Erdogan’s possible plans to forego more U.S. F-16s for Russian Su-35s

Turkey may choose the Russian’s F-35 competitor instead of continuing to purchase F-16’s, since the United States cancelled its F-35 program participation

(Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab via freepik; freepngp3d)

In the lead-up to Turkey’s recent operation in Syria, videos and photos on social media confirmed that Russian Su-35 jet fighters were brought to Turkey for a live demonstration amid talks of their possible sale to the country.

After Turkey purchased Russian anti-aircraft missile systems, the United States removed Turkey from its F-35 jet fighter program. U.S. President Donald Trump also apparently resisted invoking sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATS Act), despite pressure from the U.S. Congress. Trump did, however, impose sanctions briefly as a means of coercing a long-term ceasefire.

There are still chances for Turkey to resume the F-35 program, if the S-400 purchase is canceled, though the chances of that happening are slim. Russia quickly offered its Su‑35 (NATO reporting name: Flanker-E) as an equivalent replacement product. The addition of the Su-35, while not providing the stealth capabilities of the F-35, would add more advanced supersonic fighters to the current Turkish air fleet.

Teknofest, Turkey’s largest technology and aerospace fair held in late September 2019, highlighted the latest innovations in aeronautics technology. The fair took place in the permanently closed Istanbul Ataturk Airport and received over 1.7 million visitors from around the world. Russia played a prominent role in the fair, showcasing military equipment for potential buyers. The fair itself was covered by Russian-state media, including TASS.

For Russia, the Su-35 jet fighters served as the focal point of the country’s presentation at Teknofest. Over the past few months, rumors of a possible large-volume purchase by Turkey surfaced online.

One of the first pieces of visual evidence of the presence of the aircraft in Turkey was posted to Twitter on September 17, the first day of Teknofest.

The DFRLab geolocated the image and confirmed that Russia had indeed brought the jet fighters to the fair. As mentioned in the official event program, the aircraft demonstrated their in-flight capabilities during a live presentation at the closed Ataturk airport.

Using details such as matching parts of the runway (orange line), tall building in the distance (yellow box), a small neighborhood of buildings with red roofs (pink box), and an aircraft hangar (green line), the DFRLab confirmed that the Su-35s were at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. (Source: GoogleMaps, left; @metin4020/archive, right)

The following day, local Turkish media outlet Yeni Safak devoted extensive coverage to the demonstration.

Geolocation of this video also confirmed that the Su-35 demonstration took place at Ataturk Airport.

Geolocation of the Yeni Safak video posted on September 18. The orange lines show a tall building in the background. The blue, green, and yellow lines show the runway, and the purple lines represent the aircraft hangars. (Source: @YeniSafakEn/archive, top; GoogleMaps, bottom)

According to pro-Kremlin media outlet StalkerZone, local spectators preferred the Russian-made Su-35s to the U.S.-made F-16’s. The media outlet, which is known for publishing pro-Kremlin propaganda, claimed that observers, as well as social media users, were astounded by the Su-35’s capabilities, which allegedly rendered the Turkey’s current fleet of F-16 jets useless. This message was amplified on Twitter as well.
 These claims were based on the comments left under one of the videos reporting on the event. As common to pro-Kremlin articles, these claims are hard to confirm, as the nature of the accounts is unknown. Nonetheless, the efforts to present the aircraft, coupled with pro-Kremlin outlets’ media coverage from the event, suggested that Russia is actively attempting to market and sell the Russian-made Su-35 as an alternative to the U.S.-made F-35.

Lukas Andriukaitis is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

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