and the Secondnd Tactical Air Force Command centre in Diyarbakir was closed.
Two transport bases come under Air Force Staff Division Command, while the training units are parented primarily by Air Training Command and Air Force Academy Command.
The Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (THK or Turkish air force) can trace its roots back 105 years, having been founded on 1 June 1911, when Turkey was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The infant air arm fought in the Balkan Wars (1912–1913) and World War I (1914–1918), which ended with the occupation of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies in 1919, and the effective dissolution of the air force. Since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the THK has grown in stature and capability.
The THK guarded Turkey’s neutrality against neighbouring Axis allies and occupied nations during World War II before fighting briefly on the Allied side, and joining NATO in 1952, forming part of NATO’s 6th Allied Tactical Air Force. Since then, the air force has engaged in air combat with Greek aircraft over the Aegean on numerous occasions, as well as supporting the invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
It was a mainstay of NATO air power during the Cold War (equipped with large numbers of mostly obsolescent, usually second hand aircraft types cascaded from richer NATO allies), and played a vital role in securing NATO’s Southern Flank. The THK steadily began to ‘catch up’ with other NATO air arms, not least with the arrival of F-16C/D Fighting Falcons from 1987.
All but eight of the F-16s supplied to the Turkish air force were locally produced by TUSAS Aerospace Industries at Akinci (formerly Mürted). TUSAS stands for Turkiye Ucak Sanayii AS, or Turkish Aircraft Industries (TAI). The aircraft were produced in four batches, under the Peace Onyx I, II, III and IV programmes, with progressively greater local content. In the initial batch, TAI manufactured 70% of the airframe of the F-16 aircraft including aft and centre fuselages and wings.
210 surviving F-16s underwent a $3.9 billion Common Configuration Implementation Program (CCIP) upgrade, with improvements including APG-68(V)9 multimode radar, the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, Link 16, and compatibility with a number of new weapons and targeting systems. The F-16s’ weapons now include AGM-65A/B Maverick TV-guided air-to-surface missiles, CBU-103/105 Wind Corrected Munitions Dispensers, AGM-84H SLAM-ER and AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon cruise missiles and AIM-9X and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.
The THK purchased AGM-142 Popeye attack missiles from Israel intending these to be used by the F-4E and the F-16, but so far they have been used only by the Phantom, though the smaller indigenous Roketsan SOM next-generation high precision cruise missile has been integrated on Block 50 and CCIP F-16s and F-4E 2020s.
More than 200 Phantoms were delivered to Turkey from 1974, 54 of which were upgraded to F-4E-2020 ‘Terminator’ standards by IAI with a new Elta EL/M-2032 multi-mode fire control radar, and an upgraded avionics suite, including a digital glass cockpit, and a Kaiser El-OP 976 wide-angle HUD and HOTAS system.
The Terminator is compatible with the AGM-142 Popeye/Have Nap missile, Litening-II targeting pods, and a range of other modern weapons. The AGM-142 was first used in anger on 16 December 2007 during Operation Sun, an incursion into Northern Iraq targeting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The Turkish air force has encouraged local industry to help it meet its equipment requirements, and has commissioned a wide range of indigenously designed and manufactured weapons, and licence-built and locally designed aircraft types and helicopters, as well as upgrade and modernization programmes that incorporate indigenously designed avionics and other systems. Some of these are now in full operational service, like the TAI Hurkus trainer, while others are still in development.
The Turkish air force has been an important participant in multi-national coalition operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Middle East, gaining a great deal of operational experience in the process. In 2006, four Turkish F-16s were deployed to take part in NATO's Baltic Air Policing operation.
Ongoing operations against the PKK in Northern Iraq, and against Daesh and other insurgent groups in Syria have kept Turkey’s air force at a high operational pitch and the Syrian Civil War has provided plenty of opportunities for combat experience. On 16 September 2013 a Turkish Air Force F-16C shot down a Syrian Mi-17 that violated Turkish airspace, while on 23 March 2014 another F-16 shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force MiG-23 ‘Flogger’.
On 3 and 4 October 2015 Russian Air Force Su-30SM and Su-24 aircraft violated Turkish airspace in the Hatay region. Despite what the Turkish air force described as “clear, timely and repeated warnings” the Russian aircraft continued until F-16s on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) were scrambled. During the incident on 3 October the Russian Su-30SM maintained a radar lock on one or both the F-16s for more than five minutes, an unusual and provocative thing to do. Following the incident the Turkish Government said that its air force would shoot down any aircraft violating their sovereign airspace in future.
Accordingly, on 24 November 2015, a Russian Su-24 Fencer was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16 when it crossed the border from Syria, resulting in the death of one of the crew.
Following the shootdown, relations with Russia deteriorated, and Russian incursions continued. Russia equipped aircraft flying in Syria with air-to-air missiles for self-defence, and began to routinely dispatch Su-30s to escort Su-24 bombers and Su-25 fighter bombers, deployed an S-400 SAM missile system to Hmeymin airbase and dispatched the Moskva guided-missile destroyer (equipped with S-300F SAMs) off Latakia, establishing a Missile Engagement Zone (MEZ) over Syria.
On 29 January, following a further border violation (this one by an Su-34 ‘Fullback’ bomber, Turkey refrained from engaging the aircraft but did summoned the Russian envoy for a formal ‘dressing down’.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry commented that: “We are making a clear call to the Russian Federation not to violate Turkish airspace, which is also NATO airspace.”
Turkey finally became a Level 3 partner of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) development programme on 11 July 2002 and joined the production phase of the programme on 25 January 2007, initially agreeing to purchase 116 F-35A Lightning II aircraft. It is also studying a future fighter requirement, known as TFX, which is to replace the F-16 with a domestically produced fighter after 2023.
Stay up to date
Subscribe to the free Times Aerospace newsletter and receive the latest content every week. We'll never share your email address.