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Can F-35 project be sustained without Turkey?

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II jets, or simply F-35s, are the fifth-generation fighter jets which will ultimately replace the previous models F-16s and F-22s. The F-35s are produced with the participations of nine countries, including the United States and Turkey. The remaining participants in the program are the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. Turkey expects to receive 100 fighter jets, making it the third largest fleet within the F-35 program after the US and the UK. However, the US has been threatening to “exclude” Turkey out of the F-35 program if it goes along with purchasing Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system.

First of all, Turkey is not only a “buyer” of the aircraft like Israel and Japan, although some articles in international media mentions ‘Turkey seeking to buy the aircraft.’

Having invested in the program 1.25 billion USD, Turkey is part of the development program. 10 Turkish companies produce over 800 pieces of the aircraft, including the engine parts, the cockpit screen, parts of landing/take-off systems and guided missiles integrated to the aircraft. Turkey has joined the international consortium developing the F-35 jets in 1999, during the very early stages of the project. Today, it has the position of sole supplier for several parts of the aircraft, including the “essential parts” of the aircraft, according to the security experts.

In that regard, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently stated that the F-35 project would fail if Turkey is excluded at this stage. “I am saying explicitly that the F-35 project is doomed to complete failure if Turkey is excluded," the president told the audience during the International Defense Industry Fair in Istanbul in last April.

Turkey has so far invested in the program 1.25 billion USD. As stated above, 10 Turkish companies produce 800 pieces of the aircraft in total, including the engine parts, the cockpit screen, parts of landing/take-off systems and guided missiles integrated to the aircraft.

The US Defense Department stated that even finding and qualifying new suppliers to any Turkish company kicked out of the program would take two years. F-35 program manager Vice Admiral Mathias Winter told the US lawmakers “the evaluation of Turkey stopping would be between 50- and 75-airplane impact over a two-year period.” in a hearing the US Capitol.

In addition to its role in the production of the plane, Turkey is significant for the project with its geopolitical location. The main European hub for the F-35’s engine repair and overhaul is in Eskisehir, in northwestern Turkey.

Furthermore, the US is not in the exclusive position to decide to keep Turkey in the program or exclude it. The F-35 program is regulated with the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the nine participant countries. It requires the consent of the all members to make such decision.

Apart from the logistical and legal burdens of taking Turkey out of the F-35 program, it is argued by many international relations expert that the move will ultimately play against the interests of the US and the transatlantic alliance. Ejecting Turkey out of the F-35 programs in which it invested billions of dollars in the last decade will only cause Turkey’s decision makers and public to look more skeptical at the US and NATO. Therefore, it can cause Turkey to deepen its partnership with Russia at the expense of the US.

However, it is not clear if the US and the current US administration will take this bold step and try to exclude Turkey out of the program. Last summer, President Erdogan said that Turkey can resort to international arbitration over F-35 if the US decides to block the transfer of Turkey’s F-35 jets.

At the end, despite the rhetoric in both countries, delivery of the jets to Turkey is planned to start by next November and there is no change in the schedule. “We, as the Republic of Turkey, fulfill our responsibilities in a serious and sincere manner,” Turkey’s minister of defense Hulusi Akar pointed out. Turkey expects the same from its partners.


Ömer Erkut Bulut