A Pentagon announcement was made on July 17 about removing Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program because of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement in response, in the later hours, asking the U.S. to revoke the decision “which will irreparably damage” the relations between the two NATO allies.
The Ministry said that it was “unfair” to remove Turkey as one of main partners of the F-35 program on the “claims” that the S-400s would jeopardize “sensitive information” about F-35s while being “irresponsive” to Turkish proposal to examine the case together with NATO showed the U.S. “bias” and “lack of will to resolve the matter in good faith”.
Stating that the “unilateral” move by the U.S. neither complied with the “spirit of alliance” nor was “based on legal grounds” the Turkish Foreign Ministry also said it was important to “remain faithful” to the “understanding at all levels” between the U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğanon June 29 in the premises of the G20 Summit in Osaka.
On July 17, it was first the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House which said that Turkey was an ally but that the Trump Administration could not let the F-35 jets go together with the Russian S-400 air and missile defense systems. The statement said that Trump has offered Turkey to sell Patriot missiles instead;Trump had communicated this offer in Osaka, on offer which had been denied to Turkey by his predecessor Barack Obama.
The White House statement was followed by a press briefing by the Department of Defense where the process of “unwinding” Turkey from the F-35 program was announced by Ellen Lord, the Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, who said that “Turkey cannot field a Russian intelligence–collection platform [S-400] in proximity to where the F-35 program makes repairs and houses F-35s.” David Trachtenberg, the undersecretary for Defense Policy said that the decision was taken “in alignment” with other partners of the F-35 program and U.S. still valued “strategic partnership” with Turkey in NATO which would remain “unchanged” in other areas. Then acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had told Turkish National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in a June 6 letter that if Turkey continued with the S-400 purchase, the U.S. would remove Turkey from the F-35 program and that the process would start as of July 31; he also added that the training program for the Turkish Air force personnel on the first two F-35s delivered to Turkey but were still stationed in the U.S. had already been suspended. Akar’s response to that was that it would be a serious mistake which could damage relations.
Trump’s words in Osaka on June 29 has caused Erdoğan to be hopeful that the U.S. President could find a way to soften the Congress attitude on F-35s and CAATSA threats. By then the delivery preparations of the S-400s have already started and the delivery of the first components have started on July 12; the 16thRussian cargo plane, an Antonov-124 was landed on the Mürtedair base near Ankara as the White House statement hit the wires on July 17.
The first reaction of the NATO Secretary–General Jens Stoltenberg to the U.S. decision to remove Turkey from F-35s came at a speech in the Aspen conference in Colorado: “I am concerned about the consequences of the Turkish decision because it means Turkey will not be a part of the F-35 program. It is no good; bad for all of us”. After his visit to meet Erdoğan in June, Stoltenberg has said that removing Turkey from F-35 program would weaken not only Turkish but also entire NATO defense.”
Turkey has been part of the F-35 program for 20 years. Ten Turkish companies are contributing to the supply chain and some parts of the plane have been uniquely produced by Turkish companies. Commissioned to buy 100 jets, Turkey has invested $1.4 billion in the project Erdoğan has said recently and fulfilled each and every obligation stated by the contract so far. “Turkey will certainly and regrettably lose jobs and future economic opportunities from this decision,” Pentagon undersecretary Lord said on July 17 briefing, “It will no longer receive more than $9 billion in projected workshare related to the F-35 over the life of the program”.
The attitude hardly matches the words that the U.S. would like to carry the “strategic partnership” with Turkey “unchanged”.
Turkish President Erdoğan has already started to question the strategic dimension of the partnership in his June 14 words that most of the threats to Turkey’s security came from Turkey’s western partners in the last years. The Foreign Ministry statement in July in response to the F-35 decision also mentioned the U.S. cooperation with the Syria branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Turkey’s number one security problem and the U.S. residence of the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen who is indicted to mastermind the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt to overthrow Erdoğan government. “The U.S. must show the importance it attaches to Turkey’s friendship not just with rhetoric but with actions,” the statement said.
In Turkish collective memory, to stop the delivery and seize an already paid defense requirement has an unpleasant meaning. In 1914 when the First World War started, the UK had stopped the delivery and seized two Turkish warships built in the British dockyards and that was a factor in the Ottoman government to get into the war in alliance with Germany.
In the near past, Turkey was subject to an arms embargo by the U.S. in 1975 following Turkey’s military intervention to Cyprus after a right–wing coup there threatening Turkish Cypriots lives in 1974 and a rift over opium farming in Turkey which resulted in the closure of all Turkish bases to U.S. military use.
Ankara may not let the F-35 removal decision remain unanswered, just as the U.S. did not let the S-400 procurement decision go unanswered. It will have serious consequences.
The next step to watch for could be the CAATSA sanctions on Turkey that Congress wants Trump to implement. It is rational to expect that the Trump Administration would not like to strangle Turkey with too strong economic sanctions and further push the country for more cooperation with Russia. Vladimir Putin was smart to take the opportunity and propose that Russia can sell its new–generation jets to Turkey; Erdoğan has already suggested that they can together develop and produce new weapon systems.
NATO Secretary–General is right to be afraid of more consequences which could weaken the Western alliance. But it seems there might be more to come.