The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, passed by Congress on August 2, introduces a significant new hurdle to Turkey’s planned acquisition of advanced F-35 fighter jets. In response to longstanding congressional frustration over a host of bilateral issues—most significantly, Turkey’s plans to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia and Turkey’s continued imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson—the bill blocks the transfer of the F-35 to Turkey until certain conditions are met.
What does Turkey have to do with the F-35?
The F-35 is a fifth-generation stealth multirole fighter jet. Since 2002, Turkey has participated in an international program to cooperatively produce and procure the F-35, alongside the United States, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Canada, and Australia. Each member state in the program, which is led by Lockheed Martin, makes a financial contribution to the program, helps manufacture the F-35s, and receives a certain number of jets. Turkey plans to purchase over one hundred of the jets, with an initial order of 30 having currently been approved. In total, Turkey has invested $1.25 billion in the program since 2002.
Why is this controversial?
There are several diplomatic and strategic defense issues surrounding Turkish acquisition of the F-35. The most important concern is its planned acquisition of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, a system they plan to use in tandem with the F-35 planes. In September 2017, Turkey announced a $2.5 billion deal to purchase the S-400 from Russia, a decision that elicited concern from its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States. The U.S government warned that moving forward with the purchase of the system would run afoul of current U.S. law, which penalizes governments that purchase military equipment from Russia.
In addition to violating U.S. law, the purchase of the S-400 system raises security concerns as well. A cutting-edge stealth fighter, the F-35 was designed to penetrate modern air defense systems—including the Russian S-400. Defense experts have expressed concerns that the Russian-made system could amass technical data on the F-35 and pass crucial information about its capabilities and liabilities onto Russia.
U.S. lawmakers have also opposed Turkey’s continued participation in the F-35 program due to human rights concerns, specifically the imprisonment of pastor Andrew Brunson, an American citizen who was arrested in Turkey in October 2017. Brunson has been accused by Turkey’s government of conspiring with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETO), which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes to be behind the failed 2016 coup attempt against his government. After being detained in prison for 21 months, Brunson was moved to house arrest due to health concerns on July 25. A subsequent appeal by Brunson to be released from house arrest was rejected, and he will likely remain on house arrest until his next hearing in October.
The length of Brunson’s detention, and the circumstances under which he was detained—as part of a broad post-coup attempt crackdown that has seen over 100,000 people detained since 2016—has outraged U.S. officials, who have called strongly for his release.
Turkey already has two F-35s. How did it get them?
On June 21, before the legislation prohibiting the transfer was signed into law, Turkey received the first two F-35s as planned in a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas. In keeping with pre-existing plans, the jets then moved to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where Turkish pilots and technicians are now receiving training on how to operate the equipment. While they are now technically property of the Turkish government, the jets will remain in the United States for the duration of the training. The planes are not to be sent to Turkey until 2020.
Who supports the F-35 transfer?
After the first F-35s were presented to Turkey in June, Secretary of Defense James Mattis appealed to lawmakers, asking them not to interfere with the F-35 deal out of concerns that Turkey’s removal would disrupt the entire program. On July 7, Mattis sent a letter to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees opposing Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program, arguing that such a move would disrupt the program’s supply chain, delay the delivery of jets, and increase the cost of the $100 million aircraft. In the letter, Mattis guaranteed lawmakers that the Trump administration was pressing Turkey on both the S-400 sale and Brunson’s ongoing captivity.
What’s in the NDAA?
Section 1282 of the FY2019 NDAA mandates that no later than 90 days after the enactment of the bill as law, Mattis, in consultation with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, must submit a report on the current state of U.S.-Turkey relations to Congress. Critically, until this report is submitted, the Pentagon may not deliver any more F-35 aircraft to Turkey.
The report must contain a review of the American military and diplomatic presence within Turkey. In addition, it must include an assessment of the proposed purchase of S-400s by Turkey, and an analysis on how Turkish acquisition of the S-400 would affect American weapon systems operated jointly with Turkey, including: the F-35 fighter jet, Patriot surface-to-air missile system, CH-47 Chinook helicopter, AH-64 helicopter, H-60 Black Hawk helicopter, and F-16 fighter jet. It must also contain a study of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program, including a review of how Turkish industry has contributed to the program and an assessment of how the overall program would be impacted, should Turkey’s role in the program change in a “significant” way. Finally, it must discuss potential alternative air and missile defense systems that Turkey could acquire instead of the S-400, including those manufactured by the United States and other NATO countries.
Meanwhile, section 1278 of the bill raises the plight of Mr. Brunson. It also mentions other American citizens held in Turkish captivity, including Serkan Golge, a NASA scientist who has been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for supposedly providing material support to exiled Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, and staff of the U.S. missions in Turkey. The bill calls for the release of all captive Americans.
While the Turkish flight crews continue their training in Arizona, the Pentagon must begin its review of the U.S.-Turkish relationship as soon as the bill is signed into law. If, over the course of the 90-day period, the United States is able to secure the release of Brunson or make a deal on the S-400s, Congress’s willingness to get tough with Turkey on the F-35 may likely be diminished. However, the odds of resolving either of these issues remain low.
Concurrently, as the Senate voted to pass the NDAA, the Treasury Department issued sanctions against Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu for human rights abuses related to the detention of Brunson. This action represents yet another escalation in the increasingly contentious U.S.-Turkey relationship. In response, a defiant Turkey might dig its heels in, preventing resolution on either the Brunson or S-400 issue.
Barring a dramatic change in the next 90 days, Congress will likely move ahead with plans to remove Turkey from the F-35 program. They should be clear about their reason for doing so. Whatever other measures it takes as leverage over the Brunson case, action on the F-35 is necessary to minimize the damage that Erdogan can do to U.S. strategic interests.
With the breakdown of the U.S.-Turkish relationship and Ankara’s repeated threats about moving closer to Russia, it is increasingly likely that future conflicts and security issues will arise that make handing these planes over to Turkey dangerous. Rather than push ahead with delivery, in the hopes of avoiding such a scenario, Washington must take preventive steps and deal with the fallout sooner rather than later. This may well cause short-term complications and delays to the F-35 program, but the cost of waiting will likely prove much higher.