The US move to prohibit Turkey from acquiring F-35 jets can be a major setback to NATO, as other world powers race to catch up.
The US is halting deliveries of the F-35 joint fighter and its components to Turkey following its claim that the Ankara's role in developing the stealth fighter jet poses risks to the programme.
Washington's move came after the Turkish government confirmed purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system.
“The United States has been clear that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is unacceptable,” said Acting Chief Pentagon spokesperson Charles E. Summers Jr., in a statement on April 1.
“Until they forgo delivery of the S-400, the United States has suspended deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability,” Summers added.
But the first two Turkish F-35 jets were already delivered in June 2018, already operational in Arizona where Turkish pilots train for their use.
An additional F-35 was delivered to Turkey on Wednesday for training at the same training facility in Arizona, despite of the halt on deliveries to Turkey.
Cutting Turkey out of the F-35 program poses serious risks to the sprawling supply chain used to maintain and build the stealth fighter jets.
F-35 program manager Vice Adm. Mathias Winter testified to lawmakers that “the evaluation of Turkey stopping would be between 50- and 75-airplane impact over a two-year period.”
Nearly 6 percent to 7 percent of the aircraft’s parts are made in Turkey, Winter said, warning that “we would see within 45 to 90 days an impact of the slowing down or stopping of those parts to the three production lines.”
What's the issue?
Turkey's decision to pursue the Russian S-400 missile systems has been controversial since it was first announced.
NATO allies have raised concerns about data security given that Turkey’s Defence Industries Undersecretariat plans to link the F-35 system to the Turkish Air Force network (HvBS).
This would be necessary to actualise the full potential of the stealth fighter which operates in tandem with information and battlespace awareness networks that guide its cutting-edge software.
US concerns are that with the S400 linked to HvBS, there is a major risk that data collected by the F-35 may end up being shared with Russia, which could compromise the fighter's operational effectiveness or its stealth signature.
But the Turkish government has rejected such claims, stating that the F-35 and NATO-integrated defence network would run on a separate network from the Russian S-400.
The F-35's makers have previously boasted that revolutionary technology ensures its radar signature is the size of a golf ball, ensuring stealth on critical missions, years ahead of other stealth fighters used worldwide.
Other concerns are that any F-35's operational in Turkey may be detected by its own S-400 radar systems, and that data could be used by Russia to improve detection and targeting of F-35.
In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month, U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, European Command commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, argued against the sale of the F-35 to Turkey if it acquired the S-400.
“My best military advice would be that we don’t follow through with the F-35, flying it or working with an ally that’s working with Russian systems”, he said.
Turkey inked a deal to acquire the S-400 missile system in September 2017, going on to make an advance payment for its delivery.
Only last week, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and emphasised that the S-400 acquisition would go ahead.
Turkey has “an agreement with Russia and we are bound by it,” said Turkey's foreign minister.
Turkey’s Defence Industries undersecretary expects the first batch of S-400 deliveries in July.
The US suspension of delivery comes just days before a meeting between NATO foreign ministers to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance.
What caused this?
On August 13 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law, which includes legislation calling for the delay in 100 ordered F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.
This came as a punitive measure against Turkey in an arm-twisting tactic to free American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was put under house arrest while awaiting trial on espionage and terrorism-related charges in Izmir province. Pastor Brunson has since been released.
Besides enforcing a delay on the F-35 deal, Washington doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium exports to the US, causing economic strain in several markets.
President Trump's erratic foreign policy moves have not only antagonised Ankara but also exposed NATO to a security threat.
But Turkey is more crucial to the development of the F-35 and its production than many let on.
A senior NATO military official, speaking to TRT World on condition of anonymity, warned of undesirable consequences if Turkey was removed from the F-35 program. The official said Turkey's removal would “violate the joint-development partnership agreement” and “undermine the United States’ legitimacy in NATO.” He further warned that “a delay would be a strategic risk and setback to NATO in the global race to deploy the fifth-generation stealth fighters, particularly as other world powers are rushing to deploy theirs.”
In a letter obtained by Bloomberg, US Defense Secretary James Mattis also urged caution, warning lawmakers against removing Turkey from the program, as it could cause “supply chain disruption” resulting in increased costs and delays for the $100 million fighter jet, which has already seen budget overruns and delays.
Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that this would result in “an aircraft production break,” delaying delivery and taking significant time to resource parts.
Mike Friedman, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson, confirmed Turkey’s essential position in the F-35 supply chain, citing 8-10 Turkish companies engaged in the production of parts for the F-35, some of which are important components.
Lara Seligman, Aviation Week's Pentagon correspondent, notes “the main European hub for the F-35’s engine repair and overhaul is in Eskisehir, in northwestern Turkey.” Moreover, publicly available data from Lockheed Martin states that as of August 13, 2018, over 310 F-35s from a planned 3,000 are already flying from 15 bases around the world.
In a comment to the Defence Post, Aaron Stein, Atlantic Council defence analyst, explains that Turkey is a single-source producer of key F-35 engine components and a secondary producer of its fuselage.
In light of this, the Department of Defense took steps to "ensure prudent program planning and resiliency of the F-35 supply chain.”
“Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk,” Acting Chief Pentagon Summers said in his April 1 statement.
“Secondary sources of supply for Turkish-produced parts are now in development,” he added.
As far back as July 2018 however, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned of significant delays if Turkish companies were removed from the F-35 program.
“If the Turkish supply chain was disrupted today, it would result in an aircraft production break, delaying delivery of 50-75 jets and would take approximately 18-24 months to re-source parts,” Mattis wrote to the House Armed Services Committee.
Turkish companies manufacture parts for the many variants of the F-35.
Forecast International states that Turkish Aerospace Industries manufacture center fuselages as a second-source supplier, and were expected to deliver 400. TAI also manufactures weapon bay doors, mounting pylons, air inlet vents and other key components.
Ayesas, another Turkish supplier, is the only supplier of the panoramic cockpit display, and the missile remote interface unit.
Alp Aviation produces metal airframe structures , landing gear parts, and F135 engine components.
Fokker Elmo Turkey (GKN), produces Electrical Wiring and Interconnection Systems (EWIS) for the F-35 and the F135 engine.
Turkey is also a Regional Maintenance, Repair, and Upgrade Facility for the F135.
Turkey itself is also home to the second largest land-based army in NATO after the US. With a hefty $100 million price-tag on the planes, the fighter jet’s production was only possible through shared funding and development by over 35 nations, including Turkey. The program is expected to cost $406.5 billion for acquisition and manufacturing, and an additional $1.1 trillion for operations and maintenance throughout its lifetime.
Experts argue that the political showdown revolves around the US evangelical voter base ahead of 2020 US elections, as a result of the United State's national spotlight cast on Pastor Brunson following his meteoric rise to the top of the US foreign policy agenda nearly a year and a half after he was charged with espionage and terrorism. Pastor Brunson has since been released.
“[The US] Congress and the administration are very sensitive towards their evangelical electoral base,” Brookings analyst Kemal Kirisci says.
This is consistent with key appointments of evangelicals by President Trump, notably US Vice President Mike Pence, former CIA director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as Sam Brownback, the US ambassador for international religious freedom.
"In every church in the country, people know the name Andrew Brunson," says Johnnie Moore, a member of the Evangelical Advisory Council who advises Mr Trump.
"The Brunson case was a call for evangelicals within the Republican base because you have a Christian pastor in a Muslim-majority country," says Amanda Sloat, senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. "It seems that's something Pence has been promoting right from the start."
The evangelical voter base has been crucial to Republican victories in the past, with analysts suggesting that Trump and Pence are catering to the demographic ahead of the 2020 Presidential race, in order to ensure continued Republican control of Congress.
In this light, Senators Thom Tillis and Jeanne Shaheen did not shy away from co-sponsoring the first F-35 delay, while the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) annual budget was being finalised in May 2018.
The evangelical attention given to Pastor Brunson’s release in exchange for allowing F-35 deliveries presented a significant bipartisan appeal to lawmakers, given that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republican nominee Trump, according to an exit poll. A poll conducted by PRRI suggests nearly 70 percent of evangelicals support Donald Trump for the 2020 elections.
The official explanation for the F-35 delay is linked to the Turkish bid to purchase the Russian S-400 missile system, arguing that it would hamper military coordination between Turkey and its NATO allies. The argument contradicts NATO ally Greece’s acquisition of the Russian S-300 missile system, which is universally recognised as a sovereign decision regarding national defence.
Dylan White, NATO press officer, responded to TRT World on the NATO position towards the S-400 sale. He reaffirmed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's position that member states have the sovereign right to make decisions regarding their military purchases and clarified that Turkey, a key NATO ally, would not be ostracised for seeking solutions for its national defence.
Turkish missile defence acquisitions have historically been a contentious issue, as the nation sought to bolster its domestic defence. In 2013, Turkey launched a tender aiming to purchase defence systems. A Chinese company, CPMIEC, offered the most affordable price, but the US pressured Turkey into dropping the deal based on sanctions on alleged missile sales to Iran. The blocked sale is seen as one of the many let-downs by allies, another one being previous withdrawals of deployed missile systems. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed this in a statement last Friday: "Do you know what they were doing when [southern Turkish provinces] Kilis, Gaziantep, Reyhanli and Kirikhan were being attacked by Syria with 127 rocket, artillery or mortar attacks, and seven citizens lost their lives, and 125 others were injured? They were pulling back air defence systems previously deployed in our country."
Hassan Imran, an independent analyst speaking to TRT World, notes that the US stance risks alienating newer NATO partners such as the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, who all employ a range of Russian weapon systems without facing challenges of interoperability or warnings of operational security. He says, “the current political climate only risks estranging newer NATO members and further undermining the alliance.”
“Turkey has long controlled the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s expansion and access into the Mediterranean. This is now a more significant concern with Syria’s concession of the Mediterranean naval base of Tartus to Russia.”
The anti-Daesh operations, he concludes, were only possible with NATO and US airpower operating out of Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase, a station for US nuclear weapons and thousands of US military personnel.