2 August 2019

Why Excluding Turkey From the F-35 Program Is the Right Call—and Sufficient

Richard Weitz 

On July 17, the U.S. announced that it had terminated Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program, five days after Ankara took delivery of components for four batteries of Russian S-400 air defense systems that Turkey purchased in 2017. The systems will not be assembled and operational until the fall, but in receiving the first shipment, Turkey ignored repeated warnings from Washington that it considered the presence of the S-400 to be incompatible with operating the F-35. 

The Trump administration gave several reasons for the suspension: the intelligence risk posed by the presence of an advanced Russian data-collection platform in a NATO country; Turkey’s refusal to accept a Western air defense system as an alternative; and the damage to NATO interoperability resulting from the deployment of a non-Western weapon system by a member state. 

Canceling Turkey’s planned purchase of more than 100 F-35s, as well as its participation in the production of many of the plane’s major components, is justified. Nonetheless, the United States needs to contain the damage to bilateral relations by eschewing additional harsh sanctions on Turkey, while also drawing the proper conclusions from the current dispute to avoid overinvestment in the F-35 program.

The S-400 is the most sophisticated Russian long-range air defense system available for export. Depending on the variant of the missile deployed on its mobile launchers, an S-400 battery can attack multiple aerial targets—including combat aircraft, short-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles—at ranges of up to approximately 248 miles (400 kilometers) and altitudes of up to 19 miles (30 kilometers). China was the first foreign country to receive the S-400; other states, including India, are also considering buying it. 

U.S. experts worry that operating these advanced systems near the F-35, which will be the mainstay of the U.S. and many Western air forces for decades, may compromise the plane’s innovative technologies, including its ability to avoid radar detection, known as stealth. Like most modern weapons platforms, the S-400 collects massive amounts of operational data, and its software is presumably still accessible to the Russian defense community. Besides whatever other defense secrets a S-400 located in a NATO country can compile, the Pentagon fears that Russian intelligence will learn how to track and destroy the F-35, information it might then share with China, Iran and others. 

There are several reasons for Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400, despite the cost of losing the F-35. First, the estimated price of the S-400, at around $2 billion to $2.5 billion, is cheaper than both the Patriot air defense system package offered by the U.S., valued at $3.5 billion to $4 billion, and the canceled HQ-9 contract offered by China for approximately $3 billion to $3.5 billion. Russia has further facilitated Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 by offering easy credit, subsidies, accelerated delivery and dubious pledges of substantial technology transfers.

Domestic political considerations have also made it difficult for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back down in the face of U.S. pressure. The losses suffered by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in recent municipal elections have energized his political opposition. With polls showing widespread support in Turkey for defying the U.S. and improving relations with Russia, Erdogan could use his public defiance of Washington to rally nationalist sentiment on his behalf.

Washington would be wise to seek to contain the fallout in bilateral relations with Ankara, while also filling the gaps that make lower-cost Russian systems more attractive.Furthermore, had Turkey acquired the F-35, it would have strengthened the Turkish air force, which Erdogan’s government has purged and weakened after some pilots bombed presidential targets during a 2016 coup attempt. In contrast, the S-400 will help defend government targets from a potential future air force revolt by making it easier to shoot down rogue Turkish planes, which NATO systems—because they are integrated into the same command-and-control systems—would identify as “friends” rather than foes. 

There are also broader political and economic motivations behind Ankara’s decision. Turkey and Russia have gone to great efforts to coordinate and deconflict their respective policies and military interventions in Syria. The fact that Erdogan, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, has demonstrated increasing hostility toward Western values and institutions also makes Russia a convenient option for enhanced engagement. Finally, although their current economic ties are modest, Turkey is angling to become a hub for Russian energy deliveries to southern Europe. Erdogan’s reluctance to abandon the S-400 reflects the fear that Moscow might retaliate by pursuing other energy partners, imposing fees and sanctions on existing bilateral energy trade, or challenging Turkey’s security interests in Syria.

Moscow is now seeking to exploit the rift between Ankara and Washington to induce Turkey to buy the Sukhoi-35, or Su-35, instead of the F-35. The Su-35 is equipped with advanced radar and robust armaments, as well as powerful twin Saturn engines that make it highly maneuverable. It lacks only the F-35’s stealth technology to be similarly classified as a fifth-generation plane. Russian arms dealers further suggest that Turkey could manufacture parts of the Su-35, which would provide an easy upgrade path to the Su-57, a genuine fifth-generation plane that is currently under development. 

Some U.S. lawmakers have called for punishing Turkey even more severely by applying the full range of measures provided for in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. By penalizing companies and countries that engage in a “significant transaction” with the Russian military-industrial complex, CAATSA aims to discourage purchases of Russian weapons. President Donald Trump’s reluctance to apply these additional sanctions is understandable. Depending on which measures the White House adopts under CAATSA, Turkey could lose infrastructure investments, bond underwriting, debt-service guarantees and access to the SWIFT international banking system.

Yet, the increased pressure is likely to drive Erdogan, who is expecting Trump to exempt Turkey from the most severe sanctions, further toward Moscow, rather than away from it. Turkey’s relations with Russia today are as fluid as its ties with the United States and Europe. Ankara is not preordained to align with Moscow and could easily drift back toward the West under a new government. Given the decades-long pattern of periodic crises in Turkish-U.S. relations followed by thaws, U.S. policymakers need to contain their ire—however justified—and hold the door open for improved relations in the future. 

By the same token, Congress’ imminent approval of more F-35s for the U.S. military than the Pentagon has requested is unwise. Besides the plane’s high cost and many technological challenges, the current dispute with Turkey has shown that the platform’s multinational partnerships, designed to secure a global Western “buy-in,” represent a vulnerability as well as a strength. Members of the F-35 consortium can leave the production chain for any reason at any time. Like Turkey, they might also try to exploit their participation in the F-35 program—and the threat that pulling out poses to its sales—to increase bargaining leverage with the U.S. on other issues. 

Instead, lawmakers should push the Pentagon to diversify U.S. air defense assets and exports to include additional systems that are less expensive, thereby providing more alternatives to allies and partners that might otherwise be tempted by Russian systems like the S-400. Turkey’s decision to follow through with its purchase of S-400 reflects not only tensions in U.S.-Turkish ties, but also the cost-prohibitive nature of the existing American arms catalogue. Washington would be wise to seek to contain the fallout in bilateral relations with Ankara, while also filling the gaps that make lower-cost Russian systems more attractive—not just to rivals like China and Iran, but also to allies and partners like Turkey and India.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.

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