Italy pushes Eurofighter as Turkey’s ‘only alternative’ to US options

The Italian Defense Ministry continues pushing Turkey to join the Eurofighter aircraft project as an alternative to its present fleet of US-made jets. ‘Turkey wants part of its fighter aircraft fleet to remain outside the technological and other influence of the United States,’ says a Turkish defense analyst.

The pan-European Eurofighter fighter aircraft is the only viable alternative to U.S. planes in its category for the Turkish military, Italy’s deputy defense minister said late Tuesday, urging Turkey to join the ambitious European-led defense program.

“The Eurofighter is the only alternative to U.S. aircraft, and provides a great relief to world countries,” Guido Crosetto told a small group of international reporters through an interpreter on the sidelines of the 2011 International Defense Industry Fair, or IDEF, being held in Istanbul.

“If Turkey joins this program, the program would gain a larger importance,” Crosetto said.

Turkey, whose present fighter fleet is comprised of U.S.-made aircraft, also plans to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II planes, a next-generation, multinational program also led by the United States.

But Turkish officials privately say they want another future jet fighter to be developed with a country or countries other than the United States, in an effort to reduce Ankara’s over-dependence on Washington.

Most of Turkey’s present fleet of F-16 fighters is being modernized by the United States.

Lockheed Martin and the planned future F-35s are open to U.S. influence. Only its older F-4 aircraft, modernized by Israel, and its oldest F-16s, being modernized by Turkey itself, are technologically free from this influence, the officials believe. But these older aircraft are expected to be decommissioned around 2020.

“Turkey wants part of its fighter aircraft fleet to remain outside the technological and other influence of the United States. It believes this scheme would better fit its national interests,” said one Turkish defense analyst.

The members of the Eurofighter consortium include Germany, Italy, Britain and Spain. As an influential member of the group, Italy is leading the efforts to add Turkey to the consortium.

Quest to find a fighter partner

In December, Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül said that Turkey at that point was not considering the Eurofighter as an option, and was more interested in developing a national fighter through its own assets or through cooperating with non-U.S. partners.

Initial talks with South Korea came to nothing as Seoul insisted on its own terms for partnership with Turkey, while Ankara remained interested in no less than an equal partnership.

Despite Ankara’s rejection in December, Italy has continued to insist on the multinational Eurofighter program as the best solution for Turkey.

Crosetto said the inclusion of India and Japan in the Eurofighter program was likely, and again urged Turkey to also join.

The Eurofighter, short-listed together with France’s Rafale in technical evaluations for India’s huge fighter program, and short-listed together with the U.S. F-18 and F-35 in Japan’s fighter competition, believes it can add the two Asian countries to the pan-European program.

“It would also be great to include Turkey in this scheme,” said one Eurofighter official.

Separately, Crosetto urged Italian helicopter maker AgustaWestland, which recently lost a multibillion-dollar competition to U.S. firm Sikorsky Aircraft for Turkey’s next-generation utility helicopter deal, to pursue a new Turkish contest to find a partner to make light utility helicopters.

“[AgustaWestland] needs to pursue all opportunities, [all] chances in the helicopter field,” Crosetto said. “They will have to fight in a tight market.”

Separately, on the second day of the IDEF fair, Turkey and Qatar signed a military cooperation agreement that calls for the Turkish sale to the Gulf country this year of various pieces of defense equipment worth $120 million.

Umit Enginsoy, HDN