Turkey likely to get F-35 jets, despite inflammatory rhetoric and Islamist pull

Ultimately, the United States will decide. Multiple bills are being debated in Congress designed to challenge and block the sale.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo/Alex R. Loyd.
A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo/Alex R. Loyd.

Despite real concerns over Turkey’s hardline Islamist ideology and its growing defense cooperation with Russia, the country has probably not yet crossed the line that would obligate the United States to cancel sales of the F-35 fighter jet, an Israeli military analyst has told JNS.

Yiftah Shapir, former head of the Middle East military balance program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, noted that Turkey is one of eight original partner countries that took part in the development of the advanced aircraft, giving it the status of a founding investor.

That means that doing a U-turn and cancelling the sale, despite growing protests from the House of Representatives and the Senate over the acquisition, is no simple matter. Turkey has ordered 100 F-35 jets, which would make it the third-largest F-35 operator after the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Officially, Israel—though not one of the eight partner countries, but which was the first after the United States to receive aircraft and the first to use it operationally—has remained quiet on the matter. Unofficially, unnamed defense officials have reportedly expressed their opposition regarding sales to Turkey. Turkey is not an enemy state of Israel, but has certainly become a regional adversary under its successive Islamist governments that have supported Hamas and released highly provocative, hostile statements against Israel.

On June 21, Turkey took possession of its first aircraft from Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, at a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas. The delivery does not mean that the jet will be in Turkey any time soon since Turkish pilots must first complete training courses at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, which will last for a few years. It will be several years before the first F-35s touch down in Turkish air bases.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: Kremlin.

‘The Americans see them as allies’

“Turkey is an evolving situation,” Rick Edwards, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin International, told reporters in Tel Aviv at the end of May. “It is one of the original partners and has invested in this for a long time. This has been going on for over a dozen years,” he said.

Ultimately, the U.S. government will be the one to decide how this plays out, he added.

Edwards noted that multiple bills are being debated in Congress designed to challenge and block the sale. The Pentagon is also concerned about the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 air-defense systems, which would not be able to work with NATO military assets, throwing into question Ankara’s commitment to the alliance.

On the other hand, the fact that Turkey was involved with the plane from the first stage gives it a powerful say in development, and the country received promises to take part in production and maintenance services, said Shapir.

“As of now, they are still part of NATO. Hence, the Americans [still] see them as allies,” he said.

Cancellation is a step that Washington is unwilling to currently take, despite the obvious problematic nature of the relationship with Turkey, he argued.

“Will we now have decades of radical Islam in Turkey? Or will [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan leave the political scene and Turkey goes back to being a democracy?” posed Shapir. Such critical questions have no clear answer.

“Much more severe things would need to happen for the U.S. to get up and tell Turkey that it is no longer in the project, to refund it and send it on its way,” he added.

Either way, according to Shapir, it will be a long time before enough F-35 jets arrive in Turkey to make a strategic difference. Until then, the Turkish Air Force will continue to rely on its large numbers of F-16s, Shapir said, describing that aircraft as the “bread and butter” of Turkish aerial power.

Planes would give Turkish air fire an edge regionally

Burak Bekdil, an Ankara-based columnist and founder of the Sigma think tank, told JNS that “the largely transactional relationship between Ankara and Washington may eventually convince the Trump administration, after fresh rounds of give and take, to endorse the F-35 deliveries to Turkey.”

He continued, saying “Congress has a different view. But I am not sure if [U.S. President Donald Trump] would wish to push Turkey further into the Russian orbit by suspending deliveries, [which would] no doubt a humiliation for Erdoğan.”

Further negotiations could facilitate the delivery of the aircraft, he argued.

“Once they have arrived in Turkey, the F-35 fleet would be a force-multiplier in the Turkish Air Force and give Turkey air fire technological edge regionally, especially over Turkey’s non-Western regional rivals,” he assessed.

Bekdil added that the F-35 would also buy Turkey precious time to develop its own first domestically made fighter jet: the TF-X.

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