Analysis

Can the U.S. Risk Turkey Flying the F-35?

Turkey is set to take delivery of its first F-35A stealth fighter jets in June, prompting a major security headache for the United States (and Israel)

Can the U.S. Risk Turkey Flying the F-35? Erdogan in cockpit of a training plane
AP

Three weeks ago, the first F-35A stealth fighter – carrying a small Turkish flag on its tail – took off from Fort Worth, Texas. On June 21, it will officially be handed over to the Turkish Air Force, whose pilots will begin training on it, with further aircraft set to roll off the production line at the Eglin air base in Florida. In a few months, the first two F-35s are scheduled to fly to Turkey, where they will be based at Malatya in eastern Turkey, ready to undertake missions against Kurdish forces in Syria.

These fighter jets are now the source of a major diplomatic and security headache for the United States. As a member of NATO, Turkey has flown first-line, U.S.-made aircraft for seven decades and it was only natural it would become an operator of the F-35 – of which it has so far ordered 100. But a Senate committee last week passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which would block the supply of F-35s to Turkey.

“Turkey has gone a long way from being a NATO ally and an important partner in working against terrorism, to the situation today,” Republican Senator James Lankford told Haaretz last week.

>> Israel wary of F-35 sale to Turkey, expects U.S. to withhold 'upgrade capabilities' ■ Israel's F-35 strikes carried message to both enemies and allies | Analysis

Throughout the Cold War and beyond, Turkey was a valuable partner in confronting the Soviet Union. In recent years, though, it is no longer an ally of the West. At no time in the seven decades of the North Atlantic Treaty has a member state refused to coordinate its military strategy to the degree that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is doing now.

A photo of an Israeli F-35 flying over Beirut.
Israel Television News Company / Screenshot

The increasingly authoritarian Erdogan has pursued a conservative-nationalist-Islamist policy and, throughout most of the Syrian war, his own separate agenda, arming jihadists and allowing Islamic State volunteers to pass through Turkish territory. When the United States began bombing ISIS targets in 2014, Turkey refused to let U.S. aircraft use its Incirlik air base. Since the failed military coup of July 2016, Erdogan purged the armed forces of officers who worked with NATO, largely replacing them with anti-Western loyalists, and increased military coordination with Russia and Iran. His intelligence services have been led for years by pro-Iranian officials.

Turkey has the second-largest army in NATO. But due to its increasingly confrontational attitude toward the West, it is much less of a strategic asset and in many ways a liability. Supplying it with the most advanced weapon system not coming into use with NATO and other allied air forces is keeping generals in the Pentagon – as well as in Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv – awake at night.

The F-35 isn’t just the latest fighter jet in the Western arsenal. It is a generational leap in key technologies. Its stealth capabilities allow it to evade most radar systems, while its advance avionics “fuse” information collected by its sensors – which is passed on through a network to other aircraft and operations centers. The Turkish Air Force having F-35s means not only that the Erdogan government will have these cutting-edge capabilities, but also the opportunity to work out how to detect the aircraft and disrupt its intelligence-collecting and communications.

Ankara has drawn closer to Moscow in recent years, and Turkey has ordered Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system. Operating these alongside F-35s would expose the jet’s secrets to the Russian manufacturers and supply them with crucial information on how to intercept them.

Israeli officials who have discussed the issue with their U.S. counterparts came away with the impression that it will be difficult to prevent the F-35 sales, and hope that the United States will at least deny Turkey the more advanced software upgrades to the plane’s systems.

But even that would create a major diplomatic crisis between the Americans and Turkey. On the other hand, if relations take a further nosedive, once even just a handful of F-35s are in Turkish hands, Ankara will already have the knowledge it needs even if further supplies are curtailed.

Turkish media reports cite government sources warning that if it can’t have the F-35, Turkey would buy Russia’s own stealth fighter, the Sukhoi Su-57. But that is not the main concern. The Sukhoi is still undergoing flight tests and will take years until it is fully operational. Even then, it is unlikely to rival the F-35’s avionics or stealth capabilities.

The real dilemma is what to do with a NATO member that has become such a security risk, it cannot be trusted with the alliance’s weapon systems.