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Turkey, the F-35, and the S-400

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A formation of an F-35C (left) and two F-35Bs fly over Eglin Air Force Base on a training mission. From left: The F-35C (left) has a larger wing than two F-35Bs.
Photo: Harland Quarrington/MOD

Shit is going down today with respect to Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program. The first S-400 systems are arriving today, and the Pentagon is (shockingly enough) preparing a public response. If you haven’t followed, the United States has repeatedly threatened to kick Turkey out of the F-35 project if it imports the Russian surface-to-air missile system.

Here’s a good explanation from Mauro Gilli on the nature of US technical objections to Turkey operating both the F-35 and the S-400. Long story short, the technical issues are real, even if they may not overwhelm other political logics for exporting the F-35 to either Turkey or India.

Here’s one view of the logic behind Turkish intransigence; the decision to push the S-400 is based around frustration with the United States over a variety of policy disputes, including Syria, Kurdistan, democracy promotion, and the broader relationship with Russia. Domestic politics have become involved, with Erdogan having to pay significant audience costs if he backs down. According to the same author, the actual military impact of the S-400 will be fairly minimal.

There’s also a political logic for the United States. The disputes over Syria and Kurdistan and the general drift of Turkish foreign policy are two-sided, and there’s plenty of sentiment that Turkey deserves to be punished. The US also wants to make clear that while the transnational nature of the F-35 project is immensely important, it’s not so important that difficult partners can’t be cut out of the equation. Interdependence, again, gets weaponized.

Final thoughts: Turkey is seriously implicated in the F-35 project, and this represents a major cost for them, both in terms of military capabilities and technology transfer. The idea that Turkey can design and build its own stealth fighter is nonsense, irrespective of what Erdogan claims. The issues here are entirely political, as the Turkish military remains, as I understand it, strongly in favor of remaining in the F-35 project. The Turkish Navy had assumed that the F-35B would be available for its new carrier, TCG Anadolu, and there is essentially no other option if the Beast of the Black Sea is to carry fighter aircraft. My own feeling is that Erdogan tried to get too fancy in playing the Russia-US relationship, then got stuck in a disaster of his own making.

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