In a move sure to test the boundaries of Turkey’s partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its alliance with the United States, the Turkish military this week began to take delivery of components of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. That move prompted the U.S. to oust Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Turkish pilots and technicians training in the U.S. will be sent back to Turkey by the end of the month.
Turkey was scheduled to take delivery of about 100 F-35s at a cost of some $1.4 billion. In addition, Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 program involved more than just the purchase of aircraft. Ankara was slated to provide some 900 components for the F-35, giving its defense industry and economy a significant boost. That will no longer occur and Lockheed-Martin has already formulated contingency plans so that production will not be impeded by Turkey’s removal.
Turkey’s ouster from the F-35 program was prompted by two overriding considerations. The first is grounded practicability. Standardization and compatibility are integral to NATO’s defense strategy. For logistical purposes, standardization of military equipment is favored when practicable. In addition, sophisticated weapon platforms need to be able to communicate with each other and uniformity facilitates this goal. The Russian S-400 throws an unfamiliar wrench into the wheels of a well-oiled machine.
More importantly, Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 jeopardizes the F-35 and its fifth generation stealth technology. This was the view expressed by White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, who noted that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter “cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.” Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Ellen Lord echoed that position.
Turkey or rogue elements within the Turkish military could in theory provide the Russians with ways to defeat the F-35’s stealth characteristics. American fear of this technology falling into the wrong hands does not stem from paranoia but is grounded in hard, cold truth and past experience. The Russians, whose Su-57 stealth fighter jet program is plagued with problems and is technologically inferior to the F-35, would like nothing better than to get their hands on an F-35 or alternatively, get their hands on information that could be useful in defeating the F-35’s stealth properties.
The Turkish government, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has proven to be untrustworthy and duplicitous. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the head of Turkey’s intelligence service and close ally of Erdogan, Hakan Fidan, passed to Iran sensitive intelligence collected by the U.S. and Israel. Moreover, Turkish intelligence betrayed the names of 10 Iranian assets who were working for Israeli intelligence. The Israeli spy ring was run out of Turkey and was considered highly effective until disrupted by Turkish perfidy. Turkey also helped Iran circumvent sanctions and provided aid and comfort to ISIS operatives, until ISIS turned on its masters in Ankara. Amazingly, despite Fidan’s treachery, which the Israelis made known to their U.S. counterparts, the Obama administration continued to deal with him on sensitive matters, and Obama considered Erdogan to be a key confidant. The two leaders cultivated a warm, friendly relationship.
But Erdogan’s procurement of the S-400 is bound to have other adverse consequences for Turkey and may run afoul of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Under the CAATSA, President Trump is authorized to impose additional economic sanctions on Turkey. In addition, Turkey’s ability to procure other weapon systems, like the dual rotor CH-47F Chinook heavy transport helicopter, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, and F-16 fighter jets, may be in jeopardy.
It remains to be seen how this saga will play out. Turkey’s foreign ministry characterized the U.S. action as “unfair” but its mercurial leader, who has often tested the boundaries of the NATO alliance by adopting policies running counter to NATO’s goals, remains undeterred by the F-35 embargo and the prospect of further U.S. sanctions. He has even expressed an interest in purchasing the Russian S-500, the successor to the S-400.
The Russians, who never miss an opportunity to exploit weakness in the alliance, have offered to supply the Turks with the Su-35 heavy multirole fighter jet, which is an advanced version of Russia’s Su-27 fighter jet. As Turkey’s relations with Russia, China and Iran continue to warm, the prospect of Turkey becoming more and more reliant on equipment from the east cannot be discounted.
It is clear that Erdogan is doing all that is within his power to distance himself from the West, and ingratiate himself with the West’s enemies. While Turkey is an important country due to its geographical location – it borders Europe and Asia and maintains boundaries with Syria, Iran and Russia – NATO must decide whether retaining this deeply problematic nation in the alliance is worth all the baggage that Erdogan brings to the table.
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