A serious shortage of Turkey's air force pilots, aggravated by a mass purge of military aviators by the government on fabricated charges in 2016, continues to hamper the air force's ability to operate F-16 and F-4 fighter jets. This acute problem presents even more challenges to NATO's second-largest army than the already stymied modernization efforts for the ailing aircraft fleet amid troubled talks with the US on upgrades and new orders.
The Turkish Air Force (Türk Hava Kuvvetleri), which operates the largest F-16 fleet in the world after the US and Israel, was once a powerful institution that provided combat pilot training for both NATO members and approved partners in coordination with the US, the main supplier of the aircraft to Turkey.
However, due to the unprecedented crackdown on the military and arbitrary dismissals by the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, the air force now faces a significant shortage of both pilots and trainers. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that it will be able to recover from this blow any time soon.
The gloomy numbers speak for themselves. According to information provided by former air force colonel Ahmet Özçetin in 2017, Turkey had managed to train some 1,200 F-16 pilots since 1987, when it started flying that particular fighter jet. Özçetin, who was among those wrongfully dismissed and imprisoned in Turkey on bogus charges, said training an air force pilot takes much time, effort and resources.
He said when he was dismissed in 2016 following a false flag coup by the Erdogan government to create a pretext for mass purges in the military and other institutions, some 100 student pilots who were about to complete their F-16 training in Ankara were also pushed out of the force. Some of these students successfully completed their programs with the US Air Force before returning to Turkey for final studies and training.
The government pulled out all the stops in curtailing resources for the air force. In an overnight presidential decree with no prior consultation on possible ramifications, Erdogan closed the Air Force Academy, the backbone of pilot education and training, on July 25, 2016. The government also stripped the title of officer from all of that year's new graduates and transferred cadets who had not graduated or were still studying to other universities that had nothing to do with military training.
Before July 2016, the air force had 1,301 pilots on active duty, with 668 of them combat pilots. The Erdogan government summarily purged 772 pilots without any military, administrative or criminal investigation. It also suspended 113 pilots. With the number of retired pilots added to the tally, the air force at one time had fewer combat pilots than fighter jets in its fleet.
That is not the only sad chapter in this saga. The dismissal of pilot trainers, who are usually selected from those who served with distinction in the air force for years and had an excellent service record, aggravated the dire situation for the air force even further. Scrambling to find trainers from outside the country, the Erdogan government tried to bring Pakistani pilots to train new candidates. But such a move required third country transfer approval from the US, which was never granted. The Pentagon and the State Department were sending a clear message that they were not happy with what was going on with the purges that targeted mainly pro-NATO officers, undermining NATO's southern flank.
Since then, the Erdogan government has resorted to patchwork tactics to solve emerging problems in the air force, trying to fill the pilot shortage through a series of actions with little success. It reopened the Air Force Academy in February 2017 under the newly established National Defense University but found it difficult to attract new students.
The government tried to recall some retired pilots and others working in private industry with little success since many did not want to go back for financial reasons or due to the climate of fear in the military over the purges. The figures reported show only some 50 to 100 pilots decided to re-enlist, while most opted to remain out of the service.
When that incentive failed, the government issued an executive decree extending compulsory service for military pilots to 18 years from 14.5 years before they were allowed to leave to fly passenger aircraft in civil aviation. That did not help much, either. Then another decree came out in 2019 extending compulsory service to 21 years. The changes obliged those who had already completed their compulsory service to be recalled in order to make up the shortage.
However, many of those who had completed their compulsory service and were recalled had other issues to tackle. They were either about to reach retirement age or in some cases reported health problems after flying powerful warplanes and asked for a leave of absence. In the end all those who were recalled were again out of the air force between 2021 and 2023. In other words, a small spike in the number of pilots had disappeared, leaving the air force in a worse position than before.
Today, new projections made by the air force predict that the military can only reach 2016 levels in the number of pilots, and that only by 2030, if everything goes as planned. That requires a number of new incentives including a significant improvement in salary and bonus payments pilots would receive, which would be quite challenging given the troubles in the Turkish economy. Even if the economic challenges are somehow overcome, a long time is required to train military pilots.
In February 2023 the Ministry of Defense issued a circular allowing for the recruitment of officers outside the military schools for the purpose of training them as pilots. Military experts are skeptical of this stopgap measure since combat pilots need rigorous, multi-year schooling and training. It remains to be seen whether the proposal will help address the pilot shortage in the air force.
The shortage of pilots was not the only problem for the air force, either. Many of the veteran staff members, especially at the operations and logistics centers that help pilots fly successful missions, were also removed, hampering the close coordination between the air and land elements of the air force. Hundreds of engineers on the ground were also removed by the Erdogan government on flimsy charges such as being affiliated with the Gülen movement, a group that is critical of the Erdogan government.
The burden on the air force has also increased in the last decade. By one estimate, the air force flies 40 percent more missions to respond to growing challenges in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black seas and is busy patrolling the airspace close to Russia, Greece, Syria and Iraq. The government did not admit it publicly, but Nordic Monitor has learned that the air force even made a special arrangement with prosecutors to take imprisoned combat pilots out of jail for missions before returning them to prison after the completion of the missions.
The Turkish Air Force not only has an obligation to protect the nation's airspace in the tumultuous region but also has commitments to fly overseas missions. It simply cannot keep up with these obligations with the huge shortage of pilots. This is the most fundamental challenge to Turkey's long-term interests and strategic security needs. At the same time it is a formidable threat to NATO's security structure, one that cannot be taken lightly given the far-reaching implications of this transformation in Turkey for allied nations.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Sweden-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.