Turkish Air Force crippled after mass purge of pilots by Erdoğan government

Abdullah Bozkurt


NATO’s southern flank was dealt a huge blow by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that has seriously degraded Turkey’s air force with a massive purge of hundreds of pilots from the service on fabricated charges of terrorism and coup plotting.

The Turkish Air Force (Türk Hava Kuvvetleri) was already in distress before a false flag coup plot in 2016, again thanks but no thanks to the Erdoğan government, which introduced a bill in 2012 that facilitated the departure of pilots who chose well-paying jobs in the private aviation industry. The Turkish General Staff had to put pressure on Erdoğan to reverse the bill and eventually succeeded in getting an amendment in 2014 to slow down the bleeding of the force.

But the damage had been done in the meantime, with 251 pilots asking for retirement or resigning under the 2012 law, which shortened the compulsory service to 13 years. The unexpected purge of hundreds of pilots in the summer of 2016 made it worse for the air force, grounding many warplanes without pilots to fly them. The Turkish Air Force — which concluded in a study months before the coup bid that said the loss of pilots was a national security matter for Turkey — was crippled beyond belief with the unprecedented purge of pilots by the Erdoğan government with no effective administrative, military or judicial investigation into any wrongdoing whatsoever.

According to the air force’s own internal report dated January 19, 2016, the military needed 554 new pilots including 190 combat pilots to reach its normal level. The departures had already brought the ratio of pilots to aircraft to 0.65, which is dangerously low, in 2014. The commanders urged the government to take immediate measures to raise the ratio and delay departures from the force by adopting incentives, extending compulsory service and other attractive options. The projection was that the air force would acquire a satisfactory number of pilots by 2025 considering the losses it had incurred in the last 10 years.


The confidential Turkish Air Force report on how to boost pilot numbers to compensate for the shortage:



As of May 2016, the air force had 1,275 pilots in total with 378 combat pilots who were assigned to fly F-16s and F-4s. The required number of pilots was projected to be 1,829. The shortage existed both in combat pilots and others according to the data compiled by the air force. A five-year risk analysis table indicated that the air force was at risk of losing between 63 to 76 pilots every year until January 2020, when the mandatory service time for pilots expired. The risk analysis did not anticipate the massive purge in the summer of 2016 by the Erdoğan government.

The military came up with various proposals to stem the loss of pilots including legislative changes to Turkish Armed Forces Personnel Law No. 926. The cost analysis report by the air force showed that the military spent TL 2.1 million (approximately $710,000 at the time the study was done) for a three-year training program of a combat-ready F-16 pilot. The report concluded that it would be far cheaper to keep the pilots already in the force after the expiration of compulsory service instead of spending millions to train new ones. It was suggested that the veteran pilots be put on contract payment after retirement, creating an appealing incentive for them to keep working for the Turkish military.


The cost analysis for the training of pilots and a comparative look at pension funds for retirees:



The government did not officially announce how many pilots it had purged from the air force in the aftermath of the failed putsch, but the figures reported in the Turkish media ranged from 600 to 716. Using a conservative figure, the number of pilots in the air force should have come down to 675 by yearend 2016. The projected number for routine departures for retirement or completion of compulsory service was 65 by January 2017. Therefore, the real number of pilots the air force lost could be even lower.


A confidential study on pilot needs in the Turkish military:



This means the air force had a shortage of 1,154 pilots by January 2017, and there was no way to compensate for such a huge loss. The ratio of pilots to aircraft dropped to 0.37. The government tried to recall some retired pilots or those in private industry with little success as many did not want to go back for financial reasons and the climate of fear in the military over the purges. The reported figures show only some 50 pilots decided to re-enlist, while most opted to remain out of the service. When the 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, for example, to fly passenger aircraft in civil aviation. That did not help much, either.

The shortage of pilots was not the only problem. 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.


The five-year pilot loss risk analysis data:



Among the 4,215 military members fired from the air force by executive decision, 32 were generals, 2,059 were lower-ranking officers and 1,993 were noncommissioned officers. Most had nothing to do with the very limited mobilization that corresponded to only 1 percent of the Turkish military during the failed coup. Almost one-third of the purged pilots had staff rank, which means they were commanders and veterans who were in charge of bases, fleets and squadrons.



Yet the government dismissed hundreds of pilots through executive decrees issued under a state of emergency that were not subject to any effective judicial, military or legislative oversight. When the coup charges did not stick, the Erdoğan government threw bogus terrorism charges at the pilots and accused them of affiliation with the Gülen movement, a civic group that is strongly critical of the Erdoğan government and which was made a scapegoat by Erdoğan for all the wrongs that have taken place under his watch.

Ankara entertained the idea of training new pilots in a fast-track program and asked the Pakistani government to send trainers to the fly F-16s. But the United States vetoed such a request from the Turkish government, which sought prior approval from Washington to make F-16s available to non-Turkish nationals in line with the procurement contract for the F-16s. In the past, the US had allowed Turkey to train Saudi and Qatari pilots on Turkish F-16s, but this time Washington denied Pakistani pilots permission to fly them. This was a clear signal that the Pentagon was not happy with Erdoğan’s witch-hunt in the Turkish Air Force, which took down most, if not all, pro-NATO officers.


Draft legislative amendment that would allow retired pilots or pilots who had resigned in the force on contracts:



Not only pilots but also cadets who were studying at the Air Force Academy were targeted by the Erdoğan government with dismissals and wrongful prosecutions. Although the evidence showed that none of the cadets were actually involved in the coup, prosecutors acting under orders from the government launched criminal probes and filed indictments against hundreds of Air Force Academy students, demanding life sentences.

The government not only closed the Air Force Academy on July 25, 2016 and stripped the title of officer from all of that year’s new graduates, it also transferred cadets who had not graduated or were still studying to other universities that have nothing to do with military training. It reopened the Air Force Academy again in February 2017 under the newly established National Defense University but found it difficult to attract new students.

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.


The legislative draft amendment on pension funds for pilots:



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