The recent decision by the United States to exclude Turkey from the F-35 stealth fighter programme casts a shadow over the recent improvement and stabilisation in Turkish-American affairs. Cited by the US as the reason behind this decision is an apparent technical incompatibility between the F-35 and Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile that was recently purchased by Turkey.
President Donald J. Trump’s display of understanding at the G20 Summit in Osaka that Turkey was almost forced by the Obama administration to purchase the S-400s showed plenty of promise and reassured Turkey that its decisions would be respected. This most recent development, however, presents another challenge which Turkish and American leaders will have to mitigate.
Turkey was one of the main contributors to the research and development for the F-35 since its inception, with many integral parts of the fifth-generation fighter being manufactured in Turkey. Now, Turkey is being denied access to the fighter jet that she helped create because we were forced to pursue Russian technology in order to meet our national security needs. It takes little effort to see the US repeating its mistakes.
The US’ refusal under the Obama administration to sell one of its major NATO allies Patriot surface-to-air missiles led to Turkey’s necessary purchase of the S-400. At every instance of the US sidelining Turkey, the Russian Federation naturally steps in. Already, in under 24 hours, Russia has offered to sell Turkey its own fifth-generation fighter, SU-35. Are there any strategic considerations in these American policies? Is there any realisation among US policymakers that Turkey has other options to ensure its national security?
Nonetheless, the tone of the White House’s statement on the F-35 shows a willingness to maintain a strong strategic partnership with Turkey. President Trump, during his statement on the matter, took the courtesy of acknowledging that Turkey “had been forced” to buy the S-400s. If it is indeed true that the US cannot sell Turkey the F-35 due to technical issues, both sides should look for technical solutions.
The US, Russia, and Turkey might all mutually benefit from forming a panel of experts and exhaust every possible method to configure the S-400 and F-35 systems to be compatible, and to keep the technologies of both secure. A technical issue should never be allowed to have grave strategic ramifications. There is, indeed, historical precedent for NATO members purchasing and equipping Russian defence technologies. Russia sold its S-300 missile system to Bulgaria, Slovakia and Greece in the late 1990s, with the recipient facing no major objections from their NATO allies. If differences in military technologies have been accommodated for in the past, I am sure it can be done again – provided the necessary effort and will, given the increasingly complex technologies of today versus two decades ago.
The US knows it cannot afford to lose Turkey, being the most eastern part of the West and the most western part of the East. We both mutually depend on one another for our strategic prerogatives, and our soldiers have been standing and fighting side by side in almost every global conflict since the Korean War.
I would echo the words of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, that the Turkish-American strategic relationship is far more meaningful than just the F-35. Where there is a will, there is a way, and I firmly believe that Turkish and American leaders value each other enough to search thoroughly for a technical solution.