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White House and Senate Block the Transfer of F-35 fighters to Turkey

On 13 August 2018, US President Donald Trump signed into law the 2019 National Defence Authorization Act, a $716 billion bill outlining the US’ fiscal defence priorities for the next year. A marquee aspect of the Act, and one of significant contention, is the stay on delivering the first of Turkey’s Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters to Ankara. Although Washington had alluded to blocking the fighter in response to the Turkish government’s decision to procure Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf long-range air defence systems from Russia, Ankara’s arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson served as a final catalyst.

However, Turkey is not simply a customer of the F-35. Rather, it is an equity partner that had contributed to the development of the aircraft and, in turn, wields a range of workshare rights in the program. In fact, the F-35’s Joint Program Office has outlined that it “will continue to execute current program plans”, thus indicating the surprising nature of Washington’s move (such that the F-35 Joint Program Office has yet to plan, much less execute, an alternate course).[1] It is unclear if Washington will commit to the stay, though it has conditioned its move on the arrest of Brunson and – to a lesser degree – Turkey’s S-400 purchase.

Although there is a chance the F-35 issue could pass (with Turkey ultimately receiving its fighters), an issue of this significance – i.e. directly impacting Turkey’s defence programs, even where co-development and industrial workshare are factors – could see Ankara recalibrate how it develops its defence industry from this point on. In fact, a series of ongoing factors – from Washington’s policies to Turkey’s macroeconomic challenges – could spur alternate approaches to product design and overseas partners.

Background

In terms of the background – or lead-up of factors that resulted in the current predicament – one should consider two underlying issues. First, Turkey’s participation in the F-35 and how its approach in that area reflects its overall strategy for domestic defence industry development. Second, the assumption that the Turkish government had held regarding its state-to-state ties with the US.

Turkey’s F-35 Lightning II Program

Turkey formally joined the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program in 2002 in a memorandum-of-understanding (MoU) worth $175 million US.[2] However, much like Canada – itself a participant in the JSF’s development and co-production – Turkey signing onto the JSF did not necessarily mean it would order aircraft (though it was well-positioned to do so). Rather, its first formal orders came in recent years, i.e. in May 2014 for two F-35A aircraft, which were supposed to have been delivered if not for Washington’s stay-order.[3]

Turkey had intended to order 100 F-35As. In tandem with procurement, Turkey’s participation in the F-35 development program has facilitated access for its industry in providing inputs for the F-35’s supply-chain. Currently, Turkey’s slated to provide all F-35 customers (including the US) with two core subsystems, i.e. its “panoramic cockpit display and its missile remote interface unit.”[4] Thus far, it appears that the F-35A Joint Program Office will continue with the program as-is, though it could reportedly take two years for the US Department of Defence (DoD) to find an alternate supplier.[5]

However, 10 different Turkish firms are involved in supplying inputs for the Turkish F-35A program, including a number of aerostructure sub-assemblies, electrical wiring, landing gear components and depot-level maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) for the Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan engine.[6] The work has been split between state-owned and private sector players in Turkey and, in all likelihood, had required these companies to build internal capacity in the way of engineering and production facilities to supply these inputs up-to standard specifications (be it for the Turkish Air Force or export).

Defence Industry Development: Taking America for Granted

By moving ahead with the F-35 (and, in turn, eschewing alternate options such as the Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale), Ankara had bet on its ongoing relationship with the US defence industry as its means to expand its own industry. If not for Trump’s decisions, Ankara’s decision to join the F-35 was rational at the time it was made. After all, who would have thought that a US ally and NATO power that is extensively ingrained into the US defence industry supply-channel would get sanctioned? However, there are deeper aspects to acknowledge for Ankara’s F-35 decision, i.e. the fact that it was the US that actually helped the Turkish defence industry develop in its infancy and, in turn, grow into the entity it is today.

Since the 1980s, Turkish Aerospace Industries (now Turkish Aerospace: TA) collaborated with the defence giant Lockheed Martin to bring the Turkish Air Force’s (TuAF) F-16 program to fruition. Between 1987 and 1995, TAI was able to manufacture 70% of the F-16C/D’s airframe (i.e. its wings as well as its aft and center fuselage).[7] TAI’s contributions increased to 80% from 1995 to 1999, with TAI adding the flaperons as well as stuffing tasks and other subassemblies.[8] TAI’s capacity building was done as part of Lockheed Martin’s offsets to Turkey, enabling TAI/TA to build the in-house expertise and infrastructure to extend itself into other programs, such as the T129 ATAK, Hürkuş, A320 (sub-assemblies) and TF-X next-generation fighter.

Besides TAI/TA (i.e. the TuAF’s airframe supplier), Turkish Engine Industries (TEI) and defence electronics supplier Aselsan also grew on the back of the TuAF’s F-16 program. Today, TEI assembles and maintains (via depot-level MRO) the General Electric F110 turbofan engine for the TuAF.[9] Thus, from Turkey’s point-of-view, the US was in fact a reliable and supportive partner for its defence industry, and the F-35A was a natural continuation from the F-16 (not to mention the fact that it is the sole fifth-generation fighter under full-scale serial production for export at this time). In Turkey’s experience, dealing with Western Europe had been a capricious experience compared to the US.

 

The Impact of Current Events

It is too early to determine what will happen in regards to the TuAF’s F-35 program. Granted, one might argue that the situation could be resolved in the medium-term, but it appears that the White House is not acting in alignment with conventional policymaking in the US (alternatively, the direction of that work has changed significantly, but this will not be apparent immediately). However, Washington’s decision could push Ankara to review how it views the US and, in turn, not take US support for granted, be it in terms of its domestic industry development or its long-term procurement.

The US and Western Europe are not Reliable (Enough)

The first impact, evidently, is viewing the US and Western Europe as capricious partners. In other words, the Turks cannot view either as a constant (e.g. as an unyielding supplier, flexible technology source, etc). However, this is not to suggest that every company from the US or Western Europe would be viewed in the same way, rather, the issue has more to do with foreign policy decisions than the willingness of other defence industry actors (with whom Turkey has strong relations).

Be it as a contingency (in case of existing partners dropping-out) or perhaps allocating greater weight to the offerings from Russia or China, the Turks will tread more carefully when selecting foreign subsystems. From the onset, reducing its reliance on subsystems and services bound to ITAR (i.e. International Traffic in Arms Regulations), acquiring which require approval from the US Department of Defence (DoD), is likely on Ankara’s near-term roadmap (observers are concerned ITAR constraints could affect Turkey’s recently inked sale of 30 T129 ATAK attack helicopters to Pakistan). Likewise, original development programs (i.e. TEI’s turboshaft engine, which is to power future variants of the ATAK) will also take priority.

Macroeconomic Challenges

The second impact, which – while not directly related to the F-35A – is, interestingly, also borne from the White House’s recent decisions (e.g. aluminium tariffs affecting Turkish suppliers). Ultimately, it is unlikely that Turkey’s fiscal capacity will continue unscathed from its current trade and currency challenges. Thus, Turkey’s ability to spend on defence procurement is likely to be impacted through the near and, possibly, the long-term. In this respect, collaborating with the US and Western Europe could be challenging in terms of controlling direct costs and achieving scale, which could see China re-enter as a factor.

Overall, Ankara has been put into a defence strategy situation that is much closer to that of Pakistan, i.e. fiscal constraints and inability to categorically rely on the West. Certainly, Turkey would need scale from exports in order to sustain its defence programs, but current events have made controlling cost from the onset and guaranteeing amenable suppliers critical. Of course, the glaring caveat is Trump. It is possible, if not likely, that following the current administration (i.e. the next one), much of the agitation could be reversed and that matters return to the constant to which Ankara has grown accustomed.

[1] Travis J. Tritten. “Why suspending F-35 deliveries to Turkey is more bark than bite.” Washington Examiner. 17 August 2018. URL: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/defense-national-security/why-suspending-f-35-deliveries-to-turkey-is-more-bark-than-bite (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[2] Joint Strike Fighter Program Office. URL: http://www.jsf.mil/program/prog_intl.htm (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[3] Lieven Dewitte. “Turkey commits to order first two F-35 fighter jets.” F-16.net. 07 May 2014. URL: http://www.f-16.net/f-35-news-article4815.html (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[4] “Turkey’s Ayesaş sole supplier of 2 key F-35 components.” Daily Sabah. 16 August 2018. URL: https://www.dailysabah.com/defense/2018/08/16/turkeys-ayesas-sole-supplier-of-2-key-f-35-components (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[5] Laura Seligman. “Trump Blocks Fighter Jet Transfer Amid Deepening U.S.-Turkey Rift.” Foreign Policy. 13 August 2018. URL: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/13/trump-blocks-fighter-jet-transfer-amid-deepening-us-turkey-rift-f35/ (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[6] Turkey: Industrial Participation. Lockheed Martin. URL: https://www.f35.com/global/participation/turkey-industrial-participation (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[7] Peace Onyx I Program. Turkish Aerospace. URL: https://www.tai.com.tr/en/product/peace-onyx-i-program (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[8] Peace Onyx II Program. Turkish Aerospace. URL: https://www.tai.com.tr/en/product/peace-onyx-ii-program (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

[9] Engine Assembly and Testing and Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul. Turkish Engine Industries. URL: https://www.tei.com.tr/detay/engine-assembly-and-testing-maintenance-repair-and-overhaul (Last Accessed: 17 August 2018).

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