Turkey in pilot crisis after failed coup attempt
After a failed coup attempt and a series of subsequent purges, Turkey's air force has undergone a major reorganisation, with several units disbanded and large numbers of personnel arrested. As a result, the force now faces serious pilot shortages. Jon Lake looks at the coup attempt and its aftermath.
On July 15 2016, a faction within Turkey’s military, including Army, Air Force and Gendarmerie personnel and units, attempted to overthrow the government of President Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamist AKP party.
Before mobilising their forces, the plotters, apparently led by generals calling themselves the ‘Peace in the Country Council’, attempted to neutralise important government figures. At around 21.00, army special forces units set off to arrest the military’s senior command.
One or two air force AS532AL combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters from the 6 AJÜ, carrying air force commandos, raided the wedding ceremony of a high-ranking general in Istanbul and kidnapped a number of senior officers, including the Chief of the General Staff, General Hulusi Akar. The officers were taken to the Akinci Airbase, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Ankara, which served as the coup’s operations centre.
An attempt to arrest President Erdogan, who was holidaying in the resort of Marmaris, proved unsuccessful. The president’s vacation had forced a last-minute change of plan – he had originally been due to be captured by Underwater Offence Team (SAT) and Underwater Forces (SAS) commandos in Istanbul before being transferred to Akinci on an S-70A, refuelling at Milas.
Instead, around 25 soldiers in three Army Aviation S-70A helicopters from Samandira, rappelled on to the hotel, in an apparent attempt to seize the president. But Erdogan had fled 20 minutes before, and this part of the mission failed.
One of these helicopters subsequently flew to Alexandroupoli, in Greece, where its eight occupants were arrested.
Meanwhile, Army units (including tanks), had moved on to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, closing down Istanbul’s Bosporus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges.
At least four rebel F-16C Block 50 fighters (from the 141 and 143 Filo at Akinci and the 181 Filo) took off and flew high-speed low passes over Ankara, beginning at about 22.20, reportedly breaking the sound barrier and releasing flares. They were supported by up to four KC-135 tankers operating from Incirlik air base.
Interestingly, one of the F-16 pilots was the officer who shot down the Russian Su-24 ‘Fencer’ that had violated Turkish airspace back in November 2015.
An S-70A and two Bell AH-1Ws, from the Taarruz Helikopter Tabaru (Assault Helicopter Battalion), took off from Ankara’s Guvercinlik Army Aviation Base and began overflying the city at 22.25, and may have been joined by T129 ATAK attack helicopters, according to some sources.
After the coup, the Turkish General Staff said that the rebels had used 35 aircraft (including 24 fighters) and 37 helicopters (including eight attack helicopters).
The aircraft and helicopters supporting the coup apparently attacked a number of ground targets – the F-16s using 500lb GBU-10 laser-guided bombs, and the helicopters using cannon and machine gun fire.
These targets included the Police Special Operations Forces headquarters, the Police Aviation Division headquarters and the TurkSAT (state satellite operator) headquarters at Golbasi, as well as the Turkish Grand National Assembly building (TBMM), the Turkish Police general headquarters, the Presidential Palace at Bestepe and the MIT (national intelligence organization) headquarters at Yenimahalle.
Some reports suggest that attack helicopters fired on crowds of demonstrators, and there were reports that at least one rebel helicopter was shot down by a loyalist F-16. F-16s flown by loyalist pilots reportedly took off from Dalaman, Erzurum and Balikesir and there were unconfirmed reports of inconclusive dogfights between rival F-16s.
Early in the morning of July 16, F-4E 2020 fighter-bombers from 2MJB Eskisehir bombed the main runway at Akinci to prevent further rebel F-16s from taking off.
Istanbul’s Ataturk airport was taken back from the rebels shortly before the president’s aircraft returned and he was able to broadcast to the nation, on a reporter’s iPhone, appealing for support and exhorting the people to defend democracy.
People began taking to the streets in large numbers, answering the call of the president and the religious affairs Diyanet Ministry, depriving rebel forces of movement and mobility.
Civilian vehicles blocked the runway at Kayseri (12th Main Transport Base) to prevent an A400M Atlas and five other transports from taking off, after single A400M and Transall aircraft had begun to airlift ammunition and supplies for the rebels at 7 MJB Malatya, planned to be the main rebel centre in the east of Turkey.
Whatever their motives, air force officers played a leading role. Former Turkish Air Force chief, Akin Ozturk, who led Turkey’s air force between 2013 and 2015 before retiring, has confessed to plotting the failed military coup, and his son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Huseyin Karakus, the commanding officer of 141 Filo, is alleged to have led the F-16 bombing raids during the coup.
The failure of the coup further entrenched Erdogan’s position, allowing him to undertake a series of purges, arresting, suspending or dismissing judges, teachers, police officers, civil servants and thousands of Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) personnel. It was even hinted that Turkey might reinstate capital punishment, abolished in 2004, to punish senior figures behind the coup.
About 35% of Turkey’s generals were dismissed, together with about 8% of the officer corps. Special forces units were affected disproportionately, as was the air force, which lost several base commanders, and more than 270 pilots, representing just under half of the total number of about 600 combat-ready, operational pilots.
Of 170 pilots dismissed in the first round of purges, 110 were from the 4th Main Jet Base at Akinci, 29 from the 12th Main Transport Base at Kayseri, 23 from the 2nd Main Jet Base at Cigli, and eight from the 8th Main Jet Base at Diyarbakir.
About 20 Army assault and attack helicopter pilots have also been dismissed, and a reported 30 KC-135 pilots from the 101st squadron were also discharged for alleged involvement in the coup attempt.
Akinci has reverted to its original name, Murted, and will now become a deployment base with no based aircraft. It may close altogether, perhaps becoming a “democracy park”. Its three F-16 Squadrons have been disbanded, their aircraft reallocated to other bases, including Merzifon, where a new, third F-16 unit has been established. Another new unit is the 113th Filo at Eskisehir, which is equipped with ex142 Filo F-16s and their DB-110 reconnaissance pods. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the 6th Main Jet Base at Bandirma will also be closed.
In an effort to combat the ensuing pilot shortage, the THK has extended the length of service for pilots from 15 to 18 years, and has publicly appealed for recently retired pilots who left the force between 2010 and 2015 (most of whom are now working for civilian airlines) to rejoin and return to the cockpit.
Unfortunately, only a tiny proportion of the several hundred pilots who would be eligible have actually re-registered, and numbers were acknowledged as being below official expectations. Though one press report suggested that as many as 140 former combat pilots were preparing to return to service, the state-owned Anadolu Agency reported that just six pilots had expressed any interest in returning to the military.
In the face of such apparent disinterest, the air force is reportedly considering a reserve system that would allow ex-military airline pilots to return on a part-time basis, while continuing their lucrative commercial careers.
But, however many pilots decide to return, their military skills will have atrophied, and they will require extensive training to re-acquire certain competences.
Turkey also plans to recruit university students (dropping the normal precondition that they must have attended military school to attend the Air Force Academy) and will put them through an accelerated two-year flying training programme.
Even with these measures, it has been estimated that the air force will need at least two years to recover from the purges, and in the meantime readiness, availability and combat effectiveness will all be severely curtailed.
“In two years time, you will see, our air force will be stronger than before,” the Turkish Air Force commander, Abidin Unal, optimistically predicted to the Vatan newspaper in late October.
However, investigations into the coup continue, raising the prospect of more dismissals.