Senate Voted To Block Turkey From Getting Its F-35s As Spat Over Russian Missiles Grows

The U.S. and Turkish governments are increasingly at odds over the purchase of S-400 air defense systems, an American on trial in Turkey, and more.

Lockheed Martin

The U.S. Senate has added a clause to its version of the annual defense budget bill for the 2019 fiscal year that seeks to block the transfer of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey. The vote was a response to that country’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems and arrest and prosecution of an American citizen, but it won’t come into effect before Turkish authorities take delivery of their first batch of the stealthy jets and both sides appear to be preparing for a broader political crisis.

On June 18, 2018, Senators voted 85 to 10 to include the provision targeting Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program into the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Turkish government has been one of six major partner nations in the Joint Strike Fighter project since 2002, is responsible for production of certain components of the jet, is slated to provide maintenance services to other operators in Europe, and has more than 100 of the aircraft on order, making it one of the biggest overall customers.

“NATO partners need these F-35s to counter Russian activity,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, who co-sponsored the change in the NDAA with North Carolina Republic Thom Tillis, said after the vote. “We would be handing this technology over to the Kremlin if we granted Turkey these planes, and Congress will not stand for it.”

The added proviso would block the Pentagon from using any of its funds to enable the transfer of F-35s, or any related technical data or support services, to Turkey, unless Congress gets assurances that certain demands are met. These include making sure secret information about the aircraft stays out of Russian hands and the release of Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical Presbyterian minister who is on trial for espionage and attempting to destabilize the Turkish government. His lawyers say the charges are spurious and politically motivated. In April 2018, Shaheen and Tillis, along with Republic Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, introduced separate legislation along the same lines.

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A US Air Force F-35A.

The Senate and the House of Representatives still have to reconcile their draft versions of the 2019 NDAA before they can send it to President Donald Trump, a process that is likely to take weeks if not months. The House version actually contains a much broader set of limits on arms transfers to Turkey.

The only problem is that Lockheed Martin plans to roll out the first Turkish F-35s in a ceremony on June 21, 2019. The Maryland-headquartered defense contractor has insisted there are no changes to its plans over the growing political spat.

“The F-35 program traditionally hosts a ceremony to recognize every US and international customers’ first aircraft,” the firm told FlightGlobal earlier in June 2018. “The aircraft will then ferry to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where Turkish pilots will join the F-35A training pool.”

It is this latter arrangement that could actually allow the NDAA’s provision to have an impact. At Luke Air Force Base, Turkey’s F-35s will be reliant on various levels of U.S. military support and subject to its various rules and restriction. Blocking the Pentagon from spending any money to enable Turkish Joint Strike Fighter operations could effectively ground the jets there indefinitely.

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An Australian F-35A taxis out for a mission at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. The base hosts training for pilots from many Joint Strike Fighter program partner nations.

Denying Turkey access to the cloud-based computer network that supports the F-35s, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), could limit the country’s ability to use the jets even further. This would cut Turkish aircraft off from the possibility of receiving any future software updates and other important mission data.

Turkey could look to quickly transfer its F-35s to a base on its own territory, but it would still be reliant on ALIS, which serves as the loading point for data packets with flight routes and other mission information before any flight, to have any sort of real combat capability. The network connection could also potentially serve as a vector for the U.S. government to insert more malicious code into the aircraft and actually disable them more permanently.  Only Israel has been able to secure the rights from Lockheed Martin to manipulate the software suite and otherwise operate its jets independent of this cloud-based system.

There is an unconfirmed rumor that Secretary of Defense James Mattis has informed his Turkish counterparts that even if they physically take delivery of any F-35s, those jets will never become operational. If true, this would almost certainly be a reference to restrictions on Turkey’s access to ALIS and other vital support for the jets, such as spare parts and assistance with other sustainment issues. 

The Joint Strike Fighters have already proven to be maintenance heavy and reliability issues continue to hamper the U.S. military's own ability to operate the jets even with help from Lockheed Martin directly. As such, even if Turkey could find a way around ALIS, its jets would be unlikely to remain airworthy for long without access to U.S.-based supply chains and sustainment services.

Of course, even if Turkey was unable to operate the jets, there could still be significant security risks. If Turkish authorities decided that relations with the United States and its other NATO allies had decayed beyond repair, there is the possibility they could turn any F-35s in their possession over to potentially hostile foreign actors for analysis. So far, officials in Ankara have not threatened or otherwise indicated they might consider such an extreme course of action.

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A member of the US Air Force uses a laptop to access ALIS on an F-35A.

The United States and Turkey have been trying to resolve the issue, but have remained largely at an impasse over core issue, which is Turkey’s decision in 2017 to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. This is a saga unto itself that you can read about more here.

Turkish authorities insist that this system best meets their long-standing requirements for a more modern, long-range air defense system to replace various Cold War-era gear they still have in service. Other NATO nations, members of the Joint Strike Fighter program who are not part of the alliance, and the United States in particular, are all concerned that the deal could allow Russia to get a hold of secret technical data on the jet’s capabilities. In addition, having the S-400 linked into Turkish defense networks could potentially give Russian technicians access to sensitive information that passes through the cloud-based, multi-national ALIS system.

A delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reportedly tried to finagle a deal by which Turkey can take delivery of the S-400s, but not use them. This could allow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his administration, which has stood firmly defiant over the issue, to save face, but Turkish authorities have apparently rejected this course of action.

"What laws will you [the United States] apply to impose sanctions on the purchase of the S-400?” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in response to the Senate’s vote. “This is a wrong approach; it will lead to a crisis. We have purchased the S-400 and let's stop talking about this.”

Vitaly Kuzmin

A transporter-erector-launcher for the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. 

But the U.S. government is disinclined to cede its own interests on the issue, especially given that U.S.-Turkish relations have been steadily cooling in general since a portion of Turkey’s military tried to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016. Erdoğan and his support accuse Fethullah Gülen, a former political ally and Islamic cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, of orchestrating the coup attempt. 

The U.S. government has refused to extradite him until the Turkish government submits clear evidence of his involvement in the plot, infuriating officials in Ankara. Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial administration has also offered to swap Brunson, who had been in Turkey legally for more than 20 years before his arrest, for Gülen.

Turkey and the United States also remain locked in a bitter and increasingly dangerous dispute over support for Kurdish rebel factions in Syria, ostensibly to fight ISIS terrorists. Turkish authorities insist that the Syrian groups, known as the People’s Protection Units, who make up the bulk of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, are simply an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party.

The U.S. and Turkish governments have both labeled the latter group, also known by the Kurdish acronym PKK, as a terrorist group. The U.S. government, however, disagrees that the organizations in Syria are directly linked with those in Turkey.

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US special operations forces train Syrian Democratic Forces personnel in Syria in May 2018.

In January 2018, Turkish troops backed by Syrian Turkmen militiamen launched an intervention into Northwestern Syria against Kurdish forces. The United States decried the move as distracting from the fight against ISIS, but made no attempt to aid the Kurds in the so-called Afrin canton.

More recently, in an apparent attempt to ease tensions with Turkey, the U.S. government has agreed to evacuate Kurdish fighters from the strategic northern city of Manbij. This has been a major demand of the Turkish government and Erdoğan previously threatening to attack American forces if that was necessary to secure the area in order to secure it from the Kurds.

It’s unclear how Turkey’s continued refusal to back out of the S-400 deal might impact this new Syrian plan. Congress could potentially seek additional ways to block U.S. military cooperation with Turkish forces in Syria if the dispute continues.

For their part, authorities in Ankara have threatened to retaliate by restricting U.S. military access to the air base in Incrilik, which hosts a large number of American personnel and a stockpile of nuclear weapons, as well as a strategic radar base and other sites throughout the country. Turkey has also implied that it could seek additional military cooperation with Russia, such as purchasing the even more advanced S-500 air defense system, if it ends up forced out of the F-35 program.

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A US Air Force F-15C Eagle takes off from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that Turkish officials have inquired about working with the Russians on their Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jet. Turkey could also seek the Kremlin’s assistance with its own indigenous TFX stealth fighter program.

Either of those options would set Turkey back years from acquiring a fleet of advanced new fighters and it’s not clear if they would ever choose either route. With the Turkish government so heavily invested already in the F-35 and so deeply intertwined in plans for how NATO members will work together to operate the jets, it could be difficult for the United States and its partners to remove it from the Joint Strike Fighter program to begin with. The legal, financial, and logistical complications from such a decision would likely be staggering and take years to resolve.

But the two countries seem to be far from reaching a resolution on the increasingly multi-faceted dispute. And though Turkey looks set to get its first F-35s on schedule, it may not be able to take full take advantage of the jets’ capabilities any time soon, if at all.

If nothing else, the Turkish pilots who are set to begin training to fly the aircraft at Luke Air Force Base could find themselves in a particularly awkward position for the foreseeable future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com