The Turk Connection

Aug. 1, 2008

One need only visit sprawling Incirlik Air Base in remote southeastern Turkey to grasp an essential truth that often seems to elude the comprehension of some officials and lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

It is this: The deep and long-standing strategic Turkish-American military partnership, so critical in the Cold War years, has grown stronger since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

Moreover, this has proved to be the case despite periodic eruptions of political tension between the US and this secular—though still devoutly Islamic—nation, one of America’s oldest NATO allies.

A USAF F-16 soars over central Turkey during Exercise Anatolian Eagle, a Red Flag-type joint exercise held twice a year. (USAF photo by MSgt. Ron Przysucha)

For a visitor, there is ample, on-the-ground evidence of vital support that Turkey, by giving the Pentagon ready access to this base, now provides the US. Incirlik is the hub of activity for supply of American forces scattered throughout the central and southwest Asian regions.

The base is a hive of USAF mobility operations, with transport and tanker aircraft taking off and landing at all hours of the day. Fully 70 percent of the air cargo bound for American forces in Iraq passes through Incirlik. The base in the past year was the departure point for more than 8,000 sorties. In addition, flights out of Incirlik transported more than 30,000 military passengers.

The air base can be found along an “arc of instability” stretching from Lebanon and Gaza in the west, to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. Incirlik’s 10,000-foot runway is laid out within sight of the soaring minarets of a huge mosque in nearby Adana, but its significance extends far in many directions.

Well to the east lies Afghanistan, with its forbidding Hindu Kush range. To the south lies Iraq, blocked off by the massive snowcapped Qandil Mountains. Airpower obviously means everything to US forces fighting in this region, isolated as they are by vast distances and hemmed in by natural barriers.

In the 1990s, Incirlik was the hub for Operation Northern Watch, the US Air Force-led enforcement of the “no-fly” zone over northern Iraq. ONW provided protection for Iraqi Kurdistan and helped to keep Saddam Hussein contained. US aircraft of Northern Watch flew more sorties over Iraq during these years than they did during the entirety of the Korean War.

Today, however, the runways and aprons of Incirlik are dominated not by fighter and attack aircraft, as in bygone years, but by C-17 transports and KC-135 tankers. According to United States Air Forces in Europe, the major command that has overall administrative authority over the US forces here, the six Air Force C-17s deployed to Incirlik lift the same amount of cargo that once required a total of 10 military transports flying out of Germany. This translates into a savings of $160 million annually.

KC-135 tankers operating out of Incirlik flew more than 3,400 sorties last year, delivering roughly 35 million gallons of jet fuel to aircraft on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fully 95 percent of the mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles flown into Iraq to better protect troops from improvised explosive devices were likewise routed through Incirlik and came in on Air Force transports.

Incirlik has no permanently assigned aircraft, but C-17s, KC-135s, and other aircraft regularly rotate through the base on expeditionary assignments. Hundreds more stop over on their way to or from the Southwest Asian war zones, delivering engines, fuel, tires, and other materiel needed for the war effort.

Formerly a Cold War bulwark on NATO’s exposed southern flank, Turkey has now found itself on the front line in the War on Terror. Turkey was the first nation, for instance, to allow US tanker aircraft to operate on its soil in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001.

On a grand strategic scale, Turkey serves as a bridge between the West and Islamic East in a time when some worry about a so-called “clash of civilizations” in the region. Turkey has preserved a democratic and secular political identity while still maintaining its historically Islamic religious, social, and cultural orientation.

Airmen of the 39th Security Forces Squadron go on the offensive during a joint exercise at Incirlik AB, Turkey. (USAF photo by A1C Nathan Lipscomb)

Time of Testing

Ankara has both a long-standing “special” bilateral partnership with the United States and close ties to Europe through NATO. It is home to a NATO air operations center, and a forward operating base for the Alliance’s E-3 AWACS aircraft. The nation also maintains close ties to nearly all nations in its region, to include Israel and Iran.

In recent years, however, the US-Turkish alliance has been tested like never before.

In part because Turkey suffered an estimated loss of $30 billion in trade as a result of sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s, and an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees as a result of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq was deeply unpopular in Turkey.

The decision by the Turkish Parliament—despite intense American pressure—not to allow the Army’s 4th Infantry Division to transit through Turkey for the 2003 invasion of Iraq badly strained relations between Ankara and Washington. Denied this northern launching point, the 4th ID instead had to route through Kuwait and arrived two weeks after the land war had started.

More recently, attacks inside Turkey by Kurdish separatists based in northern Iraq have greatly inflamed anti-American sentiment in Turkey, with many officials and politicians blaming US forces for not doing more to reign in the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated by Ankara and Washington as a terrorist group.

Tensions were further exacerbated late last year when US lawmakers threatened to officially label Turkish actions against the Armenians after World War I as “genocide,” interceding in a deeply contentious issue with profound historical resonance in a region of long memories.

When the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved such a resolution last October, Ankara recalled its ambassador to Washington, and Turkey’s top general threatened to suspend ties with the US military.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates immediately weighed in, saying American lawmakers “need to take very seriously” any action that could damage the relationship between the US and Turkey. Restricted access to Incirlik or Turkish airspace could have “enormous present-day implications” for the US forces in Iraq, Gates said.

For US military commanders, those recent strains in US-Turkish relations only underscored the need to strengthen the foundation of the alliance through closer military-to-military ties.

The importance of the US-Turkish relationship is not lost on Gen. Roger A. Brady, the new commander of USAFE. Despite responsibility for a theater spanning three continents and 92 countries, Brady made one of his first trips as USAFE commander to Ankara to engage with the Chief of the Turkish Air Force and other senior members of the Turkish General Staff.

As another unmistakable sign of the strategic weight given to that military-to-military relationship, US European Command maintains an Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) in Ankara, headed by a two-star general—rather than the customary colonel.

On top of frenetic ongoing operations out of Incirlik, the Ankara ODC coordinates a very large foreign military sales program with Turkey; facilitates robust exchanges with Turkish military officers as part of its International Military Training and Education Program; and also coordinates participation in joint exercises.

A USAF load team of the 728th Air Mobility Squadron places a Turkish ambulance on a C-17 Globemaster III at Incirlik AB, Turkey. (USAF photo )

Rave Reviews

These include Turkey’s Anatolian Eagle exercises, held twice a year. Anatolian Eagle, a Red Flag-style training event for large force packages, has won rave reviews from commanders in Europe who are faced with dwindling training opportunities in many other areas. American fighter squadrons routinely take part in the Anatolian Eagle exercises, which take advantage of the extensive Konya Range.

At training ranges in Germany, Air Force pilots often must deal with bad weather, limited range space, heavy air traffic, and restrictive noise limitations. Air Force officials say that the Turkish exercise allows pilots to improve their skills against mobile SAM sites, while the landscape and weather in central Anatolia is also similar to that in nearby Iraq and Afghanistan, improving the realism of the exercises.

Because the Turkish Air Force flies mostly F-16 fighters (along with some older F-4s), USAF and Turkish pilots can also compare tricks of the fighter trade.

“The Turkish Air Force almost exclusively flies F-16s, … so we get to compare and contrast how they fly their F-16s, and how we fly ours,” said Lt. Col. Matt Chesnutt, commander of the 22nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, in 2006.

“The level of our military-to-military engagements is of such size and scope that they probably rate among the top three such relationships we have in the world,” Maj. Gen. Eric J. Rosborg, chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation in Turkey, told Air Force Magazine.

Despite the well-publicized tensions of recent years, Rosborg says that the day-to-day interactions between US military commanders and the Turkish General Staff have remained positive. “Turkey has not only been a good NATO partner for many years, but given its unique location and US operations in Southwest Asia writ large,” Incirlik, which the US has operated from since 1954, “has become a critically important hub for us,” said Rosborg. “Maintaining access to Incirlik is a key objective for EUCOM, and that’s a byproduct of continuing a positive military-to-military relationship with Turkey. We work very hard at that.”

Turkey is a “key ally in the [Global War on Terror], and our operations through Incirlik Air Base are vital to our efficient intermodal distribution into Iraq,” said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the USAF Chief of Staff-designate, in testimony given to a House subcommittee earlier this year.

“This year, we delivered over 66,000 [short tons] of cargo via aircraft flying out of Incirlik, 10,000 [short tons] and 144 cargo aircraft sorties more than in 2006,” noted Schwartz, who was commander of US Transportation Command when he testified.

Besides supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Incirlik-based aircraft have in recent years also taken part in the relief effort following the Pakistan earthquake, and in the operation to evacuate noncombatants from Lebanon during the 2006 war between Israeli forces and Hezbollah.

The host unit at Incirlik is the 39th Air Base Wing, which oversees three ground support units and service members from 54 units and 32 bases who are currently deployed there as part of expeditionary forces. In all, roughly 2,100 US military personnel operate out of Incirlik. The wing helps operate a major overland logistics artery that supplies approximately 20 percent of the JP-8 fuel used by coalition forces inside Iraq.

US airmen work hand in hand with their Turkish counterparts on a daily basis, conducting joint operations in areas ranging from air traffic control to law enforcement.

Besides operating a critical resupply hub in the global air bridge and maintaining a large weapons storage area, the 39th ABW also hosts rotational squadron deployments for USAFE-based fighter squadrons on training assignments.

A KC-135 of the 385th Air Expeditionary Group takes off from Incirlik Air Base. The tankers support Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. (USAF photo by SrA. James Seymore)

In early 2007, for instance, the 22nd Fighter Squadron “Stingers” and an aircraft maintenance unit, from Spangdahlem AB, Germany, deployed to Incirlik for training in advance of a tour of duty in Iraq.

That training provided the squadron with a chance to practice flying and maintaining in an environment quite similar to Iraq, squadron officials said, and helped pilots shift their focus from a primary mission of suppression of enemy air defenses to close air support.

That fact that Turkey not only flies predominately F-16 aircraft, but is also a major participant in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, is seen by US officials as more glue that cements the military relationship.

“The Turks operate the third largest F-16 fleet in the world, and they are in the process of upgrading many of them with more advanced avionics, so they have a very capable air force,” said Lt. Col. Youngkun Yu, deputy chief of USAFE’s Europe and Eurasia Branch.

With more than $175 million invested in the Joint Strike Fighter program, he said, Turkey is also the largest of what are called Level 3 partners in that aircraft development program.

“Because the US and Turkish air forces have common platforms, we are very interoperable, and that’s extremely important,” said Yu. “From a larger strategic viewpoint, that means when we fly together on exercises, or possibly going forward in the Global War on Terror, no one has to worry about establishing common tactics and techniques. We already share common procedures for things like midair refueling,” he said.

Intelligence for Two

A secular democracy with a Muslim population, “Turkey is a globally accepted example of the successful integration of these two elements. It is geographically, economically, politically, and militarily critical,” Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), told Congress earlier this year.

“Turkey’s geostrategic location, European orientation, and enduring relationship with the United States make it a bridge of stability between the Euro-Atlantic community and the nations of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf,” said Craddock. “Its proximity to Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Russia ensure Turkey will continue to play a vital role in international efforts to combat the transit of foreign fighter terrorists.”

Perhaps the most important military-to-military cooperation between Turkey and the United States is the least talked about. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Washington last November and met with President Bush, he reportedly warned that unless the United States was willing to take a more active role in helping Ankara combat PKK terrorists, Turkey was prepared to launch an all-out invasion of Kurdish northern Iraq.

SSgt. Daryl Washington, 728th Air Mobility Squadron, walks the wing of a C-17 during a preventive maintenance inspection at Incirlik Air Base. (USAF photo by TSgt. Larry A. Simmons)

Shortly after, Bush publicly promised to increase intelligence sharing with Turkey. Reports had already been surfacing of Air Force U-2 surveillance airplanes taking off from Incirlik and transiting into northern Iraq. The US Army was also reported to have provided Turkey with satellite surveillance related to the PKK. Those reports were followed by attacks against suspected PKK strongholds in northern Iraq by Turkish aircraft and artillery.

“When we talk with the Turkish General Staff, the issue of dealing with the PKK problem is usually chief among their concerns,” said Rosborg. “So the meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan and their agreement to share intelligence on the PKK [has] taken a lot of the angst out of the US-Turkish relationship that we saw last year.”

The relationship between the US and Turkey seemed to be on the rocks in recent years, but “we’re in a much better place now,” said Rosborg.

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “On African Ground,” appeared in the February issue.