October 13, 2014

"Finally, the Turks..." - allow U.S. and coalition access to Turkish airbases

UPDATE: According to media reports, this may be premature.

This is from the New York Times:
ISTANBUL — A day after American officials said Turkey had agreed to allow its air bases for operations against the Islamic State, which they described as a deal that represented a breakthrough in tense negotiations, Turkish officials on Monday said there was no deal yet, and that talks were still underway.

The Turkish comments represented another miscommunication between the United States and its longtime ally Turkey, as President Obama pushes to strengthen an international coalition against the militants that control a large area of both Syria and Iraq, by securing a greater role for Turkey.


Turkish air bases - Adana (Incirlik), Malatya (Erhac), Diyarbakir and Batman

Finally the Turks have granted access for U.S. and coalition aircraft to use its strategically located airbases to conduct offensive operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets. Until this decision, the coalition could only use Turkish airbases for humanitarian operations.

This is a welcome development as it significantly reduces the flight time from the airbases currently being used in Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Hopefully, the coalition can quickly begin use of the airbases - the primary bases of interest (shown on the map above) are the sprawling NATO facility at Inclirlik in Adana, Erhac in Malatya, the dual-use airport at Diyarbakir and the base at Batman.

To illustrate the importance of access to these Turkish airbases, had coalition aircraft had access to these bases while attacking targets in the Kobani area along the Syrian-Turkish border, the flight distances would have been as little as 100 miles versus the 800 to 1500 miles using current bases in Jordan and the Gulf. That would have allowed more aircraft to operate for longer periods of time dropping significantly more ordnance - they could have reacted quicker to the changing situation on the ground. The reaction time to fast-changing events on the ground can be measured now in minutes, not hours.

Turkey has been criticized over the past few weeks for its refusal to engage ISIS in northern Syria as it encircled and almost seized the Kurdish border town of Kobani ('Ayn al-'Arab in Arabic). While Turkish military intervention with its well-trained and well-equipped army would be welcome, Turkey still has reservations about moving its forces unilaterally into northern Syria. They are demanding that the coalition impose a no-fly zone over Syria and participate in establishing a security zone inside Syria.

As of now, the United States is not in favor of either of those steps. Until there is resolution of these differences, it is doubtful that Turkish troops will engage. The question that remains is whether Turkey will participate in the air campaign - Turkey operates the F-16 fighter-bomber and would lend additional capability to the coalition.

Now that the U.S. and the coalition have access to Turkey's airbases, will they simply move the existing aircraft from other bases in the region, or will they deploy more combat power to the area and step up attacks from this new axis? Or will they deploy different aircraft with better ground attack capabilities. To better attack the asymmetric threat posed by ISIS, the U.S. might consider the employment of their proven ground attack "trifecta" - AC-130 Spectre gunships, A-10 "Warthog" attack aircraft and the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship. Given the proximity of Turkish airbases to the action, these aircraft could bring a much welcome enhanced close air support capability.

It appears that the Turkish change of heart is a compromise to actual participation in the coalition. The world has been watching on live television the relentless attack on Kobani, while Turkish armored vehicles are seen on their side of the border in the fields adjacent to the fighting, but not engaged in either defending the Syrian Kurds or attacking ISIS fighters. While the decision to allow U.S. and coalition access to Turkish airbases is welcome, it is not full Turkish participation in the coalition, but it does dampen criticism of the the Turks.

Finally, the Turks.