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Hot Issue – Turkish Airpower has a Fifth Generation Aircraft Problem

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Executive Summary: Major NATO nations have already begun receiving fifth generation aircraft, while some others, such as France and Germany, have preferred temporarily flying with 4.5 generation platforms in order to make a long jump directly into sixth generation airpower in the coming decades. Against this backdrop, Turkey is in serious trouble. Its exclusion from the F-35 consortium has impaired Ankara’s pitch badly. In addition, engine problems with the indigenous stealth fighter project, Milli Muharip Uçak, will likely deprive the Turkish Air Force of state-of-the-art platforms for at least a decade and perhaps even longer. The fourth generation F-16s will keep forming the backbone of Turkey’s airpower in the 2020s, marking a comparative handicap. Finally, Turkey’s mini-aircraft carrier plans, centered on the forthcoming amphibious assault vessel TCG Anadolu, can remain stillborn in the absence of an additional procurement of the F-35B short take-off/vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. Overall, Turkey’s burgeoning defense sector has worked miracles with unmanned systems, however, the manned aircraft segment is set to suffer from crippled wings before it can take off.

Introduction

Combat aircraft generational categorization remains a key parameter in airpower and defense strategy assessments. At present, the fifth generation platforms, for example, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, have already introduced a new reality to battle-spaces. The aircraft come with game changing capabilities, such as boosted data fusion in network-centric warfare, stealth features, and advanced multi-spectral sensors. Overall, these novelties go beyond traditional kinematic calculus and manifest in real battle networks flying high even in hostile airspaces. Apart from the fifth generation, some stopgap options fall under the hybrid 4.5 generation, or 4++, categories, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, F/A -18 E/F Super Hornet, and JAS-39 Gripen. These aircraft differ from the legacy fourth generation, for example, the F-16, with their active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, advanced computers suitable for network-centric battle management systems, and low observable aspects (The Royal Australian Air Force, January 2012).

Against this backdrop, Turkey is to face a significant airpower challenge in the 2020s. Following the nation’s exclusion from the F-35 consortium due to the procurement of the S-400 strategic air defense system from Moscow, and given the present timeframe and expected problems with the indigenous fighter aircraft program Milli Muharip Uçak (or MMU, formerly known as the TF-X), the Turkish Air Force will, for at least a decade, not be able to operate any fifth generation platform. Furthermore, amid problematic defense economics plaguing the entire world due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the chances are slim for Turkey to acquire a quick, convenient 4.5 generation stopgap to augment its arsenal. Overall, the air force will have to rely on the fourth generation F-16s—albeit with certain important modernization features in some advanced blocs—to form the backbone of its doctrinal order of battle. In addition, the Turkish Navy’s plans to operate an air-wing of the F-35Bs, of the short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, to embark on what was supposed to be a mini-aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu, might mark a stillborn story.

Ankara’s airpower challenge is waiting for a talismanic touch, if such a way out exists. Many NATO nations are already flying fifth generation aircraft. And those who prefer to skip the fifth generation frenzy, favoring a long jump directly to the sixth generation like the Franco-German Future Combat Air System, have 4.5 generation stopgaps like the Eurofighter Typhoon (Deutsche Welle, February 7, 2019; RUSI, February 11, 2014).

Can Turkey Mitigate the F-35 Loss?

News stories suggest that Ankara could try an eclectic roadmap to compensate for—or minimize, to be more correct—operational shortcomings emanating from its exclusion from the F-35 program. The first measure would be relieving the burden of air-ground roles of the F-16s, which form the backbone of the Turkish airpower deterrent and will commence retirement in the 2030s. To do so, Turkey can opt for buying some time for its F-4 2020 fighter-bombers—around 30 aircraft—by postponing their retirement through a careful maintenance plan. Another idea promoted in the Turkish press is boosting the Akinci heavy drone and Hürkuş-C light attack aircraft into serial production, as they await entry into service, to assume ground-attack roles (Yeni Şafak, July 18, 2019).

Higher operational-class Akinci, produced by Baykar, which also manufactures Turkey’s battle-hardened ‘Pantsir hunter’ Bayraktar TB-2 tactical drone, will have an impressive combat payload of some 1,350 kilograms. Such a capacity will enable the platform to carry some heavy munitions, including the indigenous air-launched cruise missile SOM and smart joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) along with advanced sensors. Combined with its 24 hour-long endurance, Akinci can relieve some of the manned aircraft’s burden in air-ground missions (Baykar). In tandem, Hürkuş-C light-attack aircraft is designed to carry 12.7 and 20mm guns and a variety of air-ground munitions along with some protection such as armored structures and countermeasures against man-portable air defenses (TUSAS). Turkey’s forthcoming light-attack aircraft can provide close air-support in relatively safer airspaces.

In a live, public webinar in May 2020, Turkey’s procurement chief, Professor Ismail Demir, provided some hints as to Turkey’s airpower roadmap. Professor Demir highlighted some critical considerations. First, he ruled out an off-the-shelf 4.5 (or 4++) generation aircraft procurement as a stopgap before Turkey operates its indigenous fifth generation Milli Muharip Uçak (MMU), designed in cooperation with BAE Systems (YouTube, May 29). This remark was important because, when asked about the prospects of a Russian Su-35 acquisition back in 2019, Demir remarked that the aircraft could only be a stopgap measure (Yeni Safak, September 4, 2019). Interestingly, last year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu even stated that Ankara could opt for Su-34 Russian tactical bombers—of course, it is likely this was a slip of the tongue and he meant to reference the Su-35 (Anadolu Agency, April 4, 2019).

Second, Demir said that Turkey’s forthcoming fifth generation fighter, the MMU, will enter into service in several different blocs. In doing so, the initial MMU variants will likely be slightly below the fifth generation standards (YouTube, May 29).

Mini-Aircraft Carrier Plans Falling Through?

In fact, Turkey’s original F-35 acquisition plan was centered on 100 platforms of the conventional variant, the F-35A. However, back in November 2018, the Turkish press reported that the navy was preparing to operate the STOVL variant, the F-35B, to embark on the forthcoming amphibious assault vessel, TCG Anadolu. With this capability, Turkey was to operate the flagship as a mini-aircraft carrier (Yeni Şafak, November 9, 2018). Notably, in December 2018, President Erdogan remarked that Turkey had been gearing up to acquire 120 F-35s instead of the planned 100 (Haberturk, December 16, 2018). Meaningfully, in the IDEF-2019 exhibition, a small-scale make-up of the vessel was showcased with F-35s embarked on its deck (YouTube, May 4). TCG Anadolu, still under construction at the time of writing, already went through certain modifications in accordance with the mini-aircraft carrier goal, including a ski-jump (CNNTurk, February 1).

Based on the Spanish Juan Carlos-1 class, TCG Anadolu will bring an unprecedented blue-water capability to the Turkish Navy. Thanks to its capacity to carry a small air-wing of STOVL aircraft, the Spanish Navy officially considers ‘aircraft carrier substitution’ to be one of the core missions of the Juan Carlos-1 class along with marine operations, power projection, and humanitarian tasks (The Spanish Navy). In tandem, the Turkish Navy’s assessments draw attention to the vessel’s ability to carry an embarked air-wing as a critical feature in close air-support to amphibious assaults as well as anti-air warfare (The Turkish Navy, February 2, 2019).

The F-35B remains the only alternative in serial production to form an air-wing for TCG Anadolu. In the absence of such capability, Turkey will only have an amphibious assault vessel, not a mini-aircraft carrier. The Australians operate their ships in kind, with the Canberra-class based on the Juan Carlos-1, solely as amphibious assets without going for the carrier option (Aksam, November 25, 2019). The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, however, prefers embarking its F-35Bs on its Izumo-class helicopter carriers (Japan Times, May 23, 2019). Therefore, theoretically, both ways are possible for Turkey’s TCG Anadolu. Yet, given the growing expeditionary posture of the Turkish military, an operational mini-aircraft carrier would still mark a significant difference in capabilities over the coming years. The Libyan campaign’s trajectory, for example, could have gone in a drastically different direction had Turkey possessed such a game changing overseas deep-strike capacity.

An idea promoted by Turkish defense planners is to translate the successful ‘dronization’ trend into naval aviation and equip the next Turkish flagship’s future air-wing with new unmanned systems (TRT Haber, June 11). Nevertheless, no known unmanned capability can replace the F-35B.

Tough Years on the Horizon

Turkey’s initial plan was to begin operating the F-35s by now, and in the meantime, develop its own national combat aircraft. While the former fell through, the latter now has to overcome problematic defense economics and a particular technology problem associated with developing the engine for such a sophisticated platform. Overall, the Turkish Air Force now faces the risk of falling short of becoming a fifth generation aircraft operator even by the early 2030s. Although Turkey’s defense technological and industrial base has been working miracles with unmanned systems, the manned aircraft segment is in serious trouble.

The 2020s and even 2030s might prove to be difficult years for Turkish airpower. At present, the Turkish Air Force’s most modern fighters and multirole platforms are the modernized F-16 variants. Last year, ASELSAN, a Turkish defense corporation, kicked-off an ambitious modernization project to equip these aircraft with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars (Anadolu Agency, March 24, 2019). But again, Turkey’s current airpower remains a textbook fourth generation one and the situation is unlikely to change soon. Even in optimistic scenarios, Turkey’s indigenous fifth generation fighter will not enter into service until at least the 2030s. Besides, even if the Turkish administration manages to somehow secure a miraculous 4.5 generation stopgap procurement, the F-35’s unmatched information superiority cannot be replaced by any known multirole platform. Finally, the Turkish defense ecosystem will keep suffering from the inauspicious exodus from a multi-billion-dollar project, broad co-production advantages, and a real breakthrough in technological know-how. Bizarrely enough, Turkey has risked a joint production, fifth generation aircraft project for an off-the-shelf Russian SAM system purchase with no technology transfer or co-production option anywhere in sight.

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Azerbaijan-Russia Ties Face Increasing Challenges

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Russia-Azerbaijan ties face increased challenges as Baku accused Moscow of purposefully stoking the conflict by providing arms to Armenia. It is notable that this rhetoric develops when Turkey is particularly vocal in its military support for Azerbaijan. Though it still remains to be seen whether these signs evolve into a concrete policy shift in Azerbaijan, hopes for diplomatic solution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict recede, and Turkey and Russia up their military support for Baku and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan-Russia relations face increasing challenges as the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus evolves. A series of events tested the bilateral ties and there is an increasing amount of evidence that some reconsideration of foreign policy on Azerbaijan’s part could be taking place.

The first challenge was the July fighting on Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier, far from the actual source of conflict – Nagorno Karabakh. What could have been a relatively unnoticed confrontation, it drew international attention due to the geostrategic infrastructure which runs near the fighting zone in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region. Those are:

  • Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, which deliver Caspian oil to the Black and the Mediterranean Seas;
  • South Caucasus natural gas pipeline, which will send Azerbaijani gas to the EU and plays a key component in Turkey’s emerging strategy of positioning itself as regional energy hub.

In addition, the region also has the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars (BTAK) railroad (unveiled in 2017) and rarely mentioned the fiber-optic cables linking Europe with Central Asia. The Tovuz corridor also has a crucial Azerbaijan-Georgia highway, which allows Azerbaijan to connect to the Black Sea.

Thus in July Azerbaijan faced a threat to its major income. Damage to the infrastructure would also diminish the country’s geopolitical weight as a safe source of oil and gas. While fighting in or around Nagorno Karabakh takes place occasionally and at times reaches a serious level, such as in 2016, it nevertheless fits into the overall narrative of more or less predictable military scenarios which military and political leaders in Baku would expect. The Tovuz fighting, on the other hand, goes against most military narratives and required Baku’s tougher reaction. This is how the ties with Russia, Armenia’s major economic and military ally, come under intense scrutiny in Baku.

It is has always been a long-term challenge for Azerbaijan. Baku occasionally expresses its concerns on Russia’s military support for Armenia, but the criticism has usually been aired though newspapers and media rather than by high-level political figures. This changed following the July fighting.

Reasons are multiple. First, Russia (using its 102rd military base in Gyumri) and Armenia launched snap combat drills on July 17-20, just as the fighting in Tovuz region was still unfolding. Second, a series of flights of Russian military cargo planes to Armenia took place right after the July fighting.

In a notable change of tone the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev surprisingly publicly complained to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, stating that the recent reports on allegedly increasing Russian military support (400 tons of military hardware) for Armenia raise concerns and questions in Azerbaijani society. Perhaps as a reaction to growing bilateral differences, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu visited Baku to assure the Azerbaijani public that the flights were not of a military nature, but rather transported materials for the 102nd military base.

However, the affair did not end there as a senior adviser to Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, on August 29, following Shoigu’s visit, claimed that “the explanation by the Russian side is not entirely satisfactory.” This effectively meant publicly refuting the Russian defense minister’s statements, further aggravating differences between the two states.

A September 1 article by Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed that Azerbaijan had readied 500 Syrian militants in preparation for a “blitzkrieg against Armenia” and that Turkey has its troops on Azerbaijani soil. Baku vehemently criticized the report calling it “slander and [a] dirty campaign against our country.”

Yet another sign of troubled ties is the September 6th decision by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry opting out the Russia-led “Caucasus-2020” military drills (planned to be held in the southwest of Russia). Only two servicemen will be sent as observers. Though officially no concrete reasons for the withdrawal were given, it is possible to link the decision to Azerbaijan’s recent grievances at Russia.

Some larger reasons too might be at play motivating a change in Azerbaijan’s rhetoric. The Minsk Group, the body that aims to facilitate the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is faltering. No concrete way to resolve the stand-off is present and the July fighting has just showed that diplomatic tools are receding. A vacuum is being created for regional powers to fill in. This is how Turkey comes to play an increasingly larger role in Baku’s strategic calculus.

Indeed, as the July fighting unfolded Turkey has been especially supportive of Azerbaijan. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted “Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan, with which it has deep-rooted friendly ties and brotherly relations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar even warned that Armenia will be “brought to account” for its “attack” on Azerbaijan. Then large Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises followed.

Turkey’s calculus here is clear as the country needs to defend the vital oil, gas and railway infrastructure coming from Azerbaijan. And considering how far has diplomacy receded around Nagorno Karabakh issue, Turkey and Russia are set to play an even larger military and economic role in the South Caucasus. For the moment open rivalry will be avoided, but for Moscow and Ankara the region represents yet another area of covert competition along with Syria and Libya.

However, casting Azerbaijan-Russia relations as deteriorating is not entirely correct. Intensive cooperation still exists between the states. Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov, paid an official visit to Russia on August 26 at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.

In late August-early September Azerbaijani servicemen participated in the “Tank Biathlon” and also won the Sea Cup competition – both held as part of the “International Army Games – 2020” organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

It is still hard to see whether Azerbaijan’s changing rhetoric towards Russia is more than just a temporary, tactical maneuver. It could be a clever diplomatic game Azerbaijan has always pursued since 1990s – namely, facing its larger neighbors against one another. Nevertheless, the rhetoric and recent political decision signal a search for reconsideration of some basic elements in Baku’s strategic vision. Turkey’s bigger role is likely to be sought more intensively, while hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict would further recede.

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China holds military drill as US envoy visits Taiwan

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China says it is conducting military exercises near the Taiwan Strait to “protect its sovereignty” as a top US official visits Taiwan.

The live-fire drills take place as relations between Beijing and Washington sour and the US shores up its support of Taiwan.

China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Keith Krach is the highest-level official from the US State Department to visit the island in decades.

On Friday, China’s defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang accused the US and Taiwan of “stepping up collusion, frequently causing disturbances”, although he did not make any reference to the visit.

He told reporters that “using Taiwan to control China” or trying to “rely on foreigners to build oneself up” was wishful thinking.

“Those who play with fire will get burnt,” he said.

Mr Ren did not give details about the military exercise, which involves the People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theatre command, but described them as “legitimate and necessary for the mainland to protect its sovereignty and integrity”.

They follow two days of large-scale Chinese drills off Taiwan’s southwestern coast last week.

The BBC’s Cindy Sui in Taipei says that by carrying out the military exercises, China is warning Washington against disrupting the balance that the United States had maintained under previous US administrations.

Taiwan’s ruling party and its supporters appear to see the US under Trump and the tensions with Beijing as an opportunity to push for closer ties with Washington and work towards their goal of getting formal international recognition of Taiwan as an independent country, says our correspondent.

Keith Krach arrived in Taipei on Thursday

Washington said Mr Krach, who is the US undersecretary of economic affairs, was visiting Taiwan to attend a memorial service for late president Lee Teng-hui on Saturday.

Later on Friday he is scheduled to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen for a dinner at her official residence.

The visit comes at a time US-China relations have plummeted to their lowest point in years.

The two nations have been locked in a bitter trade war since 2018, clashed over the coronavirus pandemic and traded accusations of espionage with mounting arrests of suspected Chinese spies in the US in recent months.

The deteriorating relations have also affected other areas, including a US clampdown on China’s tech firms and the revoking of Chinese student visas.

Beijing views Taiwan as its own territory, vowing to one day seize it, while many Taiwanese want a separate nation.

Like most countries the US has no formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, and in the past was described as pursuing a policy of “strategic ambiguity” to balance China’s emergence as a regional power with admiration for Taiwan’s economic success and democratisation.

As the leading arms supplier to Taiwan, the US is by far Taiwan’s most important friend and only ally. But under President Donald Trump’s administration the US has further bolstered its backing for the island.

When a US cabinet member met President Tsai in Taipei last month China responded angrily.

“We urge the US… not to send any wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ elements to avoid severe damage to China-US relations,” a foreign ministry spokesman said at the time.

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A fired Facebook employee wrote a scathing 6,600-word memo detailing the company’s failures to stop political manipulation around the world

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  • A recently fired Facebook data scientist wrote a lengthy memo detailing the tech giant’s failures to stop election interference in countries around the world, per a BuzzFeed report.
  • The employee, whose job was to find “inauthentic activity,” wrote that the company was slow to take action against fake accounts used to manipulate political outcomes in nations including India, Ukraine, and Bolivia.
  • Sophie Zhang wrote that Facebook instead prioritized its public image in choosing which fake networks to investigate, even if the “disproportionate impact” of real-world problems would go ignored.
  • Facebook has long struggled to stop the spread of misinformation and election interference.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A recently fired Facebook employee wrote a memo on her last day at the company accusing the tech giant of routinely ignoring or otherwise not prioritizing fake accounts’ efforts to manipulate elections and political climates around the world, according to a Monday BuzzFeed report.

The 6,600-word memo was written by Sophie Zhang, a data scientist whose job at the company was to identify fake accounts attempting to manipulate political outcomes. The mid-level employee said she was tasked with exercising her own judgment without managerial support while choosing which crucial matters to prioritize that pertained to Iraq, Indonesia, Italy, India, El Salvador, and countless more nations.

Zhang described a monumental workload that she said resulted in many such fake networks slipping through the cracks in what appears to be more evidence of Facebook struggling to stem the spread of misinformation and election interference on its platform.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

Zhang said she found a series of inauthentic accounts — a term used to describe engagement on the site involving bot accounts — used in an opposition campaign to promote Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Zhang said in the memo that Facebook did not launch an investigation into the activity until more than a year after she first reported it. She also said it took the company nine months to take action on a coordinated inauthentic campaign to influence public opinion and promote Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. Zhang said a similar pattern occurred in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Overall, Zhang wrote that she and her team removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the US in the 2018 elections,” according to BuzzFeed. She said she had “blood on my hands by now,” blaming herself at least in part for some of the political strife that erupted in many of these nations. She described her role as highly stressful, a common characterization among content moderators for large tech firms.

Zhang wrote in her memo that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prioritized networks concerning the US and Western Europe and that other nations took a back seat on the company’s radar. Zhang described an indifference attributed to “slapdash and haphazard accidents” rather than malicious intent, per the report. She did say, however, that Facebook routinely prioritized the company’s public image and “PR fires” over world issues, even if the “disproportionate impact” of those real-world problems would go ignored.

She said, per the outlet, that a NATO researcher brought to Facebook’s attention evidence of Russian inauthentic activity on a “high-profile US political figure that we didn’t catch.” It took that researcher saying they were planning on disclosing the evidence to Congress the next day for the company to prompt Zhang to investigate. She also wrote that to receive approval from higher-ups to investigate a matter, she would post about world issues in internal employee message boards to incentivize management.

As BuzzFeed notes, the kinds of operations outlined in Zhang’s memo are similar to one conducted by Russia in 2016 in an attempt to influence the outcome of that year’s US presidential election.

Read the full report on BuzzFeed here.

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