"We're Buying This One?" Turkey's Erdogan Asks Putin In Front Of Su-57 Fighter At Air Show

Turkey is in the market for a new advanced fighter after getting locked out of the F-35 program over its purchase of the S-400 air defense system.

Mikhail Voskresenskiy / Sputnik via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the biennial MAKS air show outside of Moscow alongside Turkish President Recep Erdogan today, a clear display of solidarity between the two leaders that can only send a clear message to the United States. Erdogan also made an offhanded comment about buying Su-57s during the event. This is something the Kremlin has already offered and that The War Zone had noted was likely given the spat over the F-35 between the United States and Turkey due to the latter's purchase of Russia's S-400 air defense system.

MAKS, a Russian-language acronym that translates as International Aviation and Space Salon, opened on Aug. 27, 2019, at the Zhukovsky International Airport, which is also home to the Russian government's Gromov Flight Research Institute aerospace research and development center, and will run through Sept. 1. Erdogan and Putin toured other parts of the show together beyond the Su-57, receiving briefs about various aircraft and helicopters. Back in Turkey, as the show was getting underway, Russian personnel were unloading another delivery of missiles and other equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. On Aug. 26, 2019, the Pentagon had also announced it would finish formally removing Turkey from the F-35 program by March 2020.

"I am glad to welcome the participants and guests of the International Aviation and Space Salon, and above all, our good friend, President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan," Putin said during the open ceremonies with Erdogan standing next to him. "I am sure that all our foreign partners and, of course, our Turkish friends, the Turkish delegation will be interested in the achievements of the domestic, Russian aviation industry and the technical capabilities of the last generation of the Russian Aerospace Forces, and this will open up new opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation." 

"Close cooperation, dialogue between Russia and Turkey rests on historical, deep, rich roots," Erdogan said, through a translator, in his own remarks. "We believe that our cooperation with Russia will give impetus to a new development of events – both in the aviation sector and in the field of space technology."

Photographs and videos from MAKS show Putin and Erdogan touring a wide array of military and civilian aircraft and helicopters, including the new Mi-38 medium-lift helicopter and the new Ka-62 light transport helicopter. The pair of world leaders also toured an Irkut MC-21 airliner, which is still in development, as well.

Anadolu Agency

Putin and Ergodan sit inside a VIP configured Mi-38 helicopter at MAKS 2019.

Sergey Guneev / Sputnik via AP

Putin and Erdogan, along with their entourages, exit the MC-21 airliner on display at MAKS 2019.

Erdogan also got a chance to look inside an Aurus Senat luxury sedan, which is an offshoot of the development of the Russian President's newest limousine, which the War Zone has previously covered in detail. Aurus also designed a plush VIP interior for a Kazan Ansat transport helicopter that was also on display at MAKS.

Russi Aleksey Nikolskyi / Sputnik via AP

Putin and Erdogan seen through the open rear door of the Aurus Senat.

The most eye-catching stop, though, was when Erdogan got a close-up look at the Su-57. In May 2019, Sergey Chemezov, head of Russia's top state-run industrial conglomerate Rostec, told Turkish state-run media outlet Anadolu Agency that the Kremlin would be willing to step in and sell Turkey these advanced combat jets if Ankara found itself cut off from the F-35, just as The War Zone had predicted

So far, there has been no formal announcement from Turkey that it has accepted any Russian offer regarding the Su-57. "So now, we are going to buy this one [the Su-57]?" Erdogan had asked Putin as they walked near the example on display. "You could," Putin said in response, after which the Turkish president laughed.

The U.S. government has all but formally ejected Turkey from the Joint Strike Fighter program over the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems. The United States and other NATO members were concerned that the Turkish military operating both systems simultaneously could expose sensitive details about the stealth fighter's radar signature and other capabilities to the Russian government. The saga has also been tied up in otherwise worsening U.S.-Turkish relations over a number of issues, which you can read about in more detail here and here.

Sergey Guneev / Sputnik via AP

Putin and Erdogan examine an Su-57.

In July 2019, the first shipment of S-400 related equipment arrived in Turkey, pushing the spat past the point of no return, at least when it comes to the F-35. The Turkish government is still receiving additional portions of its order. 

At the time of the first deliveries, the Pentagon had already been working out its plan to remove Turkey from the F-35 program and is continuing to implement those decisions. Turkish companies have been responsible for the production of hundreds of different components for the Joint Strike Fighters and are the sole producers of a significant number of them, which has required the U.S. government to find new sources.

"900-plus parts will all be sourced in the U.S. initially.  We are well down the pathway, have been working it for almost a year now, in one form or another," Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters at the Pentagon on Aug. 26, 2019. "We still are on the path to be out of Turkey by the end of March 2020."

Lockheed Martin, the F-35's prime contractor, is responsible for finding those new suppliers, though the U.S. government is underwriting at least some portion of the costs of doing so. The Pentagon has not yet determined what it will do with F-35As already officially delivered to Turkey, which had remained in the United States for training purposes. Those aircraft at still at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

Turkey is working on its own indigenous stealth fighter program, known as the TF-X. "The TF-X, which is our fifth-generation military aircraft, is the apple of our eye," Erdogan had said on stage with Putin. "We showed a typical model of this aircraft in June of this year at an exhibition in Paris and demonstrated all its qualities."

However, it remains to be seen how the chill in U.S.-Turkish relations might impact that program. Chemezov had also said any Su-57 sale could include industrial cooperation to support work on TF-X. Erdogan has previously announced plans to cooperate with Russian in some fashion on the production of the new S-500 air defense system, as well as the S-400.

Whatever the case, Turkey isn't expecting TF-X to make its first flight before 2025 and the country's Air Force may need an interim solution to fill the gap it now has its aviation modernization plans. The Turkish government had planned to buy as many as 116 F-35s, primarily to replace its aging F-4 Phantom II combat jets. Turkey could also conceivably purchase advanced fourth-generation combat jets, such as the Su-35 Flanker-E or MiG-35 Fulcrum-F, from Russia to meet more immediate demands.

Mikhail Metzel/TASS

Turkish President Recep Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right at MAKS 2019. A graphic depicting an Su-57 advanced combat jet is seen at right, while another on the left shows a MiG-35.

There are also reports that the Turkish military is hoarding spare parts for its various blocks of F-16C/D Viper fighter jets in case the United States imposes more serious economic and other sanctions over the S-400 deal. There are concerns this could also impact a variety of other defense projects that U.S. and Turkish firms are working together on. As such, depending on what sanctions the U.S. government applies in the end, and when, it is possible that Turkey and Russia may also expand cooperation to other aerospace and industrial projects, military and otherwise.

In May 2019, Russia also announced it was moving to begin serial production of the Su-57. Turkish orders would certainly help inject additional resources into that effort. The Kremlin has also reportedly been courting China and India as potential export customers. However, the Chinese have one stealth fighter entering active service and another in development and the Indians have already dropped out of the Su-57 program once before.

What the future of Turkish and Russian cooperation in any defense sector might look like in the future remains to be seen, but Erdogan's policies seem to be pulling his country toward a larger rift with the United States and, to a lesser extent, partners in Western Europe. At the same time, Putin has been more than happy to build a close relationship with the Turkish President, as was clearly visible at MAKS, and bring him further into Moscow's sphere of influence.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com