Yaşar Yakış
Jul 19 2019

Turkey suspended from the F-35 fighter aircraft programme

The White House and the Pentagon on Wednesday announced that Turkey’s participation in the F-35 joint strike fighter programme had been “suspended”. Pentagon officials insistently avoided the word “terminated”.

The announcement was postponed twice, which means tough bargaining may have taken place between the White House and Pentagon and that the latter’s arguments may have eventually prevailed.

The announcement was followed by a press conference with the participation of two undersecretaries of defence, Ellen Lord for acquisition and David Trachtenberg for policy. They did not close the door on Turkey’s rejoining the program in some form, should it reverse the decision to buy S-400 air defence missiles from Russia. I do not see how this process could be reversed.

The move has several consequences for Turkey and the United States.

The consequences for Turkey are that it will not have one of the most advanced fighter aircraft in its inventory. This is a negative point, but Turkey’s air defence will not collapse because of this. Firstly, because the F-35 is an attack aircraft. If Turkey does not envisage attack missions against a country any time soon, there is no urgent need to use such an aircraft. Of course, a country like Turkey, with the second largest army in NATO, cannot stay without attack aircraft for a prolonged period. Therefore, it will have to meet this requirement one way or another in due course.

Secondly, the S-400s will meet Turkey’s needs to a certain degree, but the S-400 is a defensive weapon.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on several occasions that Turkey is also interested in participating in the manufacturing of Russia’s next generation air defence system, the S-500. To what extent Russia will be willing to share sensitive air defence technology with a NATO country is another issue, but if Erdoğan’s intention materialises, Turkey will further drift towards a Russian-manufactured air defence system.

For the United States, the most important effect is Turkey’s alienation from NATO. Some analysts in the United States and other NATO countries claimed that Turkey had become a liability rather than an asset for the alliance. There is no doubt that Turkey is an important asset for NATO, especially in the Middle East. This does not mean, however, that NATO cannot achieve what it wants in the Middle East without Turkey’s cooperation. But by cooperating with Turkey, it may achieve them more efficiently, with less cost and acrimony.

If Turkey’s alienation continues, it may lead to a change in the balance of power in the Middle East, and perhaps in the Balkans and Central Asia. A country the size of Turkey, located in strategically important volatile region will not stay in abeyance for long time. In other words, Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 programme may open a Pandora’s box with incalculable consequences.

Turkey’s suspension from the programme will also raise a set of complicated legal and technical problems, because Turkey is one of the co-manufacturers of the F-35s. Around 900 different components of the aircraft are manufactured by Turkish companies. For some of these components, Turkish companies are the sole manufacturers. Excluding them from the programme will raise several legal issues. Turkey has invested $ 1.2 billion in this project. It will have to be refunded. The withdrawal of Turkish companies will also cause delays in the delivery of the aircraft to countries that have also ordered it.

Turkey had placed an order to buy 100 F-35s. The suspension will cost a loss of billions of dollars to U.S. industry. Four of the F-35s have already been transferred to the Turkish Air-Force’s inventory, but they are still in the United States and will probably not be released. This will become another controversial issue.

An embargo imposed by the United States on Turkey in the 1970s because of Turkey’s military operation in Cyprus helped Turkey develop its own defence industry. The present suspension may also have just such a positive effect and further boost Turkey’s defence industry.

Because of its complex nature, this process needs to be de-emotionalised and managed with the utmost care. If this could be achieved, both sides may reassess more rationally the consequences of this row and set future relations on more solid and reasonable grounds.