Intel: The Pentagon won’t abandon Turkey despite tensions

al-monitor A US Air Force F-35A Lightning II fighter flies over Amari air base, Estonia, April 25, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Ints Kalnins.

Oct 2, 2018

Turkey will get two more F-35 joint strike fighters in March 2019, the program’s director Vice Adm. Mat Winter said Monday, despite pressure from Congress to rethink the deal.

Why it matters: The news is a sign that the US-Turkish military relationship remains intact despite rapidly deteriorating diplomatic ties. The Donald Trump administration has sanctioned top officials over the jailing of US pastor Andrew Brunson and slapped new tariffs on Ankara in August. But the Pentagon insists that Turkey remains set to acquire 100 of the fifth-generation stealth fighters.

“I don’t see any indication at this time of any change to the delivery of their 100 jets,” Winter said.

Former Defense Department officials told Al-Monitor that the production line for Turkish jets won’t stop unless the White House orders it to shut down. “What you’re seeing is the program continuing on track the way it was designed,” said David Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has also urged Congress not to remove Turkey from the F-35 program, saying it would cause delays to the entire program.

Damned if you do: The new F-35s would be delivered to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for flight training alongside two jets that Turkey acquired earlier this year. Barring new legislation from Congress or State Department sanctions, the first two are set to join the ranks of the Turkish Air Force next summer or fall.

Yet experts warn that with Turkey moving ahead with a $2.5 billion purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, the Russian military could train its radar to accurately identify the stealthy American jet if the two systems operate side-by-side.

“If you do it enough times, you’ll be able to know that an aircraft is a mile away or a half-mile away,” said John Venable, a retired Air Force colonel who is now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “You just refine your system to where you’re able to see it. This is a real threat to the [F-35] system.” 

Damned if you don’t: Turkey is also a NATO ally and has been a member of the F-35 program since 1999, designing the fuselage and other components for the aircraft. Nixing the sale could do further damage to the longstanding relationship, even if current hang-ups including pastor Andrew Brunson’s detention and US support for Syrian Kurds are resolved.

“Everyone likes to delve into specific details, but the relationship with Turkey to the NATO alliance is extraordinarily important from a geopolitical perspective,” said Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in the Washington area. “Politicians come and go, but military-to-military relationships tend to last longer.”

What’s next: The Pentagon is on the clock, facing a 90-day deadline to give lawmakers a report on the impact of removing Turkey from the F-35 program.

Know more: Check out Al-Monitor’s stories on the rising congressional pressure on the Pentagon’s F-35 sale to Turkey here and here.

Jack Detsch