F-35s would have made Turkey’s air force the region’s best - analyst

By taking delivery of Russia’s S-400 missile system, Turkey has not only disrupted the supply and manufacturing chain for the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter, but also lost its ability to add the next generation of fighter aircraft to its air force, said an analysis for Stratfor Worldview. 

Washington’s removal of Turkey from its F-35 programme last month will prevent Turkey from receiving the 100-plus F-35s it had planned to buy and remove Turkish contractors from the F-35 production chain. Turkey’s plan to host a maintenance base where regional countries could get their F-35s serviced was also cancelled. 

“Income derived from servicing F-35s from countries such as Israel would have cancelled out the purchase cost of Turkey's own F-35s,” Sinan Ciddi, visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, wrote for Stratfor

“In a broader perspective, Turkey has chosen to purchase a tactical weapon, the S-400, that may provide a modicum of security under a limited set of circumstances over acquiring the F-35, which would have given Turkey's air force regional dominance,” he said. 

Turkey has limited options to replace its aging F-16 fighters, but since the S-400 will not be operational until at least April 2020 it is possible Turkey is playing for time.

Turkey could delay making the S-400s operational or even sell them to a third party, which could explain why Trump has asked to negotiate with Turkey before implementing sanctions.

“From the U.S. perspective, there is a genuine desire to avoid disrupting the supply and production cycle of the F-35 that would ensue if Turkey were actually removed from the programme,” said Ciddi. 

There is also the issue of Turkey’s possible response, beginning with the likely expulsion of U.S. forces from Incirlik air base, disrupting U.S. military operations in the region.

For Turkey, being removed from F-35 production cycle means its defence contractors lose close to $10 billion in revenue, which is likely to prove catastrophic for many, while a possible arms embargo could cripple the country’s military readiness, according to Ciddi. 

All this comes as Turkey’s decision to begin drilling for hydrocarbons off the coast of Cyprus has prompted EU sanctions. Turkey argues that any hydrocarbons found in the country's exclusive economic zone belong to all Cypriots, not just those in EU-member Republic of Cyprus. 

“While Turkey may have a valid point, its drilling activities are perceived to be hostile and belligerent,” said Ciddi. “With the deepening bilateral U.S.-Turkey crisis, it is also clear that Turkey would not trust the United States to mediate if an unexpected conflict arises.”

Turkey will not be ousted from NATO, according to Ciddi, but will likely be removed from key NATO programmes, missions and intelligence platforms, as the deployment of the S-400 is a direct threat to NATO's operational security. 

The United States may seek to dissuade other countries interested in the S-400, like Egypt and China, by making an example out of Turkey.

“The loss of trust between the United States and Turkey is real and will be hard to soon re-establish in any substantive form,” said Ciddi. “The question of whether the S-400s will actually be operational still stands, however.”