President Donald Trump's administration announced in mid-July that the United States was removing Turkey from its F-35 fighter program after Turkey received its first shipment of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. The U.S. decision will prevent Turkey from taking delivery of any of the 100-plus F-35s it had planned to buy. What's more, the White House's decision also removes Turkish contractors from the F-35's production chain.
Turkey was also slated to host a maintenance base where Middle Eastern countries that had F-35 fleets could get their planes serviced. This plan was also canceled. It's estimated the Trump administration's move will cost the United States $500 million. As for Turkey, it already has paid more than $1 billion toward its planned purchase of the F-35, money it may not get back.
Playing for Time?
By taking delivery of the S-400, Turkey not only appears to have disrupted the F-35's supply and manufacturing chain, but it also lost its ability to add the next generation of fighter aircraft to its air force inventory on a revenue-neutral basis: Income derived from servicing F-35s from countries such as Israel would have canceled out the purchase cost of Turkey's own F-35s. And in a broader perspective, Turkey has chosen to purchase a tactical weapon — the S-400 — that may provide a modicum of security under a limited set of circumstances over acquiring the F-35, which would have given Turkey's air force regional dominance.
At this point, it remains unclear what Turkey's procurement options are. Its F-16 fighters are aging and its fleet of F-4 and F-5 fighter-bombers is obsolete (with several units crashing in the past few years). Immediately beginning with the delivery of S-400 components in mid-July, Russia began to broadcast its readiness to begin discussions with Turkey about the sale of Russian fighters.
Although S-400 deliveries to Turkey have begun, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that the entire delivery of components and missiles would not be completed until April 2020. That the S-400 system likely will not be operational before then begs the question of whether Turkey is playing for time. The U.S. Congress has indicated that Turkey will face significant sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if it deploys the S-400. What if Turkey were to delay making the systems operational, or even sell them to a third party? It may be for these reasons that Trump has asked for space to negotiate with Turkey before implementing sanctions.
From the U.S. perspective, there is a genuine desire to avoid disrupting the supply and production cycle of the F-35 that would ensue if Turkey were actually removed from the program. A further concern focuses on what Turkey might do if sanctions are immediately imposed: Erdogan has stated clearly that if the United States takes such measures, then Turkey would respond in kind, beginning with the likely expulsion of U.S. forces from Incirlik air base, which could disrupt U.S. military operations in the region.
By taking delivery of the S-400, Turkey has lost its ability to add the next generation of fighter aircraft to its aging air force inventory.
From Turkey's perspective, the damage could also be very real: Just being removed from the production cycle means that Turkish defense contractors would lose close to $10 billion in revenue, which is likely to prove catastrophic for many. Moreover, the Turkish military could find itself dealing with an arms embargo similar to the one it faced in the mid-1970s when Congress banned the sale of U.S. weapons to Turkey following its invasion of Cyprus. It would likely cripple Turkey's military readiness if it is unable to source U.S. parts and software updates for its existing inventory.
These variables loom at an inopportune moment. Turkey's decision to begin searching for hydrocarbons off the coast of ethnically divided Cyprus prompted the European Union to sanction Ankara because it considers the EU member's internationally recognized government in the Greek-majority southern part of the island nation to have exclusive rights to those Eastern Mediterranean waters. Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot administration in the breakaway northern part of Cyprus and argues that any hydrocarbons found in the country's exclusive economic zone belong to all Cypriots; the government's drilling activities are only benefitting Greek Cypriots, Turkey says. While Turkey may have a valid point, its drilling activities are perceived to be hostile and belligerent. In the event of a conflict between Turkey and another European power, what will be the position of the United States? This is a clear unknown. In previous years, the United States has mediated and de-escalated contentious issues, but U.S. policy under Trump has resulted in regional disengagement. With the deepening bilateral U.S.-Turkey crisis, it is also clear that Turkey would not trust the United States to mediate if an unexpected conflict arises.
What is off the table for sure is Turkey being ousted from NATO. The F-35 debacle, however, will likely result in Turkey being removed from key NATO military programs, missions and intelligence platforms as the deployment of the S-400 system is a direct threat to NATO's operational security. Even if Trump holds off in pressing ahead with sanctions in the immediate term, such delay is unlikely to continue. Independent of Turkey, countries such as China and Egypt are also interested in purchasing the S-400 system. If they are not disincentivized by making a clear example out of Turkey, it could open the floodgates and allow allies to buy weapons that are not manufactured by the United States. Congress isn't likely to tolerate or accept this.
In the final analysis, the wider picture is clear: The loss of trust between the United States and Turkey is real and will be hard to soon reestablish in any substantive form. The question of whether the S-400s will actually be operational still stands, however.