Curtains open for second act in F-35 crisis with Washington

Curtains open for second act in F-35 crisis with Washington

You would remember.

Last summer just before American Pastor Andrew Brunson’s case turned into one of the greatest dramas in the history of Turkish-American relations, one other interrelated crisis was looming on the delivery of the first two F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. The Congress, which had stepped in to lock the delivery of the F-35s until Ankara releases Pastor Brunson and halts the purchase of Russian S-400s, managed to place the fate of the F-35s in a critical document like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2019.

However, the efforts of Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, yielded to a softer language in the final version of the defense policy bill. Mattis persuaded the senators to drop provisions that would prohibit transfers of F-35s to Turkey until the Pentagon develops a plan to remove Turkey from the program. He did so by arguing that throwing Turkey out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program would cost a fortune to the United States and the administration had reasons to believe their diplomatic pressure campaign against Ankara might eventually work.

This is indeed a key element that shapes the mindset of the U.S. national security officials. Despite high-level statements from Ankara that the agreement to purchase S-400s signed in 2017 with Moscow is a done deal and it is irreversible, the U.S. side has confidence that the Turkish government can still be persuaded to change its mind. Turkey’s last-minute withdrawal from a Chinese deal to purchase HQ-9 missiles in 2015, Americans believe, was the result of a successful diplomatic pressure campaign from Washington that lasted for two years.

A classified report on the current state of relations with Ankara as required in the 2019 defense bill was submitted to the Congress a few weeks ago by Secretary Mattis. Amid criticism from senators for keeping the document ‘classified’, a two-page summary of the report was cleared for open publication on Nov. 26.

There is nothing surprising in the report in the sense that underlines the conclusion of the acquisition of the S-400s by Ankara would risk the Turkish participation in the F-35 JSF program, jeopardize other potential future U.S. arms transfers to Turkey or invoke potential sanctions against Turkish defense sector. We heard exactly the same arguments time and again from the U.S. officials since the beginning of the year, so as the members of the Erdoğan government.

Though, it is crucial that the report confirmed an alternative Patriot package has been developed by the Trump administration to strike a change of heart in Ankara. In fact, with this report Mattis once again asked help from lawmakers to pursue a great bargain with the Turks in the coming weeks. Because everybody in Washington knows that chances for Ankara to walk away from the S-400s deal with Russian President Putin is zero, unless there is some sort of a congressional guarantee for those Patriots.

How the Trump administration would ensure a congressional guarantee for a new Patriot deal given the steam against President Erdoğan’s at the Hill for drifting the country away from democracy remains a mystery.

Furthermore, the Pentagon report makes it clear that if Turkey goes ahead with the actual deployment of the S-400 batteries the programs that would be affected would not be limited to the F-35s and Patriots. Some other U.S. equipment like CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters and UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, some of which are currently in use by the Turkish armed forces, are too listed. More importantly F-16s are among the named.

As far as I could gather from open sources Turkey purchased a sum of two hundred seventy F-16 planes since 1988. However, the current inventory of F-16s in Turkey is around two hundred forty. Turkey has lost nearly thirty of its F-16 fleet in accidents most of which were due to metal fatigue. Thus the modernization of Turkey’s F-16 fleet is of critical importance considering the central role Fighting Falcons play in Turkey’s military operations in Syria as well as against the outlawed PKK inside its own borders.

And now the Pentagon names F-16s among the U.S. equipment in Turkey, acquisition of which might be affected by the purchase of Russian S-400s. Just like we saw in the recent case of Greece, modernization of F-16s requires a new agreement with the United States.

Certainly we might expect the Trump administration try countering any possible radical steps by the Congress with a motivation for punishing Erdoğan and his government. It will not be for the Congress but for the State Department to announce whether Turkey will be subject sanctions under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if S-400s were to be deployed on Turkish soil. However, it will probably not be possible for President Trump to completely ignore the Congress on such a critical file: a NATO ally purchasing high-end Russian defense equipment.

Last week’s senate vote, which paved the way for legislation to withdraw American support for a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen despite counter efforts from Trump’s cabinet, demonstrated that Capitol Hill can seriously force the President’s hand in key foreign policy issues. Though, Ankara still seems to be placing all their bets on Trump. Godspeed.