Turkey, once the staunch sentinel of NATO’s southeastern flank against the Soviet Union, remains the alliance’s second-largest military. Today, NATO’s second-largest army has a problem with its air firepower.

The Turks are proud that their Air Force (TuAF) is the ninth largest in the world. But it is not necessarily the strongest ninth. According to the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft, the TuAF is not among the top 15 armies in the world. According to Global Firepower, Turkey has 110 attack helicopters and 205 fighters and interceptors. But its fleet of 1,065 military aircraft includes no specific attack aircraft.

Traditionally, the TuAF has relied almost exclusively on American technology, primarily F-16 fighters. In the 1980s, Turkey created a production unit, Turkish Aircraft Industries (TAI), to assemble F-16s under license from the American Lockheed Martin.

TAI today has a totally different ambition: To build the first indigenous Turkish fighter jet, which could also be the world’s first Muslim fighter jet, and has invited friendly nations such as Azerbaijan and Pakistan to join the effort. Meanwhile, Turkey strives to back up its determined regional policy with its military might.

There is a problem: with a fleet composed mostly of old F-16s and a per capita income of just $9,000, Turkey cannot be a great power.

Türkiye: An Air Force without wings.

“We know very well from our bitter experiences that there cannot be a strong [Turkey] without a strong army.” Turkey’s Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said at a ceremony at the Army War College. “Increasing the deterrence of the Turkish Armed Forces is a necessity for our country and not a choice.”

TuAF’s nightmares began when Erdoğan moved on to increase Turkey’s strategic relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Erdoğan approved the reckless acquisition of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which led to Turkey’s expulsion from the US-led multinational F-35 fighter jet program. Turkey planned to purchase over 100 F-35s and completely renew its fleet with the world’s most advanced fighter jets. The expulsion of the F-35 program was Washington’s response to Erdoğan’s move with the S-400.

The Russian S-400 missiles were delivered to Turkey, but they remain “unpacked” in some military hangar, as Erdoğan fears new US sanctions.

What are Turkey’s options before its military aircraft fleet is operationally grounded?

Russia? Not again. Erdoğan cannot risk confronting the West with another Russian adventure, especially when he is crying out for Western money to stop or slow Turkey’s economic decline.

Beijing will not share critical technology with NATO member Turkey. It’s possible, but Erdoğan wants modern F-16s, while the US Congress has a different opinion: Why give Turkey modern fighter jets if we want peace in the Aegean Sea? That leaves Turkey with one option: Make its own fighter jets.

Erdoğan boasts that the first Turkish fighter, the Kaan, will fly before the end of the year. However, the reality is different. The first Kaan is indeed progressing in a TAI hangar. But it is far from flying with full mission capabilities. TAI only has eight American-made jet engines for four Kaan. And the rest? Hundreds of future planes to be built? The answer is that Turkey will also have to develop an indigenous jet engine. How and when are the questions that no one offers to answer?

A prototype of Kaan can fly for political propaganda before the critical municipal elections next March, like a paper airplane without the systems necessary for full-mission flights. Then there are the financial problems.

The ailing Turkish economy is experiencing high inflation (59% year-on-year), and the country’s external debt reached almost $476 billion in March. International credit insurance company Allianz Trade reported that Turkey’s total external debt stock due in the next 12 months has risen to around $250 billion.

To share the heavy financial burden of development and production and give the planned aircraft a “Muslim identity,” Turkey has invited Azerbaijan and Pakistan to join the Kaan partnership. Hydrocarbon-rich Azerbaijan has money to invest, but Pakistan, which already has a deal with China for the JF-17 built under license by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and Chengdu Aircraft Corp, has no funds.

Rahul Monahar Yelwe, senior researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies, recently told EurAsian Times that Azerbaijan and Pakistan could not contribute substantially to the Kaan project, mainly due to the demanding nature of a fifth-generation fighter jet. Yelwe stressed that even developing a fourth-generation aircraft requires a significant financial investment. Yelwe unequivocally ruled out the possibility of Pakistan providing technological support (which he had learned from the JF-17 project) to the Turkish program.

Erdoğan made a wrong strategic decision – to try to align with Russia and the United States – and left Turkey’s top military planners mulling over how to minimize military and operational damage. The Turkish president should be able to understand that he cannot fully benefit from two warring civilizations at his convenience.

Burak Bekdil