Is Ankara falling into trap of anti-Turkish lobbies?
“The United States cannot exclude Turkey from the F-35 program. Full stop. It’s as simple as that,” a taxi driver told me in full confidence. I just had spent the day reading all the materials I could find on the S-400s and F-35s to learn more about these systems, and I still was not feeling confident that I knew enough to speak about it with full conviction.
Obviously, I did not challenge the taxi driver by asking him whether he worked in the defense industry during his night shifts. Turkey’s ordinary citizens’ “wide expertise” on world affairs no longer surprises me, especially from those who speak no other language than Turkish.
I am still surprised by the English-speaking educated Turks’ extreme hatred of the U.S. government. And they usually happen to be secular Turks extremely critical of the current ruling elites.
“I just talked to a retired general. We buy the S-400s against Americans. After all, who are our enemies? They are the Americans. They are behind the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ). They are cooperating with the PKK in Syria,” said my acquaintance who has been working his whole professional life with Americans.
Would the Americans be as surprised as I am to hear from the same person that Turkey should definitely go ahead and purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-ballistic missile system at the expense of F-35 fighter jets, which my acquaintance claimed are not “after all the best aircraft systems in the world”? Do U.S. officials believe that the deterioration in bilateral ties is simply due to the ideology of Turkey’s current ruling elites, which they view as Islamists and therefore anti-Western? At any rate, if there are some U.S. officials who think that those who are extremely critical of the government will be also critical of its policies towards Washington, they might be mistaken.
Those who are less emotional and try to look from more objective lenses are obviously concerned about the deterioration in bilateral ties due to the S-400 crisis.
In fact, some Turkish officials are now suspecting that the real concern is not so much preventing sensitive information about F-35s getting in the hands of the Russians but to avoid F-35s getting in the hands of Turkey. In other words, is the real intention to prevent the acquisition of S-400s or is it to use the S-400 purchase as an alibi to prevent Turkey from obtaining F-35s?
Turkish officials say at the initial stages of U.S. objections to S-400s, there was no linkage with F-35s. The objections were based on the problem of interoperability with NATO systems. The linkage was made public for the first time during the arrest of U.S. Pastor Brunson.
In fact, Jim Mattis, then-U.S. defense secretary, had lobbied against lawmakers’ initiative back in summer 2018 to endorse legislative language to delay the sale of F-35s to Turkey over Brunson’s detainment and the plans to buy the S-400 system. He was against the lawmakers’ legislation arguing a disruption in the Turkish supply chain would result in an aircraft production break.
In other words, the Defense Department was not in favor last year of excluding Turkey from the program despite being aware of Turkey’s intention to purchase the S-400s.
Getting F-35s, quantum leap on air dominance
As of December 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had announced that the total number of F-35s Turkey would buy would be 120. According to a report, in addition to the known 100 F-35As, the president’s statement suggested that 20 additional F-35Bs would be purchased for the forthcoming amphibious assault ships of the Turkish Navy (that would turn them into mini aircraft carriers).
Having a fleet of fifth-generation aircraft would represent a quantum leap in Turkey’s air and ever sea dominance. So some in the Turkish administration are convinced that the real aim behind the recent crisis is to make sure Turkey does not acquire such military strength.
“It looks like there is a segment in Washington that wants to weaken Turkey and see a break in our relations,” a Turkish official recently told me.
Indeed, I can imagine that the U.S. Congress under the influence of many anti-Turkish lobbies, including the Israeli one, might be more interested in excluding Turkey from the F-35 program than preventing the acquisition of S-400s.
The recent letter sent by Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to his Turkish counterpart, as well as the statements made by Pentagon officials, are, however, crystal clear that should Turkey change course, Turkish participation in the F-35 program will continue as planned.
“Can the contribution of the S-400s to Turkey’s short-, mid- and long-term defense strategies compensate for the loss of F-35s, and will it be worth making anti-Turkish lobbies happy?” Those will be the questions to which Turkey’s ruling elites will have to provide an answer.