Is Turkey sleepwalking out of the Alliance? An assessment of the F-35 deliveries and the S-400 acquisition
Dr Can Kasapoglu, Defense Analyst – EDAM
Sinan Ulgen, Chairman – EDAM
- The Turkish – American bilateral relationship is in a deep crisis. An alliance that took shape in the early post-War years has entered a period of heavy turbulence with an ever-growing set of unresolved disputes. This unprecedented cumulation of bilateral disputes is burdening a relationship vital to transatlantic security. It is also compounding efforts to settle differences with linkages being established between unrelated topics leading to an ever more difficult environment for diplomatic negotiations. The way forward requires a willingness to disconnect these problems from each other so that some confidence building can be engineered by individually resolving these disagreements.
- With this understanding, this report will focus on one of these disagreements. Turkey is planning to acquire an advanced Russian strategic defensive weapon system, known as the S-400 Triumf. There is, however, rising concern in the US about this purchase by a NATO ally. Indeed the fear is that, even if not networked, potential backdoors in the S-400 system could study critical operational data and electromagnetic signatures of the high-end aircraft, and transmit them to the Russian military intelligence.
- The prospect of sanctions has therefore been raised in addition to Congressional initiatives to prevent deliveries of the F-35 Lightning II to Turkey due to the risks of operating the S-400 and the F-35 together. Yet Ankara’s resolve regarding its potential acquisition of the S-400 seems unaffected despite the rising political and military costs.
- Both Ankara and Washington are so far acting in a way that is oblivious to the real consequences of such a scenario of divergence.
- The case that we make in this detailed report is that a failure to eventually reach an understanding on the now interlinked S-400 & F-35 issue can potentially affect Turkey’s capability to act as an interoperable and capable NATO ally. In other words, this disagreement raises the prospect of a severe damage to the NATO Alliance, and by extension, to transatlantic security.
- One mooted option has been for Turkey’s F-35s to be delivered through several degradations ensuring that the aircraft is handed over without connection to the ALIS cloud-based network. However, such a degradation will cut Turkey’s F-35s’ from the rest of the global F-35 fleet around the world. Maintenance, life cycle, and operation costs will inevitably increase, and the Turkish military-industrial complex will have much less access to the engineering and supply chain.
- Washington’s intent to link the supply of the F-35s to Turkey to political conditions, like the release of the jailed pastor Brunson is incongruous. The US would naturally work diplomatically to get the release of the jailed pastor as its citizen. But seeking to leverage the potential delivery of the F-35s for this purpose is greatly misplaced. The threat is incommensurate with its long-term implications. It underestimates the negative impact, not only on the Turkey-US relationship but also more generally for transatlantic security, of Turkey not being able to get the delivery of this fifth-generation multirole aircraft. The linkage with Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 from Russia, however, is more relevant.
- In our view, Ankara would need to adopt a political and diplomatic strategy that takes fully into account of this inevitable conclusion that the acquisition of the S-400s will have ramifications for the supply and operationalization of the F-35s. Either the US will need to be convinced that the delivery of the F-35s to a country that operates the Russia-made S-400s is not a real threat to the integrity of network-centric NATO platforms, or that the threat of cyber hacking –or digital espionage– emanating from the S-400s can categorically be eliminated, or Turkey would need to forego the acquisition – or at the very least the operationalization– of the S-400s. At present, there seem to be no real third options for Turkish policy-makers to sidestep these binary and mutually exclusive options.