U.S Marine General John Allen, who was brought out of retirement to build a military coalition of Middle East powers to combat ISIS, has spent a second day in Ankara trying to persuade the Turks to join the fight. The U.S. and other nations taking part in air strikes against ISIS are increasingly exasperated by Turkey’s refusal to join them as the Kurdish town of Kobani on the border with Turkey is on the verge of falling into ISIS hands. This no-show policy is looking particularly cynical since only a few months ago Turkey was demonstrating its readiness as a formidable air power in the region.
As ISIS was completing its stunning conquest of the Iraqi city of Mosul this summer, Turkey was hosting a two-week “Top Gun” exercise of NATO air forces at an airbase at Konya in central Turkey.
Air force units from the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Jordan and Qatar took part. The unreported exercise was designed to demonstrate that air forces from widely different places and with widely diverse equipment could be coordinated into an effective tactical force of just the kind that would be needed to support ground forces moving against ISIS – or to take out critical ISIS units like those attacking Kobani.
The Turks fielded the oldest equipment on view – F-4 Phantoms of the Vietnam War era. These may appear to be antiques, but they have been upgraded to carry and deploy very modern munitions against ground forces (with some help from the Israelis.)
At the center of the exercise was a much more advanced airplane, a Boeing Peace Eagle, a military version of the Boeing 737 loaded with surveillance equipment that can act as the airborne intelligence gatherer for all the air forces in action. This was backed up by a Boeing E-3A AWACS from NATO’s Early Warning Force based in Germany.
The British Royal Air Force flew six of their latest Eurofighter Typhoons equipped with ground attack missiles and the Spanish deployed six F-18 Hornets – the same airplane now being flown by the U.S. Navy’s Strike Group 2 from the deck of the carrier George H. W. Bush in the Persian Gulf that are attacking ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
Perhaps the most intriguing player here was Qatar. Its air force is seldom seen outside the Gulf. In Turkey the Qataris flew French Mirage jets, not exactly cutting edge equipment but still formidable. (Qatar is shopping for a modern replacement).
The exercise, called Anatolian Eagle, was conducted well out of sight of the wars raging in Syria and Iraq. On some occasions as many as 60 airplanes were involved, a massive display of power backed up by as many as 500 ground personnel.
Indeed, this was a model of exactly the scale and lethality of air power combining the resources of different nations that NATO exists to provide. All the more bewildering, then, that when Turkey, second only to the U.S. as a NATO military power, has a threat as grave as that posed by ISIS within half a mile of its own border it keeps its air force grounded.