Last week news reports said that Turkey and Spain signed a contract for the construction of what was reported to be an aircraft carrier. The ship in question is however a variant of the Spanish amphibious landing ship Juan Carlos I. It is true that this ship has a flight deck to support short take off-vertical landing (STVTOL) operations and can be used as a small aircraft carrier. Given the strategic missions the Turkish navy sets for it is unlikely that Turkey is seeking to construct a Juan Carlos I class ship just to act as an aircraft carrier.
In the past years Turkey stated the intention to modernize and expand its fleet to support its role as a regional player in the eastern Mediterranean. Part of the modernization and expansion involves the building of its own corvettes (Ada class) and frigates (TF-100 class) under the MILGEM project. Since 2006 the Turkish government also approved the acquisition of a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) and this is where the Juan Carlos I comes into play.
Turkey already operates a small fleet of landing ships. These ships are mostly used in humanitarian operations, more specifically disaster relieve. Earthquakes are a common phenomenon in Turkey and its poor infrastructure prevents the rapid deployment of forces to assist in the disaster relieve. Its fleet of landing ships provides the necessary mobility for disasters in the coastal area by being able to land forces and supplies in a harbor or even on a shore. An LHD would greatly improve this capability because it transports more men, vehicles and supplies and even allows the deployment of helicopters from the ship itself. It is this capacity that Turkey seeks to acquire. However, the possession of an LHD would also help Turkey to boost its expeditionary capabilities.
Turkey recognizes the northern, Islamic, part of the isle of Cyprus while Greece and the EU recognize the southern part. Both sides seek to have political control over the whole island and this situation resulted in an uneasy truce between both sides after several years of violence. If violence flares up on Cyprus and Turkey seeks to support the northern part by military means an LHD would allow a faster insertion of troops and equipment compared to its current fleet of small and aging landing crafts.
Finally a Juan Carlos I class ship can indeed be used as a small aircraft carrier. The ship is however only capable of serving STOVL-planes like the Harrier jump jets and F-35B jets. None of these planes are currently in service in the Turkish Air Force. Turkey does however participate in the F-35 program and intends to replace its F-16s with F-35s. It is not clear if Turkey is opting to buy F-35Bs to be placed on its amphibious landing ship unlike as the US and Italian Navy are planning to do.
Production of Harrier jump jets ended in 2003. Any Harrier jets turkey wishes to place on board would have to be second hand planes. In Europe the Italian Navy deploys Harrier jump jets on its Cavour class aircraft carrier. Since Italy plans to replace its harriers by F-35Bs in 2014 it could be possible for Turkey to buy these planes from Italy. One also has to take into account that Turkey seeks to construct a variant of the Juan Carlos I. Details are still unclear about the final design of the ship and it could be possible that Turkeys amphibious ship could end up without a ski jump necessary to launch planes but since STOVL planes can also take of vertically this wouldn’t present a problem.
In the end it also no surprise that Turkey buys a Juan Carlos I class ship. Only a few countries build these kinds of ships and the choice on the European market is mainly limited between the French Mistral class and the Spanish Juan Carlos I class. Australia and Russia each had a tender for an LHD that saw the Juan Carlos I and Mistral class ships compete in both countries; Australia selected the Juan Carlos I class, renamed the Canberra class, and has already seen two of these ships delivered, while Russia opted for the Mistral class.