I don’t think anyone would claim it came as a surprise, but nonetheless, the U.S. deciding to hold back NATO ally Turkey’s F-35 order and potentially curtailing its industrial involvement in the program is a major development. It’s also one that is nearly certain to push Turkey further into Moscow’s orbit and could offer Russia a unique and much-needed opportunity to export their Su-57 advanced fighter.
On March 1st, 2019, Department of Defense spokesman Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews stated the following:
“Pending an unequivocal Turkish decision to forgo delivery of the S-400, deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability have been suspended.”
Reuters reported that the next shipment of training equipment and all other F-35 related material to Turkey has been canceled. Acting Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers Jr. added more detail regarding the decision:
“The United States has been clear that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 is unacceptable… Until they forgo delivery of the S-400, the United States has suspended deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability. Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk.”
Summers also added that the Pentagon is now actively looking for other sources to provide the Turkish-built parts currently being used on the F-35 in a move to protect “the resiliency supply chain” and “the shared investments in our critical technology.”
Congress is also working on tough legislation that could crystalize the Turkish F-35 embargo permanently.
The U.S. is at odds with its long-time ally over a number of issues, but Ankara’s final decision to proceed with the purchase of the Russian-built S-400 air defense system is the driving factor behind the course correction. It is an issue we have followed very closely and you can read all about in our latest of many articles on the topic linked here. Suffice it to say that the technological and intellectual property risk of having a military operate America’s most advanced fighter jet and Russia’s most advanced air defense system concurrently is extremely high. Presumably, it would give the Russian’s unprecedented insight into the F-35’s systems, capabilities, and operating concepts.
Last week it became clear that Ankara has no intentions of backing down from its purchase of the S-400 system even as U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials have made a full court press to get Turkey to purchase the U.S.-built Patriot system instead. The offer to sell the Patriot to Turkey expired formally on March 31, 2019.
In some ways, the S-400 purchase has acted as a fulcrum of sorts to showcase Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s independence from Washington’s influence—a narrative that has been increasingly cultivated since the failed military coup against Erdogan in the Summer of 2016. To this day, pro-Erdogan elements within the Turkish government accused the U.S. of being behind the operation without any hard evidence to back up such claims.
For the Kremlin, the news that the U.S. is suspending significant portions of Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 program, including potentially the fairly lucrative inclusion of Turkey’s aerospace and defense industrial base in it, couldn’t have come at a better time. Russia is now aggressively and very vocally trying to find a new export partner for its Su-57 fighter after India pulled the plug on its participation in the program.
Russia, whose military has found itself increasingly cash-strapped, cannot afford these aircraft in significant numbers and will need an external revenue source to achieve any economies of scale with the type. Even its continued development may be increasingly in question without an export customer.
Turkey was set to buy 100 F-35. As such, it was one of the type’s largest customers. If Russia could secure that size of order for its Su-57 it would be a huge coup for the struggling program and could allow Russia to buy more of the jets itself than the dozen developmental aircraft it has currently and about another dozen on order. Specialized munitions development for the type could also be accelerated.
Russia could also offer extensive industrial offsets to fill the gap that the F-35 would leave behind and possibly even much more. Direct technology transfer is also possible. Turkey would find this extremely attractive as it continues to work on its own 5th generation fighter aircraft, the TF-X, that isn’t slated to be delivered until the early 2030s at the soonest.
Above all else, the Su-57, or even a combination of Su-57s and Su-35s, would be able to be directly integrated with the S-400 air defense system without caveat.
We must underscore that the Su-57 is no F-35, but it does have some unique features that make it a formidable fighter assuming they all operate as advertised. You can read our whole analysis on the Su-57 and how it is chronically misunderstood in this past feature of ours. Turkey currently flies a mix of two American fighter types. It continues to operate aging F-4 Phantoms that are in need of replacement and is one of the world’s largest operators of the F-16 Viper.
There is also talk that Russia is eyeing China as a possible export customer for their notional “Su-57E.” That would be a puzzling choice for Beijing, a country that has two stealth fighter designs already flying, one of which is in service. But China may be willing to buy a batch of the jets anyway. They have made similar moves in the past, such as the purchase of Su-35s even though a number of Flanker clones are being produced indigenously. If Russia was willing to share critical engine technology with China—an area of expertise in which China is still lagging behind its competitors and their major aerospace programs are suffering as a result—could in itself push Beijing to become and Su-57E operator.
There is even a glimmer of renewed hope that India would come back to the table and rejoin the program after the loss of a MiG-21 Bison during a high-profile aerial skirmish with Pakistan that occurred in late February. Still, this is a longshot as India has multiple fighter import programs ongoing as well as what looks like an order for additional Su-30MKIs and refurbished MiG-29s to help offset continued losses of its geriatric MiG-21 and MiG-27 fleets.
So, as you can see, Turkey could become a very exciting Su-57 export opportunity for Russia if Ankara continues to move away from the U.S. and its NATO allies, and certainly rumblings of such a sale have been ongoing for some time. Doing so would also help Moscow deepen the divide between NATO and one of its most powerful member states.
The big question remains just how far will Turkey’s slide away from the alliance that helped define it as a modern military power. All this also puts into question the U.S.-Turkish relationship as a whole. What on earth is the U.S. doing having deployed tactical nuclear weapons in a country it no longer can trust even to even operate its latest export fighter—one that is being bought by a significant number of allies, with Singapore being the latest country to sign up for the stealth jets. Additionally, the situation also should raise concerns about the technological risk posed by Turkey’s large existing fleet of advanced American combat aircraft types, which includes the highly advanced E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft and Block 50 F-16C/Ds.
Clearly, the U.S. is preparing for an age in which Turkey is no longer considered a close ally, one in which using its airspace and Incirlik Air Base as a staging point for military operations in the region no longer exists. Case in point, America’s plans to drastically expand its air base facilities in Jordan. But logistics are only one part of an avalanche of issues a non-aligned Turkey could bring on, the largest of which have to do with the country’s future membership in the NATO alliance.
In the meantime, the country won’t be receiving any F-35s and the handful that have already been delivered will be put into storage until further notice.
We will keep you up to date as this saga unfolds.
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