The crisis that erupted between the United States and Turkey over Ankara’s intention to buy the S-400 anti-aircraft defense system from Russia could have far-reaching implications for Israel.
Washington has threatened to cancel a huge sale of F-35 jets to Turkey unless Ankara cancels the deal with Russia. America’s ultimate decision will affect Turkey’s status in the Middle East – and from the Israeli perspective, it could also remove a potential future danger. It could even affect Israel’s military industries and future procurement plans for the Israel Air Force.
Turkey was one of the eight initial countries to join the American F-35 project, and was even accorded special status. Ankara undertook to buy at least 116 of the planes, and the first two jets, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, were delivered to the Turkish air force about a year ago. Until Monday, Turkish pilots were even training on the plane in the United States.
But in recent months, tensions have been brewing between the United States and Turkey over the S-400 deal, which is worth an estimated $2.5 billion and has a July delivery date. The Americans are concerned, with some justification, that if Turkey has both the Russian aerial defense system and the American stealth fighter, the vulnerabilities of the plane could become exposed and information could find its way to the Russians.
Turkey says it will operate the Russian batteries completely separately from its other weapons systems, most of which are American-made. Ankara has even made the bizarre claim that Israel has already created such vulnerability by flying the F-35 in territory that is subject to surveillance by the S-400 batteries protecting the Russian air base at Khmeimim, in northwestern Syria.
The Trump administration hasn’t been bowled over by the Turkish claims. Last week, the acting secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, sent a warning letter to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. Washington was disappointed to hear that the Turks had sent teams of antiaircraft crews to Russia for training on the new batteries, Shanahan wrote. If Ankara insisted on consummating the deal with Moscow, Washington would have to consider terminating Turkey’s participation in the F-35 project. Not only would it not supply the planes, it would suspend contracts with the Turkish companies involved in the project.
The United States halted training the Turkish pilots (in the U.S.), and will not be inviting new ones. It might also consider imposing broad sanctions on Turkey. The acquisition of the batteries would impair bilateral trade as well as collaboration between Turkey and the U.S. Army, and with the armies of other NATO members, Shanahan wrote.
Israel, whose relations with Turkey have been very tense in any event over the past decade, hasn’t commented publicly on the crisis. The Turkish insistence on going through with the Russian deal despite America’s threats would mark Ankara as being, at least partially, in the Russian camp in the Middle East.
Circumstances have changed markedly since the Cold War. The dichotomy isn’t as categorical as before and the Trump administration itself has a complicated relationship with the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even so, the Turkish decision will have strategic implications.
One could cautiously conclude that Israel won’t be too disappointed if the Americans halt the supply of innovative warplanes to Turkey. Israel doesn’t view Turkey as an enemy, but the hostility between the two countries is no secret, and it’s difficult to predict how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would react in future scenarios, such as escalation of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
From Israel’s perspective, halting the supply of the jets to Turkey wouldn’t be a bad development.
Under an agreement between Israel and Turkey, a maintenance center for F-35 engines was to be established in Turkey, to be used by air forces from the region. In addition, Turkish companies signed a large number of contracts to serve as subcontractors in the project, as was done in Israel – Israel Aerospace Industries is the subcontractor manufacturer of the stealth fighter’s wings.
If these contracts are canceled after the entire deal falls through, it would create a vacuum ripe for Israeli companies to enter. Feelers have been sent out between the Pentagon and Israel’s Defense Ministry about the possibility of putting together a package of proposals for new deals with Israeli military companies.
These contracts could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, though one shouldn’t count one’s chickens before the eggs hatch, and the leaders in question – Trump and Erdogan – are not known for being predictable.
The matter could also affect decisions about procurement of the IAF’s next fighter squadron. As Haaretz reported in January, IAF commander Amikam Norkin is leaning toward changing the procurement plans.
In the past, there was an agreement to acquire two squadrons with 50 F-35s. Under Major General Norkin’s predecessor Amir Eshel, the thinking was to buy a third squadron with 25 planes toward the middle of the next decade. Norkin, on the other hand, apparently believes that Israel should first buy a new squadron of Boeing-made F-15s and only later go back to buying F-35s.
Though the IAF’s position is known, the decision on the next squadron has been held up for over a year. Part of the delay was due to the appointment of a new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, in January; Kochavi wanted the final decision to be made on his watch. Meanwhile, other constraints have arisen, including murkiness regarding the defense budget and the intensive political preoccupation with the election in April, and now another election in September, leaving no time for thorough discussion of the military procurement issues.
And now, because of developments not directly connected to Israel, the decisions may be revisited. Additional considerations may be factored in. The new decision may include a package of new deals for the Israeli military industries as subcontractors of the biggest and most expensive armament project in the world.
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