The power is back on at Incirlik Air Base,Turkey, after almost a week in the dark, but what the future holds for airmen and aircraft at the base remains unclear as Turkey convulses following a failed coup.
U.S. European Command on Friday reassured that with close cooperation with the Turkish military, Incirlik will remain fully prepared "to take on a myriad of missions as we work together to defeat terrorism," the command said in a statement. "Should the power be interrupted again," the base still has access to "backup generator power," the statement said.
Hours after the coup attempt erupted last week, officials assured partners and allies in the fight against the Islamic State group that operations would not cease but instead aircraft would fly from other parts of the region.
"There was a slight decrease in sorties flown July 16-19 at Incirlik for counter-Daesh missions," Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Karns told Military Times in an email on July 21, using an alternative Arabic name for the Islamic State group. "However, use of other assets occurred in theater to meet mission need. Other aircraft, at other locations, were able to ensure strikes against Daesh continued and ensure the necessary support in places required."
Flight hours for the A-10 close-air support attack aircraft, normally stationed at Incirlik, were down the last few days, which is to be expected "given the circumstances," Karns said. "The F-16, F-15E, and B-52 each had an uptick in flying hours during the period of July 10-20." He said that these aircraft helped offset the temporary decrease in A-10 flying hours.
Shutting part of the facility down in no doubt has had impact "on our operations," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph Jodice. The former commander of NATO Allied Air Command in Izmir, Turkey, is now a NATO senior military adviser teaching young officers how to plan for NATO combat and humanitarian relief operations.
"And not just for airstrikes, but also as a key hub for airlift operations," he added. "Geostrategically and geopolitically, it's an extremely important base and location, and not just now — that goes all the way back into the Cold War ... and being a long-term NATO ally."
When air operations resumed last Sunday, the KC-135 refueling tanker and the MQ-1 Predator were the first aircraft to take off from Incirlik.
"The Defense Department needs to continue to have dialogue with Turkey, the Turkish military, and at the political level, because this has been a political decision to shut down places like Incirlik," Jodice told Military Times on July 21. "They are an ally, and as military forces [we] have maintained a strong relationship." Jodice stressed that Incirlik is not only important to U.S. service members but also the Turks given that they operate part of the base as well.
As of July 21, only about 100 dependents remain at Incirlik Air Base, an Air Force official told Military Times. However, the dependents are mission-critical spouses who also happen to work at Incirlik as civilians, the official said. "They wouldn't be there if they were not needed," the official said.
The Air Force announced in January 2014 that roughly 60 open assignments would "be 24-month tours, regardless of accompanied status." The purpose of the tour extension was for "priority level one" missions — those that have the highest security requirements, Maj. Gerardo Gonzalez, a spokesman at U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, said in an email at the time. The new assignment adjustment came only a few months before the U.S. began its air campaign against ISIS, where Incirlik would soon come to play a key role in the air war.
In 2015, security concerns caused top brass to restrict troops from traveling beyond a small area outside the base, and spouses were given the chance to voluntarily leave the base. But this year — following a February car bomb in Turkey’s capital and growing threats against Incirlik itself — the voluntary exodus of family and dependents became mandatory. All dependents not in a mission-critical role had left Incirlik in March, the official said.
It is unclear whether those who rotate to Incirlik in the future will be allowed to take their families with them because the situation remains so fluid. It is likely, the official said, the Defense Department will spearhead a new policy in the next few weeks given the circumstances.
Jodice also said the turmoil likely will affect the International Military Education and Training, or IMET, program the U.S. maintains with Turkey — the second largest IMET program the U.S has with a foreign nation after Jordan, according to the State Department.
"From an Air Force perspective," Jodice said, "take a look at our air pilot training program. They train pilots at almost two classes a year at Çiğli Air Base, right on the outskirts of Izmir. That pilot training program is almost a mirror image of our pilot training program."
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter answers questions from coalition troops at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, on Dec.15, 2015. The secretary spoke about the push to accelerate the campaign against ISIS.
Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kinchen/Army
And there’s more on the table.
"From buying equipment, such as F-16s and F-4s, to [the Turks] producing parts of the F-35, we need to have a constant dialogue to ... ensure we keep a strong military-to-military relationship," Jodice said.
Despite disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey about extraditing cleric Fethullah Gulen from Pennsylvania, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not likely to end his country’s military relationship with the U.S., said Julie Smith, with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.
"The fact of the matter is that the mil-to-mil relationship benefits both of us," Smith said. "There may be some hollow threats or some hints along the way, but I would be shocked if he decided to turn off the lights on the mil-to-mil engagements completely."
However, hundreds of top Turkish military officers with whom the U.S. regularly works have been arrested following the failed coup, Smith said. The Turkish government is also likely to reduce the military’s influence on foreign and defense policy issues.
"This purge that is now ongoing is going to remove some of our best interlocutors at multiple levels and we’re going to lose some of our stronger contacts across the military," Smith said.
At last count, the Turkish government has arrested 124 general and flag officers. It has also detained brigadier generals who command anti-terror units in the country’s southeastern provinces of Bitlis, Hakkari, Sirnak and Siirt, where Turkish troops are fighting Kurdish militants. The Gendarmerie commander, Gen. Galip Mendi, has been suspended, ostensibly for health problems.
"What often happens with allies that we have some challenges with is that the mil-to-mil relationship and those personal relationships can see it through," Smith said. "I just hope we’ll still know enough of the folks that are running [the] show on the military side of things. I hope we continue to see familiar faces there and we’re not having to get to know an entirely new class of military leaders and policymakers."
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld worked with members of the Turkish military when he served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1973 to 1974. He called Turkey "a stalwart member of the alliance" with an effective military that is an important ally in the Muslim world.
Defeating radical Islamic terrorism will require the U.S. to work with partners around the world, Rumsfeld said.
"We also have to rely on people within that faith [Islam] who don’t believe in that radical strain of the faith and who are willing to stand up and help fight it," Rumsfeld said. "We have to encourage it."
One way for the U.S. to maintain a good military relationship with Turkey is to continue to allow Turkish military officers to train in the U.S., Rumsfeld said. He stressed that he is not part of the U.S. government’s thinking about the way forward with Turkey, but in general military relations can be the strongest ties the U.S. has with other countries.
Rumsfeld remembered the first time he met Anwar el-Sadat, then serving as Egypt’s acting president, who had trained in the U.S. as an Egyptian military officer.
"His only real impression of the United States was of the experience he had in some sort of a military-to-military linkage," Rumsfeld recalled.
At the time, Egypt was a Soviet client state, but Sadat told Rumsfeld the only objection he had with the U.S. was its foreign policy toward Israel. Within a year of becoming president, Sadat expelled all Soviet advisers from Egypt and the country became an important U.S. ally.
When Rumsfeld spoke recently at the National War College in Washington, D.C., officers from 17 countries were attending classes there, working with U.S. military officers, Defense Department civilians and other U.S. government officials.
"There is not a doubt in my mind that the military-to-military linkages that we develop when people are at that midcareer level have an enormous value for our country," Rumsfeld said.
When considering how to influence other countries, one of the last options U.S. policymakers should consider is cutting military ties, said Rumsfeld, who has lamented the U.S. government’s decision to end its military relationship with Pakistan following that country’s 1999 military coup.
"I find it really unwise to think that the first thing we ought to do every time some country does something we don’t like is to cut off military-to-military relations," he said. "That seems to me to be very short-sighted. It seems to reflect a feeling that we expect every other country in the world to behave the way we behave, or to have exactly the same values or the same approaches. That just isn’t realistic."
Defense News reporter Burak Ege Bekdil contributed to this story from Turkey.
Oriana Pawlyk covers Air Force deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime, and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at email@example.com.
Jeff Schogol covers Marine Corps leadership, gender integration, aviation and Pacific-based Marines for Marine Corps Times. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.