Pentagon Moves Closer To Cutting Turkey’s Role In The F-35 Program If It Buys S-400 SAMs

Turkey remains steadfast in its plans to purchase the air defense systems as its relations with the United States remain cool.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Turkey photo


The U.S. government could reportedly reexamine Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program if that country goes ahead with its purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. But even if that particular issue is resolved, there could still be major hurdles in unfreezing deliveries of the jets to the Turkish Air Force.

The potential for a change in Turkey's status as a central partner in the Joint Strike Fighter project was among the core statements in a two-page unclassified summary of a report the Pentagon had submitted to Congress regarding the issue on Nov. 15, 2018, which Bloomberg obtained. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2019 Fiscal Year, members of Congress included a demand for Secretary of Defense James Mattis to submit a report by the end of 2018 detailing, among other things, the risks associated with Turkey’s planned purchase of the S-400s and the impact on the F-35 program if Turkey was to stop being a participant. It is not immediately clear if this summary had come attached to the report or if Congressional staff had produced it afterward.

“The Turkish government has repeatedly and publicly stated that it has concluded an agreement to procure the S-400,” the summary says, according to Bloomberg. “The [Trump] administration will reassess Turkey’s continued participation as one of the eight partner nations should they continue their purchase of the S-400.”

Congress had frozen the transfer of any of any F-35s to the Turkish Air Force until it had at least received this assessment. There is no requirement that they following the Pentagon's recommendations, though. It is also a significant shift in tone from Mattis, who had previously argued stridently against Congress' moves to cut Turkey out of the F-35 program.

An artist's conception of a Turkish F-35A Joint Strike Fighter., Turkish MND

The U.S. government’s top concern, which a number of other NATO members share, is that Turkish military’s simultaneous operation of the S-400 and the F-35 could expose sensitive details about the latter’s performance against a major potential threat. Turkey has pledged to purchase up to 100 of the stealthy fighter jets. At the same time, Turkey is a major partner in the Joint Strike Fighter program, with Turkish companies building components for all three variants of the stealth fighter, including those in U.S. service.

In some cases, those firms are the sole supplier. Turkey has invested more than $1.25 billion in the project and has expected to reap a much larger windfall during the aircraft’s worldwide service life as a producer of parts for new jets and replacement components. The United States could potentially seek to censure Turkey without withholding the F-35s entirely by simply scaling back the country's involvement in the supply chain. But these disruptions could be costly for the program, which has spent considerable effort in recent years in trying to rein in the unit price of the individual jets and drive down sustain expenses.

But the United States’ opposition to Turkey’s S-400 buy has been building since the Turkish government first formally announced the purchases more than a year ago. In 2015, the U.S. government succeeded in pressuring Turkey to abandon a previous plan to procure Chinese surface-to-air missile systems over similar concerns.

Turkey has rejected past offers to buy the Patriot surface-to-air missile system in the past, citing cost and an unwillingness on the part of defense contractor Raytheon to provide industrial cooperation opportunities for Turkish companies. Unless something changes, the Turkish Military expects to get the first S-400s in 2019. But earlier in November 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu indicated his country was still interested in potentially purchasing American air defense systems.

A transporter-erector-launcher associated with Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missile system., Vitaly Kuzmin

“The current deal is a done deal – I cannot cancel it,” Cavusoglu said. “But I need more. I prefer to buy from my allies.”

The tough talk in the summary is at odds with a statement from the office of Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, that came out after the Pentagon delivered the full, classified report to Congress on Nov. 15, 2018. Tillis, along with New Hampshire Democrat Senator Jean Shaheen, had been the primary sponsors of the NDAA provision blocking the delivery of F-35s to Turkey over the S-400s and other issues.

“It appears that DoD has determined that Turkey has met its obligations to purchase F-35s pursuant to the provision in the NDAA,” the statement from Tillis' office read. “The release of Pastor [Andrew] Brunson was a positive step that opens up the opportunity for improved relations between the US and Turkey. There are still some outstanding issues that must be addressed moving forward, including Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 from Russia and Turkey’s detention of other American citizens.”

North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis., Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Brunson, an evangelic Christian minister who had been living in Turkey for years, was swept up in the crackdown that followed an abortive coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016. Authorities charged him with terrorism-related crimes, which he strenuously denied. A Turkish court convicted him of the charges on Oct. 12, 2018, but released him immediately from house arrest afterward, citing time served and good behavior. This decision seemed to be carried out in exchange for the U.S. government relaxing various economic sanctions against Turkey.

Still, in addition to the S-400 issue, the Fiscal Year 2019 NDAA had specifically name-checked Brunson, as well as Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American scientist who was also arrested in the aftermath of the failed coup. Golge remains in custody.

Andrew Brunson, at left, meets with US President Donald Trump at the White House after his release in October 2018., Olivier Douliery/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

U.S.-Turkish relations remain generally strained over a host of other issues, as well. In August 2018, a group of pro-Erdoğan lawyers demanded Turkish authorities raid the American portion of Incirlik Air Base in the city of Adana, accusing various members of the U.S. military, without verifiable evidence, of having colluded with the coup plotters two years ago.

Erdoğan’s administration also claims that Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric and one-time political ally of the president, was behind the attempt to overthrow the country’s government. Gülen is a critic of the present Turkish government and lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.

Earlier in November 2018, the State Department said it was reviewing the latest extradition request from Turkey. The U.S. government has rejected previous requests, citing a lack of compelling evidence linking Gülen to the attempted coup and concerns about whether he would receive a fair trial.

Lastly, despite attempts in recent months to ease the tensions, the United States and Turkey remain at odds over the former’s support for the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish rebel group in Syria, better known by the acronym YPG. The Turkish government views these individuals as terrorists inseparably linked to other Kurdish militants waging an insurgency against the government in Ankara.

American and Turkish forces conduct a joint patrol in Northern Syria in November 2018., US Army

“Those who call themselves our ally and strategic partner have an opportunity to carry our relations to the future,” Erdogan told members of his political party in parliament in a televised address on Nov. 27, 2018. “If they revert from protecting terrorists that are targeting our country, then we will understand that they are siding with Turkey. Otherwise, we will do whatever is necessary for our own sake.”

The United States has been working to establish joint patrols with Turkish forces in sensitive areas in Syria to help reduce the animosity, as well as setting up new outposts along the Syrian-Turkish border to try and contain the flow militants back and forth. At the same time, the U.S. military says its forces often come under fire from Turkish-backed militia groups in the country, underscoring the complex nature of the situation.

Still, the summary of the Pentagon’s report on Turkey and the F-35 declares the country as “a critical NATO ally.” This may be another important factor in how the United States approaches its relationship with Turkey.

A recent naval skirmish between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait separating the Black Sea from the Azov Sea has inflamed tensions between those two countries and earned the Kremlin widespread condemnation, including from NATO and the United States. Turkey occupies a particularly strategic location for the alliance in the region.

All told, there are now a variety of factors beyond what may or may not happen with regards Turkey’s planned purchase of the S-400 that could impact Congress’ final decision about whether or not to lift their hold on the delivery of F-35s to Turkey. It remains to be seen whether Senator Tillis’ initially positive outlook on the situation will continue to hold in the near future.

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