Even as Turkey is urgently trying to fix its self-inflicted shortage of military pilots, the government dismissed 25 more. It then issued a state of emergency decree to force its former aviators to leave lucrative jobs in the private sector and return to service.
Turkey's air force was the hardest-hit military branch in the mass purges that followed the July 2016 failed coup. I noted in an article a year ago that the air force would need at least two years to make up for the pilot deficiency it was facing.
With the latest expulsions that were issued Aug. 25, Turkey dropped well below the globally accepted ratio of 1.5 pilots per plane, reaching 0.7 per plane. The discharged pilots were highly experienced veterans.
Turkey has 320 combat planes (of which 240 are F-16s), 90 transport planes, seven tankers and 105 training planes. During the first three months after the 2016 uprising, the ratio had already gone down to 0.9 per plane. The situation now is more serious: In some squadrons, the number of F-16 pilots has reached 0.6 for each plane. Moreover, because of growing operational missions and crew shortages, pilots are now flying twice the number of hours they used to before the coup attempt.
Sources speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity noted that the pilot depletion actually started long before the failed coup. In 2012, the Turkish air force lowered its compulsory service requirement from 15 years to 10 years. Between 2012 and 2015, 110 highly experienced pilots, mostly majors and lieutenant colonels, resigned to join Turkey’s booming civil aviation market. About 300 F-4 and F-16 pilots had already left between 2002 and 2013. After the coup attempt and the purge of alleged putschists, the government tried to prevent further losses of pilots with an executive decree that upped compulsory duty for pilots from 10 to 18 years.
Now the government is seeking to force 300 ex-military pilots to return to the air force after a call in January for these pilots to voluntarily return failed miserably with only 40 applicants. The decree offers two options to these ex-pilots: Either sign up for four years of service with the air force or go abroad and find employment with a foreign airline. The summons requires these pilots to go through a battery of tests, above all a health check, within 15 days after receiving the summons. Those who pass the tests will have another 15 days to report to duty at their assigned base.
If these pilots do not return, their civilian pilot licenses will be revoked for four years, which means they won’t be allowed to fly in Turkey during that period. Turkish authorities are aware that those pilots, who are paid more than $10,000 a month in their civilian jobs, will be earning $3,000 once they are back in uniform, and the military is trying to make up for their loss with additional bonuses. The government also plans to give the pilots credit for their civilian service, counting those years toward military service to speed up their promotions. For example, a pilot who resigned from the Turkish air force in 2013 as a major rank will have his four years of civilian flying added to military service and will rejoin the air force as a lieutenant colonel.
A pilot who resigned from the air force in 2013 as a major said he was expecting such a move and was thinking of re-enlisting, but he complained about the short time allowed for the process just before the schools are about to open.
"My family lives in Istanbul, and I am ordered to join my unit in Ankara within 10 days. That's very hasty and inconvenient to make all the arrangements for the family," he said.
Another pilot who left the military in 2014 told Al-Monitor, “This came as a surprise. I served 16 years in the Turkish air force and I wasn’t thinking of returning. But to order to us to join in 15 days or risk losing our licenses is too tough. They are not even giving us time to look for jobs abroad.”
The government hopes that 150-180 pilots will rejoin within a month and that, as most of them are experienced F-4 and F-16 pilots, they won't need more than two months of refresher training before they can resume operational flights.
On the other hand, after the government closed military schools following the coup attempt, the Turkish air force accepted 180 pilot cadets from civilian sources at its Cigli flight school near Izmir. These candidates have already completed their introductory training with SF-260D planes and now are in jet flight training with T-38M aircraft. For these 180 candidates, whose F-16 training will begin in September, the problem is the lack of F-16 instructors. At least 50 of the veteran pilots expected to return to the ranks will be assigned as F-16 instructors at Cigli.
Ankara is also trying to recruit F-16 instructors from abroad. It initially contacted the United States, which had sold the planes to Turkey. Military force sources told Al-Monitor that Turkey first asked for six American trainers, but the United States tied the issue to diplomatic bargaining and didn't offer a ready solution. Turkey then turned to Pakistan, which accepted the request; however, the United States objected. According to information obtained by the daily Hurriyet, the Pentagon rejected Ankara’s request for the second time, saying, “There is no program regarding training pilots abroad. If you send your F-16 pilots to the US, we can train them here,” while Ankara insisted on pilots receiving training in Cigli and in their own geographical conditions.
Ankara’s refusal to send its pilot candidates for training in the United States is yet another disturbing indicator of the depth of the crisis of confidence between Ankara and Washington.
Turkey's air force now aims to finish training the 180 pilot candidates and reach 1.5 pilots per plane with those returning from the civilian sector. The question then becomes how the military will ensure high morale and motivation for those who feel they are being railroaded into re-enlisting under unfavorable conditions.