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Turkey excluded from F-35 stealth jet program after S-400 deliveries from Russia

The White House confirmed that Turkey would be excluded from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program after it purchased the Russian S-400 air defense missile system despite warnings from Western allies.

The Pentagon later confirmed that a process is already underway to move the production of Turkey-made F-35 parts – worth at least $9 billion to Turkish manufacturers – to suppliers in the United States and other countries.

“Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible,” White House spokesperson Stephanie Grisham said in a Wednesday, July 17 statement.

The Lockheed Martin-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter “cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities,” she added.

Grisham said the U.S. was “actively working with Turkey to provide air defense solutions” and had made “multiple” offers of its own Patriot air defense missile system to Turkey.

However, Turkey went ahead and acquired the Russian system, running counter to a NATO pledge to reduce reliance on Russian systems.

“Accepting the S-400 undermines the commitments all NATO Allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems,” Grisham said. “This will have detrimental impacts on Turkish interoperability with the Alliance.”

Concerns have been raised by Turkey’s NATO allies about data security with the S-400 air defense system, particularly around the F-35. There are fears that F-35s flown in Turkey could be detected by its own S-400 radar systems, and that data sent to Russia could be used to improve detection and targeting of the stealthy F-35 by Russian equipment.

In addition, Turkey wants to connect the F-35 systems with the Turkish Air Force information network, HvBS. If the S-400 is also connected to the HvBS, there is a risk that data collected by the advanced Joint Strike Fighter’s sensors may end up being transmitted to Russia.

Grisham added that the United States “still greatly values” its strategic relationship with Turkey and would “continue to cooperate with Turkey extensively, mindful of constraints due to the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey.”

S-400 Triumf air defense missile system
A training exercise by the Russian Baltic Fleet’s air defense units involving S-400 Triumf air defense missile systems, January 26, 2017. Image: Vitaly Nevar/Tass

Trump blames ‘tough situation’ on Obama

The announcement came five days after Turkey began taking delivery of parts for the S-400 missile system that it agreed to purchase in September 2017, shrugging off two years of warnings from the United States and other NATO allies that it could imperil their relationship.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump declined to criticize Turkey for the S-400 purchase, falsely charging that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was unfairly forced into the move by his White House predecessor Barack Obama.

The U.S. Department of State cleared a possible $3.5 billion sale of Patriot air defense systems to Turkey in December, although the Department of Defense has warned that that acquisition, along with those of CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters, UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft could be affected by its going ahead with the S-400 purchase.

“I’ve had a good relationship with President Erdogan,” Trump told journalists.

“It’s a very tough situation that they’re in and it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in… With all of that being said, we’re working through it – we’ll see what happens,” he said.

The F-35 consortium members – Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States – all bid for competitive contracts to develop and manufacture parts for the jet.

Turkey has ordered 30 jets and is slated to purchase 100 in total. The first of its four completed F-35s was delivered to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in June 2018 for pilot training, but the U.S. has said it will not allow them to leave the country.

“Because they have a system of missiles that’s made in Russia, they’re now prohibited from buying over 100 planes. I would say that Lockheed isn’t exactly happy. That’s a lot of jobs,” Trump said.

Later on Wednesday, Turkey’s foreign ministry lambasted the U.S. move as “unfair.”

“This one-sided step neither complies with the spirit of alliance nor is it based on legitimate reasons,” the ministry said in a statement.

“It is unfair to remove Turkey, one of the partners in the F-35 program,” the ministry said, and dismissed claims the Russian S-400 system would be a danger to the F-35s.

“We invite the U.S. to take back this error which will pave the way to irreparable damage to our strategic relations,” the ministry added.

F-35A Lightning II
F-35A Lightning II aircraft moves to refuel, July 13, 2016 on a flight from the UK to the United States. Image: US Air Force /Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown

Turkish manufacturers dropped from F-35 program

At the Pentagon, officials said operations were already underway to move the production of around 900 parts Turkey was to provide for the F-35s to suppliers in the United States and other countries, cementing an April statement from Acting Chief Pentagon spokesperson Charles E. Summers Jr. who then said the U.S. was halting deliveries to Turkey related to the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, warning that “Secondary sources of supply for Turkish-produced parts are now in development.”

Pentagon officials also confirmed that Turkish F-35 technicians and pilots training in the United States would leave by the end of this month, and that Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program will be wound down by March 2020.

“Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 is inconsistent with its commitments to NATO,” said Ellen Lord, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment.

“Turkey will certainly and regrettably lose jobs and future economic opportunities from this decision,” she said, although she repeatedly referred to a “suspension” of Turkish participation in the F-35 program, perhaps pointing to a potential twist to come in the years-long saga.

Turkey had work commitments worth $1 billion to supply the F-35 program, and could have expected a total of $9 billion in orders over the life of the program, according to Lord, although Lockheed Martin has said that contracts with Turkish companies to build F-35 parts had been expected to reach $12 billion.

In July 2018, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned of significant delays if Turkish companies were removed from the F-35 program, saying that “it would result in an aircraft production break, delaying delivery of 50-75 jets and would take approximately 18-24 months to re-source parts,” Bloomberg reported.

Referring to the Mattis’ warning, Lord said the U.S. has been working on “alternate sources for the over 900 parts” since 2018.

“To bridge the gap initially to mitigate Turkey’s removal, the program will use primarily U.S. sources for Turkey’s work share, but this will gradually open up to program partners for first, second and third sources,” Lord said.

“The United States is spending between $500 million and $600 million in non-recurring engineering in order to shift the supply chain,” Lord said.

According to Forecast International, Turkish Aerospace Industries was slated to deliver 400 center fuselages, and the company also produces weapons bay doors, air-to-ground pylons, air inlet ducts and other components.

Other important Turkish suppliers include: Ayesas, which is the sole source supplier of both the panoramic cockpit display and the missile remote interface unit; Alp Aviation, which makes metal airframe structures, landing gear components, and F135 engine parts; and Fokker Elmo Turkey (GKN), which makes wiring systems for the F-35 and the F135 engine.

Turkey was also selected as a Regional F135 Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul, and Upgrade Facility.

Russian S-400 Triumf air defense missile system
An S-400 Triumf air defense missile system of the Russian Southern Military District’s missile regiment on combat duty in Sevastopol, January 13, 2018. Sergei Malgavko/Tass

Pentagon insists Turkey remains a strong ally

In addition, the U.S. Congress has required countries that make significant purchases of Russian defense equipment to be subjected to punitive sanctions.

The State Department said Wednesday that no decision has been made yet on sanctions over the S-400 deal.

David Trachtenberg, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, repeated that Turkey remains a strong ally of the United States and would continue participating in NATO exercises.

“We will continue to participate with Turkey in multilateral exercises to improve readiness and interoperability, including upcoming exercises in Georgia, Germany and Ukraine,” he told reporters, but he did not say whether exercises that include Turkey will involve F-35s.

Asked if Turkey could be ejected from NATO after nearly seven decades as a member, he replied: “That’s a decision for the NATO alliance … That’s not for us here to decide.”

Over the past five years, NATO has deployed up to six Patriot missile defense batteries to protect Turkey’s southern border against missiles fired from Syria.

On July 4, Italy’s lower house of parliament approved the extension of the deployment of its Eurosam SAMP-T air defense missile system in the southeastern Kahramanmaras province until the end of the year.

A week earlier, Spain similarly extended the deployment of its U.S.-made Patriot air defense missile system in Adana province. Both were deployed after Turkey requested help from NATO, and the alliance must formally approve the extension, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Turkey is also working on indigenous air defense systems.

Then-Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said in November 2017 that Turkey agreed with Eurosam to develop an air defense missile system and to own the technology with Turkey’s “own local resources.” Canikli signed a letter of intent with the defense ministers of France and Italy that month, paving the way for Turkey’s purchase of Eurosam SAMP-T launcher systems and Aster 30 surface-to-air missiles.

Turkey is also developing its own HISAR short-range, low-altitude air defense missile system intended to target aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.

With reporting from AFP

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