The Botched Coup Could Spell Doom for the Turkish Air Force
Recovery might take a year or more
by TOM COOPER
The Turkish military has a long history of meddling in the nation’s politics, including no fewer than four coup d’états. In 1960, young officers toppled the democratically elected government amid socio-political turmoil and economic hardship, forcing 235 generals and more than 3,000 commissioned officers into retirement.
In 1971, convinced that the government lost control amid spreading anarchy, the military forced the prime minister to resign — but without deploying on the streets. Following a spate of armed conflicts between right- and left-wing groups, in 1980 the military toppled the government and restored order. And in 1997, the military issued another memorandum, forcing an Islamist prime minister and his government to resign.
While all of these coups had grave consequences for nearly everybody involved, all had a similar pattern — operations-wise, the military was successful in taking over, and prompting a complete reorganization of the Turkish political landscape. With exception of the 1971 coup, which initiated a period of massive violence, they usually resulted in relatively little violence and bloodshed.
In comparison, none so deeply involved the Turkish air force — the Türk Havva Kuvvetleri, or THK — as the putsch attempt on July 15 this year. That coup’s failure could have lasting repercussions for the air arm.
Run from within what the THK designates as its 4th Main Jet Base at Akinici, near Ankara, the coup was a relatively well-planned and organized operation. The primary aims were to arrest Pres. Recep Erdogan, top members of his government and the parliament, but also most of the top military commanders and establish control over the Turkish capital, Ankara, plus at least the most important positions in Istanbul, the country’s largest city.
The secondary aims were to secure the support of the public and majority of the military. For this purpose, the coup plotters set in motion a combination of THK’s fighter-bombers and assault helicopters, helicopter gunships of army aviation — Türk Kara Kuvvetleri, or TKK — special forces and even a few armored units.
The coup began around 9:00 at night, local time, when several groups of special forces deployed with the help of helicopters and moved out to arrest various top political leaders and military commanders, while main battle tanks from several units stationed in Ankara and Istanbul began rolling onto the streets.
The first two 141 Filo F-16s, flown by rebels, got airborne from the 4th MJB about a hour later, followed by at least two further fighter-bombers. Some of Fighting Falcons in question then bombed the headquarters of the Police Special Operations Force and the Police Aviation Division in Golbasi, outside Ankara, killing at least 47 and apparently knocking out several helicopters on the ground.
For the next three hours, F-16s repeatedly flew very low over the Turkish capital, sometimes breaking the sound barrier in a show of force. In between such low-altitude over-flights, they topped up their fuel tanks from at least two Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers of 101 Filo, which launched from Incirlik air base.
Meanwhile, up to two dozen Eurocopter AS.532 Cougar and Sikorsky S-70 helicopters launched from Güvercinlik army base and flew special forces to different points around the city, supported by Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships. Special forces assaulted the headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the gendarmerie headquarters, where most of top military and gendarmerie staff was arrested.
A group of helicopter-inserted commandos assaulted the headquarters of the Turkish Military Intelligence Agency — the MIT — in Yenimahalle, while ground troops overran the National T.V. station TRT.
After encountering resistance from the gendarmerie, gunships then attacked the presidential palace in Bestepe. An AGM-114 Hellfire guided missile destroyed the building of the palace’s gendarmerie guard. Gunships also blasted the parliament building, the headquarters of the MIT, the TurkSAT building in Golbasi and the headquarters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP.
In Istanbul, elements of the 2nd Armored Brigade secured two bridges over the Bosporus while another unit, supported by several German-made Leopard 1 tanks, took over Ataturk International Airport. Most importantly, commandos deployed in two AS.532s arrested most of top air force generals as they attended a wedding.
With first part of the coup plot apparently over and encountering little or no resistance, around 1:00 in the morning on July 16, the Turkish armed forces announced on their website that they had “complete control over the country.”
Furthermore, the actual centerpiece of the entire plot turned into one of major reasons for its failure. Namely, around 25 commandos deployed in two helicopters for assault on a hotel in Marmaris — a holiday resort on the coast of the Aegean Sea — with the intention of arresting Erdogan. But they arrived too late.
The president of Turkey escaped some 20 minutes before their arrival. At least two police officers were killed and eight injured in the ensuing firefight.
The failure of coup plotters to gain control over air-traffic control and the Esenboga airport outside Ankara was fully exposed. When the ATC began diverting air traffic to this airport, Erdogan’s interior minister was stuck at the same facility.
This left him free to set up a crisis cell, protected by crowds that gathered to oppose the coup. The bombardment of the parliament proved to be the wrong decision. It was too much of a provocation, and brought to the streets thousands people, including many who otherwise opposed Erdogan’s government.
Meanwhile, the president of Turkey hurried from Marmaris to Fethiye airport and boarded a Gulfstream IV business jet registered as TC-ATA and owned by the Turkish government. It took off toward the north.
Although the coup plotters diverted two F-16s and one of the KC-135Rs to intercept the Gulfstream, these proved unable to find their target. Without the ATC and the military radar network, the fighters’ radars were insufficient for this task.
This bought valuable time for Erdogan to appear on a live broadcast via a CNNTurk reporter’s iPhone at around 12:37 at night and call upon the Turkish population to “defend democracy.”
That was the moment the coup began to collapse. As thousands took to the streets, police and gendarmerie units that remained loyal to the government overran the army unit at Ataturk airport at around 2:30 in the morning.
After finding out that Ataturk airport was safe, the Gulfstream IV carrying Erdogan abandoned its orbit over the southern coast of the Marmara Sea and descended to land. While underway in a northeastern direction, it was approached by rebel-flown F-16s that were still searching for it — and reportedly briefly locked their radars on the business jet.
However, the rebel pilots didn’t open fire. Whether it was uncertainty over the exact nature of their target — alternative reports indicate that either Erdogan’s pilot radioed rebel pilots flying F-16s and told them that his aircraft was a Turkish Airlines flight, or that the ATC assigned a fake civilian call-sign to its transponder while also “hiding” it between several other civilian aircraft underway in the same area — or the realization that murdering the president would make it hard to legitimize the coup, remains unclear.
With Erdogan safely on the ground and protected by thousands of sympathizers, the loyalists launched their counterattack. Between others, the THK scrambled numerous F-16s from the 1st MJB at Eskisehir, the 6th MJB at Bandirma, the 9th MJB at Balikesir and even from Arzurum air base— which is currently acting as a temporary base for units of the 5th MJB at Merzifon because their home facility is closed for reconstruction.
Aiming to clear the skies of rebels, they first attempted to intercept aircraft airborne over Ankara. Rebel-flown F-16s avoided them by flying low and deploying chaff and flares, while one of KC-135s climbed to its maximum operational altitude, high over Ankara. Apparently, the pilots of two F-16s ordered to shoot it down refused to do so because the tanker over a residential area.
With their fighter-bombers out of the game, rebel-operated helicopters were left exposed. One of AH-1s that attacked the parliament and the crowd in front of it was shot down by an air-to-air missile, as was one of S-70As involved in attacks on the MIT headquarters in Yenimahalle.
Around 4:00 in the morning, the F-4E-2020s from the 1st MJB at Eskisehir, covered by a Boeing E-7T AWACS and several F-16s, then bombed the main runway at the 4th MJB. Immediately afterward, loyalist forces assaulted Akinici air base and arrested most of the coup plotters. Alleged rebel leader Akin Oztürk was injured and then arrested while attempting to get on a helicopter to escape.
With this, the coup was practically over. Authorities are still searching for six rebel F-16s, at least two and perhaps four KC-135s, several helicopters — one of which turned up in Greece, where its crew and passengers requested political asylum — and reportedly even for one or more of Turkish navy’s warships.
This is why loyalist forces surrounded Incirlik air base on July 16. The crews of several KC-135R tankers from 101 Filo played a prominent role in the coup. Incirlik is also a NATO air base and contains a storage depot for U.S. nuclear weapons.
Immediately after the failure of the coup, Erdogan and the AKP launched a massive counter-coup, described it as a “cleansing of all state institutions.” Although authoritative observers inside and outside Turkey are stressing that the coup plotters were a relatively small faction within the THK and the 1st Army without wider support even within the military, the authorities arrested around 1,000 police officers plus 7,500 military officers including 85 generals and admirals.
At least as importantly, more than 7,000 further police officers and nearly 45,000 civil servants — primarily judges and teachers, but also university deans, staff from the finance ministry, clerics, and even 257 people working in the prime minister’s office — were fired.
It is already certain that this affair is going to have massive repercussions for Turkish armed forces. The air force will suffer major disruption. The Turkish air force is an well-equipped and highly-trained service, and can only remain effective if it constantly practices.
Maintenance and training schedules are unlikely to return to routine for many months. This alone means that the THK’s capability to exercise effective control over the country’s air space is going to significantly decrease for up to a year, perhaps longer.
Furthermore, the coup — but especially Erdogan’s reactions to it — have further worsened Turkey’s relations with the West. This is likely to have direct consequences for ability of the THK to continue upgrading with U.S. equipment. It might even have consequences for Turkey’s involvement in the multinational Joint Strike Fighter project.
Turkey is the seventh international partner in the JSF effort and has already placed orders for six of the 116 F-35As, worth up to $16 billion, that it plans to buy. The Pentagon and NATO might want to seriously reconsider their cooperation with Erdogan’s government in the future.