The last thing the frayed alliance between the United States and Turkey needed was an intractable conflict over a trillion-dollar next-generation fighter aircraft. Yet that’s exactly where the two countries find themselves. In the past weeks it’s become apparent that neither side is willing to back down from a dispute over what should be two routine arms deals between close allies. The resulting standoff could complicate a raft of national security and economic issues crucial to both nations.
Ankara insists it will proceed in a multi-billion dollar purchase of the top-end S-400 Russian air defense system, even after dealing with years of negotiations with U.S. officials over purchasing their system. It’s a decision Washington says will spell the end of a multinational, trillion-dollar partnership to develop and sell the next-generation F-35 stealth fighter, produced by Lockheed Martin, to its NATO ally. Speaking to a number of analysts and NATO officials, the broad consensus is clear: The spat adds additional stress to a frayed relationship with a one-time Cold War ally that remains critical to U.S. policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, while also highlighting Russia’s newfound aggressiveness in pushing its own global agenda.
“Not only is this sort of a disaster, we aren’t even sure yet how big a disaster it might be for everyone involved in the F-35 project,” says a military intelligence officer from a NATO country also partnered on the plane. The disagreement has significant implications for U.S. foreign policy, and points to a large, byzantine web of international relations. “Tensions between Europe and Turkey are a mess over [Turkish President Tayyip] Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian behavior, [Turkey’s] fury at U.S. backing for the Kurds in Syria, and the general sense that Turkey is slipping out of NATO’s orbit and into Russia’s,” says the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This whole dispute couldn’t come at a worse time.”
Other military analysts say that because the impasse was so unexpected, not only are diplomatic and security implications unclear, but nobody is even sure about the logistics of a cancellation to the contract. It is unprecedented for Washington to kick out a developing partner on a project of this cost and magnitude.
“Frankly, the level of mess here is mind-blowing.”
Turkey’s embrace of the S-400 comes as Russia has aggressively courted one-time U.S. allies around the world with weapons deals that come with fewer strings in terms of policy and human rights. While it’s not unheard of for some NATO allies to purchase Russian equipment — many former Warsaw Pact nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic still use large amounts of Russian materials, and Greece was able to purchase the less powerful S-300 anti-aircraft system with Washington’s blessing despite flying a fleet of F-16 fighter jets — Washington argues that never before has an ally attempted to field two cutting-edge systems that are, in essence, designed to defeat one another.
“As an F-35 partner, the Turks are building components for the aircraft. Alternative suppliers will have to be found if they are thrown out of the program,” says Jeremy Binnie, chief analyst at IHS Markit, the London-based military analysis firm. “The extent to which this will create supply chain problems remains unknown.”
That sentiment was bluntly echoed by the military intelligence officer: “Nobody knows anything and, frankly, the level of mess here is fucking mind-blowing,” says the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Somehow the Russians have managed to get paid to cause trouble for NATO. It’s impressive on one level and a disaster on all the rest.”
The dispute stems from a 2009 agreement between the U.S. and Turkey for the former to sell the latter an advanced version of the Patriot air defense system. But that agreement eventually collapsed over what U.S. officials say were minor arguments about the transfer of technology linked to the highly advanced systems. Even when Turkey scuttled the talks and signed an agreement in 2017 to instead purchase the new S-400 air defense system from Russia, the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment ignored the problem, focusing on keeping Turkey in the tense alliance against ISIS in Syria and Iraq alongside Ankara’s mortal foes, the Kurds.
“For a long time, U.S. officials assumed that Erdogan’s S-400 chatter was just a bargaining ploy,” says Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, a D.C.-based think tank. Erdemir believes the U.S. was wrong to turn a blind eye to the Turkey/Russia deal, as it helped forge a stronger tie between the two nations — even though the two are still technically on opposite sides in the war in Syria. “From day one, I argued that this was a genuine attempt to buy Russian military hardware, and fits within Erdogan’s overall strategy of pivoting away from the transatlantic alliance and its values.”
It’s the “values” cited by Erdemir that have much of NATO deeply concerned, as the international community grows increasingly critical of Erdogan for what is seen as a Putin-like authoritarian streak and growing corruption. Russia, most analysts assume, will press Turkey less on transparency and human rights than Ankara’s NATO allies. “The S-400 deal is just one example of a deepening relationship between Putin and Erdogan,” Erdemir adds.
If it were just a matter of politics, the sense that Turkey and the U.S. failed to recognize the other’s intractability on the matter would be complex enough. But U.S. military officials and analysts also insist that the two air defense systems would have to be integrated via complex computer networks — the S-400 would need to be able to identify the F-35 as “friendly” in order to not accidentally shoot it down. U.S. officials claim such integration would potentially expose a trove of data that could help all S-400 systems do a better job identifying the plane in other parts of the world, putting American and allied pilots at risk. And as the F-35 is designed to defeat the S-400 — and vice versa — this makes connecting them under Turkish supervision an American national security redline that cannot be crossed, according to military officials.
While Turkey has promised to avoid sharing the collected data with the Russians, U.S. officials fear that an already mercurial relationship with Turkey could erode further, or that Russian intelligence might surreptitiously harvest the data anyway. But Binnie, the IHS Markit analyst, doubts that the real issue here is technical, noting that a proper integration of the two systems would probably be far too complicated and expensive for Ankara. He suspects it may be an excuse being leveled at Turkey by an ally frustrated over a host of other issues, namely detentions of U.S. residents and citizens by Ankara, the regime’s increasing ties with Russia, constant and credible allegations Turkey has helped Iran avoid sanctions, as well as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian approach to domestic politics.
“I am not sure how compromising the F-35’s capabilities will be an issue going forward,” says Binnie. “Denial of the F-35 to Turkey might be more of a punishment, justified by a possible threat to all F-35 operators around the world.”
Meanwhile, as the U.S. and Turkey’s relationship continues to fracture, Russia is only going to continue its aggressive political and military expansion.