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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Navigating the diplomatic skies: Turkiye’s path back to F-35 consortium amid S-400 controversy
ANKARA: US Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has expressed Washington’s openness to engaging in F-35 talks with Turkiye pending resolution of concerns over Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system.
Attention is now focused on the potential conditions for Turkiye’s return to the F-35 consortium, where it has played a significant role as a joint producer in the past.
The green light from Washington coincided with Turkiye formally endorsing Sweden’s NATO membership and the US administration’s notification to Congress on the sale of F-16 fighter jets to the Turkish military.
“We were in the process of negotiating the Patriot sale, and while those negotiations were going on, Turkiye went in another direction … Frankly, if we could resolve this S-400 issue, which we would like to do, the US would be delighted to welcome Turkiye back into the F-35 family. But we have to settle this other issue first, and while we solve it, we must also ensure that Turkiye has a strong air defense,” Nuland told Turkiye’s CNN Turk on Monday.
Her two-day official visit to Ankara was aimed at “reinvigorating” damaged ties between the two NATO allies.
As Turkiye was a significant contributor to the new generation F-35 stealth fighter jets’ joint program and played a crucial role in the production line, the framework for Ankara’s potential return is subject to debate.
In 2019, Turkiye was expelled from the F-35 program due to its acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system, with the White House asserting that the F-35s could not coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform.
During its involvement in the F-35 program, Turkiye contributed to the jet’s development financially, and its industry participated in producing about 900 parts for the stealth fighter.
Turkiye, as a member of the F-35 program, was projected to gain at least $12 billion by the end of the project in 2039, according to estimates by US aerospace industries company Lockheed Martin in 2013. However, it could not take delivery of two fighter jets for which it had made an advance payment of $1.4 billion.
“In theory, it is $12 billion. However, this program will last decades. How does anyone account for a program that will need spare parts and vendors for decades? It is tens of billions of dollars, which is truly mind-blowing,” Aaron Stein, expert at War on the Rocks, a platform for analysis and debate on strategy, defense and foreign affairs, told Arab News.
Prof. Mustafa Aydin, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, believes that the opportunity cost of Turkiye’s removal from the F-35 program is part of the intricate relationship between Turkiye-US and Turkiye-West.
“Turkiye acquired significant know-how and technological experience over the last two decades when it was involved in the fighter jet consortium, bringing industrial and economic advantages for the country itself, which in return fed back its efforts in developing its drone technology and designing its indigenous fighter jet,” he told Arab News.
Aydin said that buying jets carries substantial weight in terms of defense procurement.
“When you buy a jet, you buy at the same time a partnership along with several benefits regarding its maintenance, production and usage,” he said.
Aydin suggests that US diplomat Nuland’s remarks on the S-400s were about damage control in bilateral ties.
“I don’t expect any short-term solution for resolving that deadlock and receiving F-35s on Turkish soil. Turkiye can only rejoin the purchase and the production of F-35s if the deadlock over S-400s is resolved and the US CAATSA sanctions are lifted, which cannot happen in the short term due to the complexities attached,” he said.
“Keeping them in a depot on Turkish soil is risky in political terms. The most feasible solution was to deploy them to Incirlik air base in Turkish southern territories, with US inspections about the system’s status,” Aydin said.
On “compromise options” proposed during the Trump and Biden administrations to manage the damage caused by the S-400s on Turkiye-US relations, Stein suggests that if Ankara is ready to discuss compromises, the pressure would shift to the US, and conversations about Turkiye’s role in the program would be inevitable.
In the meantime, Aydin believes that it would be politically risky for the Turkish government to “sell” such an alternative solution to the Turkish people and convince them about the economic costs, as they may object, asserting that Turkiye is already working on developing its own fifth-generation fighter jet program, Kaan.
“After the green light given by the Congress, Ankara will begin engaging in negotiations with Lockheed Martin for the purchase details of the F-16 jets, which will also take some months in the most optimistic scenario,” he said.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency under the US Department of State released a statement about Turkiye-F16 aircraft acquisition and modernization on Jan 26: “The purchaser typically requests offsets. Any offset agreement will be defined in negotiations between the purchaser and the contractor,” hinting at potential details of the looming negotiations between the parties.
Stein does not believe that having the F-35s will change Turkiye’s status within NATO.
“The F-35 is a very capable jet, but it doesn’t replace the political will to do things NATO wants. And, for quite some time now, Ankara likes to march to a rhythm that is out of sync with most of its allies,” he said.
However, Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank EDAM, thinks that acceptance to the F-35 program would make Turkiye more capable of participating in a number of NATO missions that would use the F-35 as a key platform.
“These missions may have self-characteristics, they may be planned for a number of tactical operations that NATO may need in the future. They may be limited to countries that would have those particular capabilities. Without fifth-generation stealth jets, Turkiye would not be able to take part in those missions and there would be capability gaps between Turkiye and some other NATO allies,” he told Arab News.
According to Ulgen, Turkiye can return to the F-35 program, but this would require solutions for the S-400 dilemma. For this to happen, both sides need to demonstrate flexibility to find a solution.
“There are basically two categories of solutions. Turkiye would either cease possession of the Russian system and send it to a third country, which is not feasible and not acceptable by Russia, while in the second solution the material could remain in Turkiye but with heavy monitoring conditions attached to its presence,” he said.
Ulgen thinks that Turkiye could return to the program as a buyer but also as a manufacturer, but there are a number of costs to be covered for this to happen.
“Turkiye was a very valued manufacturer and provided a range of critical inputs for the jets. Now in the meantime after Turkiye was pulled out from the program, the manufacturer had to find some alternative suppliers, which included some costs like shifting the production line to other manufacturers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is to visit Turkiye on Feb. 12 to meet his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
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