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Apr 30 2019

F-35 project would collapse without Turkey, says Erdoğan

(Updates with Erdoğan comments)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday the U.S. project to build F-35 advanced fighter jets would collapse without Turkey’s participation and excluding Ankara from the programme over its plans to buy Russian air defence systems would be an injustice, Reuters reported.

Turkey could be excluded from the manufacture of parts for the F-35 jets and face U.S. sanctions should it go through with its purchase of the Russian S-400 air missiles. U.S. officials say the S-400s could be used by Russia to collect data that would undermine the defences of the F-35s, 100 of which have been ordered by Turkey, but not yet delivered.

“Nowadays, we are being subject to a similar injustice, or rather an imposition, on the F-35s ... Let me be open: An F-35 project from which Turkey is excluded is bound to collapse completely,” Erdoğan said while speaking at a defence industry fair.

For two years, U.S. officials have been working to convince Erdoğan to cancel the S-400 deal, repeatedly threatening sanctions and Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 fighter jet programme as the expected July delivery of the S-400 looms.

The Turkish president said those trying to exclude Turkey from the F-35 project had not thought through the process and his country’s allies had disregarded its defence needs. Erdogan said, "we see that those who are trying to force us out [of F-35 project] still do not know where is this business going to end up."

But two U.S. sources familiar with the F-35’s worldwide production process last month told Reuters that Ankara did play an integral role in the jet’s production, but could be replaced.

“There are about 800 parts that Turkey makes for the F-35, and of them, very few are sole source,” said a person with direct knowledge of the U.S. position, explaining that single-source parts from Turkey could be replaced by contractors who had previously bid to make them. “Turkey is not too big to fail,” the person told Reuters.

Erdoğan’s latest comments, his strongest challenge yet to Washington’s warnings that Turkey could be removed from the F-35 project, come a day after he discussed the purchase of the S-400s and a proposal for a bilateral working group on the issue in a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump. Turkey has not received a response from U.S. officials on the proposal.

Turkey said two weeks ago it expected Trump to use a waiver to protect it against proposed U.S. sanctions for its purchase of the S-400s.

With his purchase of the Russian missiles, Erdoğan is accelerating his country’s shift away from NATO towards making it a client state of Moscow, said an analysis for U.S. news site The Hill.

“Neither carrots nor sticks have compelled Erdoğan to change course,” Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Greg Everett, a lawyer and energy analyst, wrote for The Hill on Monday. “The Turkish leader still believes that he can keep the S-400 and obtain a waiver on U.S. sanctions.”

But Erdoğan remained defiant, even faced with the possibility of sanctions.

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

The potential costs to Turkey’s defence sector are mounting, including up to $10 billion as a result of sanctions, blocking the delivery of F-35s Turkey has already paid for and removing Turkey from the programme in which it has invested more than $1.25 billion, the authors said.

“Erdoğan’s insistence on collaborating with Russia at NATO’s expense has deeply antagonised U.S. policymakers, compelling them towards new alliances that exclude Turkey,” Tahiroğlu and Everett wrote.

Meanwhile, tensions between the United States and Turkey risked fracturing the NATO alliance that keeps Europe safe, said an analysis for the news site Syndication Bureau.

“This spat has serious implications for Europe and EU countries. It risks fracturing an alliance that primarily keeps Europe safe and it is pushing a pivotal ally out of NATO and toward Russia,” Middle East commentator and investigative journalist Faisal Al Yafai wrote for Syndication Bureau on Tuesday.

“Despite legitimate distaste in European capitals toward both Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it is vital the EU makes it a priority to mediate in resolving this dispute,” he said.

NATO is Europe’s primary defence provider, and Turkey, with the alliance’s second-largest army, is crucial for the security of the continent, Yafai said.

“A Turkey outside NATO ought to be unthinkable for Europe. It would mean giving up the largest army this side of the Atlantic and ceding the heavily contested Black Sea almost entirely to Russia,” he said. “It would mean losing Turkey’s influence in the Middle East, and more particularly in the Balkan states, an area where Russia is actively seeking to undermine the EU.”