F-35 jets and military relations between Turkey and Israel

Turkey was expelled from the F-35 programme after receiving the first batch of Russian S-400 air defence missile systems in July, and Turkish F-35 pilots and maintenance crew returned from training in the United States at the beginning of August.

However, Turkish authorities in their statements continue to say “Turkey is still a partner of the F-35 programme” and “Turkey hasn't given up on F-35 fighter jets”. 

Meanwhile, officials in Washington are not compromising their stance by saying “Turkey can have either the U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets or Russian made S-400 missile system, but not both”.

While Turkey is going through this process, Israel has procured 16 F-35I "Adir" and has begun to actively use these aircraft in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tehran in July that Israel’s F-35s can reach “anywhere in the Middle East,” as he stood in front of stealth F-35 fighter jets.

Four months before this muscle flexing by Netanyahu, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported that “the Israeli Air Forces (IAF) F-35 jets had penetrated into Iran’s airspace without having been detected, and circled high above Tehran, Karajrak, Isfahan, Shiraz and Bandar Abbas.”

Of course this claim wasn't confirmed by IAF as it is very secretive about its operations. For example, they admitted that they struck a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 by using Turkish airspace, a total of 11 years later, in 2018.

Thus, although it is not possible to confirm the operations of the Israeli F-35s precisely, the increase in the attacks on the Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria by unknown aircrafts after Netanyahu's announcement point to the active use of the F-35 Adir in the Middle East.

Moreover, Netanyahu appeared to hint that Israel was behind attacks against Iran-backed militias in Iraq. “Iran has no immunity anywhere” he told reporters, responding to a question about recent attacks on military sites in Iraq.

According to defence analyst Babak Taghvaee, IAF's pre-emptive strikes have increased after the procurement of F-35s, especially in Iraq.

“IAF's F-35s provided top cover and escort for F-16s during the airstrike in Syria in 2018 and 2019, but there is no confirmation about use of F-35s for bombing targets in Syria,” he said.

“I just know, they conducted four airstrikes against the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi ) in Iraq. I have confirmed reports about their use in Iraq,” he added. These attacks have been conducted after Netanyahu's show of strength in front of F-35s.

How can the presence of stealth F-35 jets affect military relations between Turkey and Israel, two countries with significant air forces in the Middle East?

Turkey-Israel relations have been on a downward spiral in the last 10 years, especially since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. During this period, trade relations continued whereas defence partnerships and military relations gradually decreased.

However, Turkey is no longer in need of this kind of support since Ankara partnered with Israel in important projects such as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAVs), the modernization of F-4 and M-60 tanks Turkey, now capable of such modernization activities on its own, pays special attention to its defence industry, especially strengthening the air forces.

Israel has the F-35I “Adir” jets equipped with their own home-made electronic equipment, while Turkey could not get the aircraft for the sake of S-400 long-range air defence system. Looking at the region, Israel has one of the world's best offensive aircraft and Turkey has one of the best air defence system, S-400 missiles, although it is not activated yet.

Even though both countries are possession of rival weapons, “Israel doesn't traditionally view Turkey as a country it needs to balance with in terms of power” said, Seth J. Frantzman, Middle East security analyst and author of “After ISIS: American, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.”

“Israel wants a qualitative military edge over adversaries and views Iran as an adversary,” he added.

He also argues that “It's not clear if Israel is affected by the changes in Turkey's particular stance regarding the F-35 or S-400. Whether or not Turkey ever gets the F-35, Israel's capabilities remain the same as does Israel's abilities to confront its adversaries.”

Whether this will affect the balance of power in the region will be seen in the following days.