Turkish air force officers once described the Joint Strike Fighter Program as a project that would “usher the Turkish air force into space.” Has this ambitious venture ended for good, now that the United States has booted Turkey from the F-35 program over its purchase of Russian air defense systems?
The White House announced on July 17 that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems rendered its “continued involvement with the F-35 impossible.” Turkey has been both a buyer and co-producer in the program. Ellen Lord, the US undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters that Turkish pilots and mechanics currently in the United States for training had been told to leave by the end of July and that the process of suspending Turkey would be completed by March 2020. Lord declined to comment on whether the suspension is reversible. Ankara believes it could reverse the move — with the help of President Donald Trump.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman protested that Washington’s decision was “inconsistent with previous statements by the two countries’ presidents.” The Foreign Ministry, for its part, stressed, “It is of great importance to maintain the understanding reached at the meeting between President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and President Trump” during the Osaka G-20 summit. Erdogan had claimed after the June 29 meeting that Trump had reassured him that Ankara would not face sanctions over its acquisition of the S-400s.
Ankara’s reactions suggest that it did not expect the suspension after all and is resentful that the anticipated support from Trump did not materialize, but nevertheless continues to count on the US president.
In remarks to reporters July 18, Ismail Demir, the head of Turkey’s defense industry administration, said, “They are using the term ‘suspension’ and not ‘removal.’ The Republic of Turkey and Turkish companies have fully carried out their obligations under agreements related to the F-35s and will continue to do so. Excluding Turkey from the F-35 partnership process is not a decision that one can make unilaterally. Turkish companies have not been notified of anything negative so far and are continuing to work on their orders.”
Turkish companies manufacturing parts for the F-35 jet include TUSAS-TAI, Kale Aerospace, Mikes, Alp Aviation, Aydin Software, Tubitak-SAGE, Roketsan and Havelsan. The matter will grow more serious for Turkey if the orders those companies have received are canceled in the coming days.
Erdogan has said the two S-400 fleets (four batteries) will be fully deployed in April 2020, giving Ankara time for fresh diplomatic efforts to seek a compromise.
In the best-case scenario, Washington’s decision is a “reversible” suspension that Turkey can fix by March 2020. Trump could impose delayed and soft sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to give Ankara wiggle room to roll things back. Ultimately, Ankara would not unpack the $2.5 billion S-400 systems and everyone — the United States, NATO, Turkey and Russia — would be happy.
Recalling that Turkey has already paid $1.25 billion for the F-35 project, sources in Ankara say that Turkey could claim the money back from the United States or even receive the first batch of 30 F-35 aircraft it had been promised. Alternatively, Ankara could take the matter to international arbitration should the United States reject such compromises.
For Turkish defense industry researcher Levent Ozgul, however, the signals from Washington are more serious. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ozgul stated that Washington’s decision amounts to Turkey’s definitive expulsion from both the F-35 Level-III partnership and co-production. Moreover, he believes the Turkish air force is now sidelined from the Pentagon’s order-delivery mechanisms and the Turkish military is sidelined from similar NATO processes, especially concerning air and ballistic missile defenses. That the Turkish military has already been excluded from some F-35 and NATO planning and execution mechanisms is an omen that the decision is of a permanent nature, he said.
“The decision has exposed Trump’s weakness as well,” Ozgul said. “The big wheel in Washington is spinning to Turkey’s detriment, despite Trump. He will probably acquiesce to that wheel again and impose the heavier CAATSA sanctions on Turkey.”
Ankara has cited three reasons to justify its S-400 purchase. The first is Moscow’s pledge of a technology transfer as Ankara wants to develop its own systems eventually. Second, Turkey wants to quickly strengthen its capabilities against growing ballistic missile threats in the region and believes the S-400 is the best system currently available on the market. The third argument is the West’s and especially the United States’ reluctance to grant Ankara’s extradition requests in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, thus forcing it to buy the S-400s. All those reasons are valid, but only one thing is certain regarding the purchase: The decision was made in meetings between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and no one knows exactly what the two discussed.
Like Ozgul, the Russian news network Sputnik seems convinced that Turkey is permanently booted from the F-35 program, for its Turkish-language site quickly switched to perception management, touting the Russian Su-35 jet in an article headlined “An Su-35 is worth five F-35s.”
Indeed, Russia now sees Turkey as a potential buyer of the Su-35 aircraft, which it has sold only to China thus far, though Azerbaijan, Egypt and Indonesia are also interested. According to a Moscow-based defense industry expert who requested anonymity, Russia might be willing to also supply Turkey with its short-range Tor-M3 surface-to-air missile systems as protection for the S-400s, which are relatively vulnerable, as well as the Pantsir-SM anti-aircraft systems. Such cooperation would further deepen Turkey’s bonds with Russia in terms of air and ballistic missile defense.
So what scenario should Ankara be betting on?
Ozgul believes the Turkish government should brace for bruising US sanctions. “By purchasing the S-400s, Turkey bit the forbidden fruit. This was the most advanced technology the Russians could sell. Ankara did it knowingly — it flouted the ban,” Ozgul said. Washington, he argued, will discredit its own deterrence and embolden others to buy Russian weaponry if it fails to retaliate. “Hence I believe Ankara should expect a stern implementation of the CAATSA and take precautions accordingly,” he said. According to Ozgul, the crisis will not be over soon and any renewed prospects of Turkey obtaining F-35s could emerge “in five to 10 years at the earliest.”
The Russian expert noted that sanctions under could also hit Turkish-US cooperation in modernizing the F-16 jets as well as other defense industry projects involving the Sikorsky S-70 and CH-47 helicopters and the Hurkus basic trainer aircraft. A bill introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) threatens to further aggravate the sanctions issue.
Still, Ankara seems to be clinging to hope of finding a compromise with Washington by March 2020 with the help of Trump.
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