Right On Cue, Russia Says It’s Ready To Offer Turkey Su-57 Fighters In Place Of F-35s

The Kremlin says a potential deal might include industrial offsets, local production, and even technology transfer.

byTyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick|
Russia photo


Just as The War Zone

predicted a month ago, Russia has waded deeper into the rift between the U.S. and Turkey over the sale of Moscow's S-400 air defense system to Ankara and the resulting U.S. embargo on F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey. The head of Russia's top state-run industrial conglomerate Rostec has now stated it is ready to cooperate with Turkey on the export and production of their Su-57 advanced fighter jet to fill the hole left by the F-35.

"These fifth-generation Russian fighter jets [the Su-57] have outstanding qualities, and show promise for export," Rostec chief Sergey Chemezov said in an interview with Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency media outlet on May 2. He said that Russia was "ready to cooperate" on possible sales to Turkey of the jets if the country's planned F-35 purchase order collapsed and added that the Kremlin would "gladly evaluate" the possibility of local production or transfer of certain technology to "support Turkey’s desire to develop its own defense industry."

As it sits now, if Turkey continues with its purchase of Russia's S-400 system, instead of buying a Western alternative, such as the Patriot system from the United States, the country will not only be kept from receiving the 100 F-35As it has had on order for many years, but it could also lose its industrial participation in the program that is worth billions of dollars. With the S-400 delivery appearing imminent, this looks more likely to occur than not. 

President Recep Erdogan recently lambasted Washington's decision to withhold Turkey's F-35s over the S-400 deal, with Reuters quoting him as such:

Speaking at a defense industry fair, Erdogan said those trying to exclude Turkey from the F-35 project had not thought the process through, and were ignoring its interests.

“We were surely not going to remain silent against our right to self-defense being disregarded and attempts to hit us where it hurts,” Erdogan said. “This is the kind of process that is behind the S-400 agreement we reached with Russia.”

“Nowadays, we are being subject to a similar injustice - or rather an imposition - on the F-35s ... Let me be frank: An F-35 project from which Turkey is excluded is bound to collapse completely,” Erdogan said, adding that Turkey was also rapidly working to develop its own air defense systems.

Turkey has at least eight major contractors involved in producing portions of the F-35, as well as associated systems, according to the prime contractor Lockheed Martin. These companies have been set to make billions from this work, significant industrial offsets for Turkey, who was one of the first foreign partners to join the Joint Strike Fighter program. Turkey's Undersecretariat for Defense Industries says the country has supplied more than $700 million in parts and services so far.

But all this is in jeopardy now, primarily over the S-400 sale. On top of that, the U.S. government has increasingly found itself in a broader dispute with its long-time NATO ally over a variety of issues. These including the detention of American citizens in the aftermath of a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016 and Turkey's spurious allegations that members of the U.S. military personnel and other American officials were involved in that abortive attempt to overthrow the government.

F-35A., Raytheron

Members of Congress are already looking to make the embargo on selling the F-35 to Turkey over the S-400 permanent. Just on May 3, 2019, members of the House of Representatives announced the proposed “Protecting NATO Skies Act of 2019,” which would do just this. This is a companion bill to one already making its way through the Senate. The Pentagon is already engaged in discussions with Lockheed Martin and other contractors about alternatives to Turkish suppliers to ensure there are no disruptions to the Joint Strike Fighter Program if Turkey ends up kicked out.

Until a formal ban comes into force, Turkey remains set to purchase 100 F-35s. So, it's hardly surprising that Russia is interested in offering to fill in if the deal finally falls through completely. The cash-strapped Russians have struggled to support the Su-57 program as it is, taking delivery of less than a dozen pre-production examples of the jet between January 2010 and January 2018. 

Last year, the Kremlin announced that it would place an order for just 12 more aircraft and defer large-scale production of the type indefinitely. This followed news that India, Russia's only foreign partner on the program, had abandoned the project. Now, curiously, Russia is reportedly not including any of its existing Su-57s in the upcoming annual May Day parade in Moscow that commemorates the country's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II and is an opportunity for the Kremlin to show off new weapon systems. The advanced fighter jets have made regular appearances at this event in recent years.

There have been reports that Russia may be courting China as a potential new foreign partner in the Su-57, as well. It's not clear if the Chinese, who have two different stealth fighter designs already flying, including one of which that is in service, would be interested in acquiring another advanced fighter jet.  At the same time, China has bought Su-35 Flanker Es despite also building other Flanker clones domestically and a Su-57 deal involving some amount of technology transfer, such as advanced jet engine technology, an area where China continues to lag behind its competitors, could be attractive.

Regardless, Turkish involvement on a scale similar to the country's participation in the F-35 program could still provide a much-needed cash infusion into the Su-57 program and could help support other associated developments, such as specialized ordnance. As Chemezov noted to Anadolu, Russia could offer a very attractive package that also includes industrial offsets and the potential for other local cooperation, including on Turkey's own indigenous TF-X fighter jet effort.

It's important to note that the Su-57 is not on par with the F-35, but could also still offer an important boost in capabilities for the Turkish Air Force if all of its features work as intended. You can read more about the actual abilities of this often misunderstood aircraft in this past feature.

UAC Aircraft Corporation

As has been the case for months now, the biggest question remains just how far Turkey is willing to distance itself from the United States, as well as NATO, many members of which have also been critical of the S-400 purchase. Buying advanced Russian fighter jets could only compound Ankara's strained relationship with the Alliance as a whole and could drive new efforts to block the country's participation in other weapon system programs and other military cooperation efforts. This could further prompt calls for the U.S. military to discontinue its use of Incirlik air base, which hosts American nuclear weapons, as well as other American facilities across the country.

With Turkey looking set to recieve S-400s soon and American legislators pushing toward making the embargo against selling F-35s to that country a matter of law, we may not have to wait much longer to see how Turkish authorities respond and whether the Turkish Air Force might end up forgoing its planned Joint Strike Fighter squadrons for units equipped with Russian Su-57s.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com