The most sophisticated fighter jet in the world, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will play a smaller role in the future of European security than originally conceived. On Monday, the Senate amended its version of the 2019 defense authorization act to block the sale of the fifth-generation fighter jet to Turkey. The reason: the NATO ally’s purchase of the Russian S-400, a radar and missile battery with a lethal range of 250 km. In routine operation, the sensor- and transmitter-packed jet exchanges electronic data with friendly anti-air systems and sensors, and if Turkey were to do this, data collected by the Russian-built weapon might find its way back to Moscow.
The House version of the bill also expresses concerns about the S-400 and Turkey and requires a report 60 days after the bill’s enactment to assess Turkey’s purchase of the system and possible consequences to U.S. aircraft.
Turkey inked the S-400 deal last year, over strenuous objections from the U.S. and other NATO-member governments concerned about an ally using Russian air defense systems. “A NATO-interoperable missile defense system remains the best option to defend Turkey from the full range of threats in the region,” Pentagon spokesperson Johnny Michael told CNBC last fall.
The U.S. military has gotten up close and personal with the S-400 over Syria, where the Russian military has deployed to aid the Assad regime. Its deadly presence reshaped how the U.S.-led coalition flies air ops, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigan told reporters in September. “‘We are consistently monitoring them to see if something changes their intent because we have to manage that and respond quickly…We look at it every day. It’s an everyday discussion to make sure our force can manage that risk.”
Strained Atlantic relations aren’t just affecting today’s jet sales and development today, but potentially decisions far off as well.
France and Germany have agreed to work together on a sixth-generation fighter, the so-called Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, to begin to replace the Tornado by 2040. The previous chief of the Luftwaffe, Lt. Gen. Karl Müllner, had been in favor of replacing the Tornado with the F-35. Partly for that reason, he was dismissed in May.
Going with the F-35 would “eliminate the need for a next-gen European fighter and possibly cripple Europe’s capacity to develop such a system for years to come,” said Ulrich Kühn, a German political scientist and senior research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
The move has ramifications far beyond what new jets are sitting on the tarmac in Western Europe in ten years.
“Since Germany takes part in NATO nuclear sharing, a new platform would have to be certified by the U.S. to deliver U.S. B61s,” thermonuclear gravity bombs, Kühn pointed out on Twitter. He was responding to an article that ran Sunday in the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. “But [the] new fighter should be nuke capable,” says Kühn. “Now, German Airbus officials have started asking the Gretchen Question: what nukes shall the FCAS carry? U.S. or French ones?” Kühn argues that the question of how to develop the FCAS as a nuclear capable jet will be one of the most important decisions that Germany will take in the next few years and could have ramifications for the future of the nuclear umbrella over Europe.
What was supposed to be a unified, highly interoperable American weapons web could become more fractured, less under American control. “The decision about the FCAS as a nuclear platform will have wide-ranging repercussions on Germany, the EU and NATO,” he says.
The U.S. military has been pushing allies to buy the F-35 not just to expand America’s weapons reach but because the jet is a flying intelligence fusion cell as much a bomb-dropper. One of its core selling features is its ability to transmit rich targeting intelligence to nearby drones or faraway jets or even Aegis warships rigged for missile defense miles away.