Turkey at strategic crossroads after US F-35 ultimatum

If Turkey was to do so, attaching premiums on what it sees as its strategic independence to break off with the United States, the road ahead would bring unpredictable risks and challenges.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Multirole stealth fighter. A pilot sits in the cockpit of a US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II jet fighter after landing during a preview at the Turku Airport in Finland. (DPA)
Multirole stealth fighter. A pilot sits in the cockpit of a US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II jet fighter after landing during a preview at the Turku Airport in Finland. (DPA)

Patrick Shanahan, acting US defence secretary, recently wrote to his Turkish counterpart and outlined an ultimatum for Ankara regarding its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

Shanahan’s letter stated that Turkey would be barred from participating in an annual F-35 event and that Turkish Air Force pilots training on F-35 aircraft in the United States would be asked to leave by July 31.

Reports stated that Turkey’s F-35 pilots have had their training suspended and it seems increasingly unlikely that Turkey’s first batch of F-35 aircraft will be allowed to be flown to the country this year as scheduled.

The past few months have seen senior US military leaders recommending moves to the US Senate Armed Services Committee that would block Turkish pilot training. Amid wider calls for the sale of F-35 aircraft to Turkey be cancelled altogether, some US legislators publicly warned Ankara that Turkey will either have the S-400 or the F-35 but not both.

Turkey has vowed to honour its contract with Russia and is gearing up to receive deliveries of the S-400 system beginning the end of July. Turkish calls for a joint technical committee with American counterparts to allay US concerns over the purchase have not been entertained in Washington.

The United States is convinced that Turkey’s S-400 purchase could enable Russia to closely observe the F-35 and work out how to track the stealth aircraft, expected to form the backbone of US air power for the next two decades.

Turkey, which has one of the largest fleets of the US-built F-16 aircraft, was planning to buy at least 120 F-35s — a number that was likely to grow. Turkey produces around 7% of the parts for the F-35, a US-led programme bringing together nine partner nations.

As a result, in addition to being denied the world’s most advanced multirole stealth fighter, Turkish defence industries stand to lose billions of dollars in revenue, jobs and access to advanced technical assistance.

Shanahan’s letter suggested that Turkey may also face sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Imposition of CAASTA against Ankara would effectively restrict Turkish-US defence cooperation in a wide range of sensitive areas and jeopardise the operational readiness of the Turkish military given its extensive inventory of US-manufactured systems.

Turkey-US relations have steadily deteriorated over the past few years as mistrust has grown, driven by disagreements across a range of issues but Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 effectively brought ties between the NATO allies to a strategic crossroads.

As a consequence of Turkey receiving the S-400 over the next few months, the future of its defence strategy could now be set for a dramatic redirection.

Turkey has a separate cooperation programme with the United Kingdom’s BAE Systems for its TF-X air superiority fighter but analysts said Turkey would be likely to turn to Russia for a closer replacement to the F-35.

In April, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested that, if the United States was to cancel its participation in the F-35 programme, Ankara could be forced to look elsewhere — including at Russia’s Su-57 next-generation stealth fighter.

Turkey’s supposed preference was to purchase the S-400 system and possibly procure US-built Patriots to meet its wider requirements for air and missile defence. Turkey said it selected the S-400 because Russia’s alternative offered better monetary value and greater technology transfer.

However, Turkey did not estimate that the S-400 would come at the cost of the F-35 and potential restrictions on defence cooperation with the United States. Turkey has time to change course but there are few indications that it intends to.

Russia could not only benefit from growing divergences in Turkish-US strategic ties but also from additional future sales of the S-400 or even the S-500 systems as well as a massive next-generation fighter aircraft programme. Unsurprisingly, with Moscow’s blessings, major Russian defence contractors are moving quickly to assure Turkish officials of their readiness to widen the scope of defence cooperation and trade.

Yet, if Turkey was to do so, attaching premiums on what it sees as its strategic independence to break off with the United States, the road ahead would bring unpredictable risks and challenges. Not least, as Shanahan alluded to, “over-dependence” on a resurgent Russia that continues to be identified by NATO as its primary military threat.

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