Turkey's Slow-Cooking Crisis With Its Allies Is Coming to a Boil
Ankara just got its first F-35. It may never get another.
Turkey’s slow-cooking crisis with its NATO allies over its decision to purchase Russian-made S-400 air defense systems is finally simmering into a boil.
The House’s version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, passed last month, had already expressed concerns about the S-400s, as well as the overall state of U.S.-Turkey relations, and instructed the Defense Department to prepare a report assessing the possible consequences of F-35 sales to Turkey. The Senate’s version, passed on Monday, went a step further: it recommends blocking F-35 sales and imposing sanctions per the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if Ankara goes through with its S-400 deal.
This is no small thing. Turkey is the largest Tier 3 partner in the F-35 program and has contributed close to $200 million to the fifth-generation fighter jet’s development. It is also NATO’s second-largest army, a longtime customer of the U.S. defense industry, and home to strategic military assets like the Incirlik Air Force base and NATO early-warning radars. If the crisis escalates further, it is likely to have severe reverberations.
As many have warned, this crisis was years in the making. Turkey’s thawing relations with Russia and Washington’s embrace of Syrian Kurds are major sources of friction, but hardly the only ones.
At the same time, it was by no means inevitable. It was an extraordinary blunder on Ankara’s part to expect that it can get away with its S-400 deal. The F-35 program has been beset with cyber-security concerns––particularly over potential vulnerabilities in its Autonomic Logistics Information System, the cloud-based computer network which continuously tracks the jet’s overall status and feeds information to ground operators. These problems have been documented and discussed from the U.S. Government Accountability Office to the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation to the U.K. House of Commons. Even in the best of times, such concerns would have left the allies worried about F-35s and S-400s hooked up into the same system lest it exposes sensitive data related to F-35 capabilities.
Yet the West bears some blame as well. Turkey's long quest for affirmation as an equal partner in the transatlantic alliance and the double standards it perceived in how its allies are handling its interests were at the core of the frictions over its air defense program. With Russia’s growing footprint, the security situation in Syria and Iraq, the expanding missile programs of other regional powers, and its aspiration for defense indigenization, Turkey’s demands were not unforeseeable and its discontent, while perhaps excessive, were not ungrounded. Had the West offered Ankara the affirmation it needed—in the form of better technology transfer conditions, a Foreign Military Sales agreement, a side deal, or even just a pat in the back—it might have been possible to keep things from spiraling out of control.
So where from here? Despite the lawmakers’ votes, Turkey received its first two F-35s in a Thursday ceremony at Luke Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas. In private conversations with the authors, senior defense officials from both Turkey and the U.S. intimated that they do not expect this week’s developments to prevent Turkey from acquiring F-35s. As reported in the media, Turkey and the U.S. have been negotiating since early spring for a new deal that would have Turkey walk away from its S-400 deal with Russia in exchange for U.S.-made Patriots. Though the plans are far from finalized, the officials foresee a scenario where Turkey would cancel its existing contract, forfeit the undisclosed amount it paid Russia as a down payment, and receive four Patriot batteries instead. Under this arrangement, the first pair of Patriots is expected to be an off-the-shelf unit that will be delivered within a few years of the deal; the second pair will be jointly produced under as-yet-undetailed technology-transfer conditions.
The Congress’s maneuvers can be interpreted as adding pressure on Turkey in the arms negotiations and other issues — or as a gesture of disapproval about the negotiations, aimed at the White House and the Department of Defense. Neither case suggests a neat, easy solution lies ahead.
In the former scenario, it is doubtful that Turkey can and would come closer to the U.S.’s terms in the few months until the Pentagon completes its assessment of the risks of F-35 sales and other defense cooperation. Turkey will hold elections this weekend, and it seems likely it will be surprisingly close. Even if President Erdogan gets reelected, divided government is a real possibility. Erdogan may try to turn the attendant political gridlock to his advantage by doubling down on his anti-American rhetoric and taking more aggressive action against the Kurds both inside and outside Turkey to rally the nationalist vote. Such a turn would undoubtedly take a toll on U.S.-Turkey relations. Also worth asking is whether Erdogan would swallow his pride and allow a Patriot deal, conceding defeat in a very public five-year fight.
If the tough talk from the House and the Senate is not a negotiating tactic but a genuine effort to reduce arms flows to Turkey, Ankara might cancel its S-400 purchase only to find itself empty-handed in Washington. Taking that leap of faith requires trust, which is in short supply on both sides of the ocean.
Amid all the uncertainty, three things seem clear. First, the crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations and the growing possibility of material restrictions on defense cooperation will intensify Ankara’s efforts to diversify its trading relations and find new partners. While it is possible for this impulse to translate to more collaboration with non-U.S. allies, as has happened with France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, it is not a foregone conclusion. It is uncertain how much appetite the Europeans would have for increased cooperation with Turkey and how the U.S. would react to the possibility of European companies supplanting their American counterparts in the competition for Turkey’s defense business. If the U.S. becomes a roadblock, it will worsen tensions within NATO; if the Europeans are uninterested, it will only hasten Turkey’s growing relations with non-allies like Russia and China.
Secondly, despite the political tensions, Turkey is still heavily reliant on its NATO allies, and its firms remain deeply enmeshed in the West’s production networks. If the U.S. slows down the sale of components like engines, armaments, and spare parts or other deals like offset contracts get canceled, Turkey’s defense industry could find itself facing a supply crisis, at least in the short run. Moreover, if Turkey gets booted from the F-35 program, it stands to lose more than just the planes themselves. Under the original plans, Turkey was going to produce its own F-135 engines and host the first regional engine overhaul depot. The total value of Turkey’s industrial participation in the F-35 program was estimated to reach more than $12 billion. Now, all this windfall risks vanishing into thin air.
Lastly, Ankara and Washington need some couples counseling. In some circles, Erdogan has long run out of sympathy. There are many who argue that Turkey is now “only an ally, not a partner" and that it is “time to re-evaluate the United States’ relationship to Turkey.” While none of what is needed to save the U.S.-Turkish alliance is easy or cost-free, but it would be an enormous geopolitical mistake to allow Turkey to drift away from the United States, Europe, and NATO. With Putin’s ambitions, NATO’s identity crisis, and the Middle East’s security challenges grander than ever before, neither can afford losing the other.