U.S. Freezes F-35 Parts Delivery to Turkey over S-400 Purchase

The fallout from Turkey’s procurement of the Russian S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile air-defense system continues to add to the growing strain on the once-solid Turkey-U.S. relationship.

After months of warnings and tense back-and-forth between Washington and Ankara over Turkey’s insistence on fulfilling its S-400 agreement with Russia, the Pentagon announced on April 1 that it had opted to halt delivery to Turkey of equipment related to the Lockheed Martin F-35.

Turkey is slated to serve as the regional hub for final assembly and checkout for the F135 engine used on the aircraft, as well as host of the regional maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade facility for the F135 engine.  In total, ten different Turkish companies participate in production of parts for the F-35, including the fuselage, landing gear and cockpit displays.

Hence, the freezing of parts delivery and activities related to Turkey’s own F-35 operational capability forces the Pentagon to adjust its F-35 supply chain and secondary sources of supply.

Turkey has previously committed to a purchase of 100 F-35A fighters and invested $1.25 billion into the program with a total of 30 scheduled for delivery through year-end 2022.

The first two fighters produced for Turkey were officially presented by Lockheed Martin on June 21, 2018, in a rollout ceremony at the company’s Fort Worth, Texas, facility.  These two fighters are currently used to train Turkish pilots and ground crew at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and were not expected to be delivered to Turkey until 2020 (though Turkish Defense Minister stated last month that Ankara was planning for the aircraft to arrive in November).

Turkish maintenance crews are also in the U.S., training for work on the F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

The issue of Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 has weighed on U.S. defense officials and those of its allies procuring the F-35.  Concerns that Turkey’s acquisition and operational use of the Russian system in parallel with the F-35 would provide Russia with a window into the aircraft’s sophisticated technology and vulnerabilities have been raised by Pentagon officials and government policymakers alike.  Furthermore, Russian contractors sent to support the installation and early operation of S-400 batteries in Turkey would also present an intelligence-gathering threat to U.S. interests.

U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s top general, advised lawmakers that deliveries of the fighter should be withheld if Turkey proceeds with its S-400 plans.

Turkish officials, on the other hand, insist that the deal continue, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu ruling out selling the system to an interested third party as a means of compromise.  Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has insisted that the S-400 deal remain in place and Ankara anticipates delivery of the Russian system as early as July.

Should delivery of the S-400 occur, there is no turning back on Turkey’s F-35 acquisition plans.

Blocking Turkish access to the aircraft is a bipartisan issue in Congress.  Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) stipulates that the President must impose sanctions on any entities that engage in a significant transaction with Russian intelligence or its defense sector barring the granting of an exemption by the appropriate Congressional committees indicating that a waiver is in the vital national security interest of the U.S.

Such an exemption is unlikely.  The imposition of sanctions would further stress the bilateral U.S.-Turkey relationship, which has already come under strain over a host of issues, including divisions regarding Syria, sanctions on Iran, broader Middle East policy approaches, and, most pressing to Erdogan, the extradition of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen from the U.S. to Turkey.

For Turkey and its populist president, the issue is one of national pride. The announcement in 2015 of the downselection of the Russian air-defense missile system drew immediate pushback from Turkey’s NATO allies who argued that the system could not be integrated with any Alliance missile defense architecture.  From the NATO perspective, the fear is that in the event of a crisis the standalone S-400 will not be able to act in concert with Alliance systems.

These concerns largely fell on deaf ears as President Erdogan seeks to chart an independent course for the country and pushes indigenous defense industrial efforts whenever possible.

The U.S. hoped to persuade Turkey to bypass the S-400 by offering up a potential discounted sale of a Patriot systems package in mid-December 2018, but Turkey instead remained keen on moving forward with the Russian deal.

To the impartial eye, it seemed as if Ankara was waiting for Washington to back down from threats to block any transfer of the F-35, only to receive indication of the first step in what appears to be an escalating standoff.

The question now is: Who blinks first?  From the looks of things, it appears neither side plans to do so.

About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is Forecast International’s director of military and defense markets. In this role, Dan oversees a team of analysts tasked with covering everything from budgeting to weapons systems to defense electronics and military aerospace. Additionally, for over 17 years Dan has, at various times, authored the International Military Markets reports for Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. Dan's work has been cited in Defense News, Real Clear Defense, Asian Military Review, Al Jazeera, and Financial Express, among others, and he has also contributed commentary to The Diplomat, The National Interest and World Politics Review. He has been quoted in Arabian Business, the Financial Times, Flight International, The New York Times, Bloomberg and National Defense Magazine. In addition, Dan has made guest appearances on the online radio show Midrats and on The Media Line, as well as The Red Line Podcast, plus media appearances on France 24 and World Is One News (WION).

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