Calm down, calm down. The Turks can already shoot at Israeli planes. It just takes longer and requires consciously overriding the objections of the IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) system in the cockpit.
According to Turkish press, as quoted by Ynet, the Turkish air force will be fitting its F-16 fighter jets with new IFF systems, which will not treat the signal from an Israeli IFF transponder as friendly, and will thus facilitate more efficient attack. The F-16’s original IFF system is made to US/NATO specifications, and identifies an Israeli IFF response as friendly. This creates an inconvenient requirement to override the system’s restrictions preventing engagement of friendly aircraft, in order to fire on an Israeli plane. (A serious inconvenience when both the shooter and the target are traveling at 500 knots or more.)
The difference to Turkey’s air combat posture is neither inconsequential nor militarily earth-shattering. But announcing it to the public has no military function. It’s a political move. And the most important point is that Turkey has no fear of making it.
If nothing else, given the mutual-defense aspect of the NATO alliance, the Turkish move should give the rest of NATO pause. Having a unique national perspective on which nations’ militaries are “friendly” and which are not is something that quickly becomes untenable in a security alliance.
This consideration is hardly abstract: Israel has participated in a number of NATO-sponsored exercises in the last several years, including air and sea exercises in the Aegean Sea. It is no accident that Turkey has announced retrofitting her air force’s IFF systems, and planning to do so with her ships and submarines, a few days after Israel and Greece signed a military cooperation agreement.
The Turkish announcement was also made two weeks before the target date for offshore oil drilling to begin south of Cyprus, in the area where Cyprus and Israel have established a maritime claims agreement. Independent Cyprus, with a Greek heritage and culture, has been a client of Athens since independence, and will naturally seek support from NATO, and Greek support in the EU, to counter whatever actions Turkey takes against the drilling operation. The IFF modification for Israel is one Turkey couldn’t direct at Greece without burning all her bridges, but there is certainly an element of Turkey seeking to drive a wedge between Greece and Israel.
This move by Turkey will have little effect on the prospects for an Israeli attack option against Iranian nuclear facilities. That option has been severely constrained for some time; even assuming a quiescent IFF posture vis-à-vis Turkish forces, Saudi Arabia is now the only potentially viable path for the IAF. Meanwhile, the scope of attack required in 2011, to do enough damage to justify launching it outside of a hot-war situation, has all but expanded beyond the IDF’s conventional capabilities anyway.
The significance of this Turkish action is that Erdogan expects no pushback for reckless behavior. It’s even possible that he means this move to create a bargaining chip with the US, like the leverage he now has with his agreement to host an X-band radar for the NATO theater missile defense system. Turkey’s warning on the IFF issue has the potential to circumscribe and even stymie the plans of NATO nations in the region, if a resolution in Israel’s favor is not forced on Ankara.
The coming days will reveal whether Erdogan has read the Obama administration correctly. Obama could direct US contractors to suspend or abrogate their defense-systems agreements with Turkey, and many in Congress will certainly push for that. That would be a politically satisfying reaction, and an understandable one, but it would also leave Turkey in the driver’s seat and keep the focus on a side-issue rather than the big picture. This move is not designed to offer a constructive path forward for regional or US security.
Frankly, Turkey’s announcement should be handled as an issue of NATO integrity. The US should rally the other members to put stern pressure on Turkey as a group. But Erdogan apparently calculates either that such a response is unlikely, or that he can turn it to his advantage. His behavior is very much that of a chess player who believes he has his allies checkmated.
Maybe he does. One thing is for sure: inert as the NATO West may be, Erdogan’s career of initiative will soon start meeting with counter-initiative from the region.