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Turkey held talks with UK to purchase aircraft carrier

Britain last year offered to help Ankara locally produce vessel after declining to sell one
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan launches a locally produced Turkish warship into the water in Istanbul, Turkey on 23 January 2021 (Turkish Presidency)
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Ankara

The Turkish government held consultations with the UK to procure a new or second-hand aircraft carrier last year, but the talks were inconclusive, Middle East Eye can reveal.

Two people familiar with the dealings said the government inquired to purchase a brand new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier or a decommissioned one, but British officials denied that request.

“They have offered to sell the design of an aircraft carrier and provide technical support during the construction in Turkey,” one person said.

'After the consultations with the British government, Turkey has decided to build its own ship, instead of purchasing it'

- Turkish source

Turkey is already building a light aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu, whose design was based on Spain’s SPS Juan Carlos I (L-61) multipurpose amphibious assault ship.

TCG Anadolu is expected to be launched this year, with the capability to operate short take-off and vertical landing aircraft, like the F-35.

Since Turkey’s removal from the American F-35 programme in 2019 over Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 air defence system, it isn’t clear whether TCG Anadolu would be able to host any warplanes.

However Ankara is adamant about having its own aircraft carrier. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly stated since last year that Turkey would locally design and build an aircraft carrier. “It will carry us into another league,” he said last month during a ship launch ceremony.

“After the consultations with the British government, Turkey has decided to build its own ship, instead of purchasing it,” the second person familiar with the issue said.

A UK Department of International Trade spokesperson neither denied nor confirmed whether said consultations have taken place.

“As close NATO allies, the UK and Turkey have a longstanding and strong bilateral defence relationship based on cooperation and collaboration,” the spokesperson said in a written response to MEE. “The UK and Turkey hold regular discussions on a range of defence and security issues. We do not comment on the details of these discussions." 

Geostrategic ambition

So what would Turkey, a mainly Mediterranean power, do with an aircraft carrier?

Can Kasapoglu, director of defence research at the Turkish think tank EDAM, believes the Turkish navy has been transforming from a coastal deterrent into a power-projecting, blue-water navy with new submarines and TCG Anadolu.

“If realised, [a real aircraft carrier] would mark geostrategic ambitions going even beyond the Mediterranean,” he said.

'If realised, [a real aircraft carrier] would mark geostrategic ambitions going even beyond the Mediterranean'

- Can Kasapoglu, EDAM think tank

“Turkey has never operated such a carrier aviation fleet before. So it would be an operational novelty. In terms of defence economics, carrier aviation remains one of the most demanding segments."

Since 2017, Turkey has begun to deploy troops to a number of countries in the region. It has a large military base in east Africa, primarily established to train the Somalian military in Mogadishu.

Ankara also has a training base in Qatar, which was constructed following the Gulf crisis to support the Qatari government against external pressures.

Since the beginning of 2020, Turkey has ramped up its deployments of troops and armed drones to Libya, which require a sophisticated supply and transportation system.

The Turkish military showed last year that it could rapidly and easily deploy several F-16s and early warning aircraft to the North African country if needed.

Kasapoglu thinks the UK remains the only likely European ally to coproduce or sell off-the-shelf an aircraft carrier for political and defence-tech reasons. “Not sure whether it would be a feasible investment for Turkey, which does not have - at least for now - strategic level rapid-power forward deployment or oceanic ambitions,” he said.