The US Senate's move to prohibit Turkey from acquiring F-35 jets can be a major setback to NATO, as other world powers race to catch up.
On August 13, 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.
The move was seen as the latest punitive measure against Turkey and yet another arm-twisting tactic to free American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who's been put under house arrest while awaiting trial on espionage and terrorism-related charges in Izmir province.
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.
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.
Turkey is 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.
The Trump Administration is using everything in their means to browbeat Turkey. The NDAA legislation also calls on US executives of the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to stand in the way of loans to Turkey in the coming future.
Experts argue that the political showdown has gradually centred around the US evangelical voter base, with increasing attention given to Pastor Brunson following his meteoric rise to the top of the US foreign policy agenda a year and a half after he was charged with espionage and terrorism.
“[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 is 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 2018 midterm primary elections, 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 F-35 delay, while the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) annual budget was being finalised last May. The focus on Pastor Brunson’s release presents 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."
To further justify the delay in the F-35 delivery, the US has also questioned Turkey’s loyalty towards NATO. The US Congress has warned that Turkey's access to the Russian-made S-400 missile system could jeopardise the NATO Integrated Air Defense System, by potentially leaking classified information regarding the F-35 stealth fighter aircraft to Russia. The Turkish government has rejected these claims, stating that the F-35 and NATO integrated defence network would run on a separate network from the Russian S-400.
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.