What next for the F-35 after Turkey's threats to turn its back on NATO?

West's lovebombing of Erdogan doesn't disguise tech transfer threat

Comment Turkey has hinted it may try to leave NATO – which could cause difficulties for the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme because the country has signed up to buy 100 of the advanced jet fighters.

Speaking to state news agency Anadolu, Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, hit out at both NATO and the EU over their lack of perceived support for the country following July's supposed coup d'etat against President Recip Tayyip Erdogan.

Reuters summarised Casuvoglu's remarks as, “Turkey may seek other options outside NATO for defence industry co-operation, although its first option is always cooperation with its NATO allies.”

President Erdogan met Russian president Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, prompting concern amongst Western leaders.

Meanwhile a NATO spokesman sought to smooth over the Turkish statement, saying: “Turkey is a valued Ally, making substantial contributions to NATO's joint efforts.  Turkey takes full part in the Alliance’s consensus-based decisions as we confront the biggest security challenges in a generation. Turkey’s NATO membership is not in question.”

The alliance has even moved an installation by a Turkish artist opposite its new HQ, in a bid to keep Ankara sweet:

However, Turkey's obvious shift away from the West raises a thorny problem: if it deepens its ties with Russia and other powers traditionally not aligned with the West, what would – or should – happen to its planned buy of 100 state-of-the-art F-35 fighters?

Tech transfer? Not so much

Turkey's involvement in the F-35 is already fairly deep. Around 10 Turkish companies are building various components for the aircraft, in support of the country's intention to buy conventional F-35As.

Amongst other Turkish firms, Ayesas is currently the sole supplier for the F-35's panoramic cockpit display and its missile remote interface unit, while Fokker Elmo makes 40 per cent of the aircraft's wiring harness. These systems are far from critical to the F-35 and the Turkish production is mainly of assemblies which could be built elsewhere, such as central fuselage sections.

However, rather than buying cutting-edge Western weaponry to go with its cutting-edge Western jets, Turkey is developing its own SOM-J stand-off missile for its F-35As. In addition, most of the Turkish industrial involvement seems to be confined to manufacture of Western-designed components – at least, going by the official F-35 website's potted summaries of who's doing what. It is not unknown for these public summaries to gloss over the more interesting work being done behind the scenes.

Hey, Vlad. Come and kick the tyres on this...

The main concern, however, is who might get their hands on the aircraft's more advanced technologies. The F-35A's main aerial adversaries are likely to be Russian-backed nations' air forces and for the Russians to gain access to inspect and test the F-35, figuring out at their leisure what its weaknesses are, would be a serious blow for the West.

While Turkey's situation seems to be bombast rather than any serious moves to deepen ties with Russia – at present – as a NATO nation Turkey holds a lot of information and hardware of great interest to Russian tacticians. It is feasible that access to cutting-edge technology, including the F-35, could form part of a diplomatic quid-pro-quo in the future.

Moreover, if Turkey held a Red Flag-style exercise with Russia and used the F-35 to its full potential – typically non-allied nations holding air-to-air exercises together don't disclose their full tactical abilities for fear of giving away “trade secrets” to potential future enemies – the information gained by Russia would be very valuable, particularly for regional allies likely to have to face the F-35 – such as Syria.

Immediately after the Turkish coup, though, Lockheed Martin was keen to play down any hints of problems it might cause the F-35 programme. In its Q2 results call, which took place a week after the coup was put down by forces loyal to President Erdogan, Lockheed Martin chief executive Marillyn Hewson said Turkey is “an essential security partner for the US and our allies … we have not seen an indication [the coup] will affect our business.”

Dropping Turkey from the F-35 programme would hurt the UK

In spite of all the security worries, losing 100 F-35 orders as well as a reasonably large industrial partner would doubtless push the costs of the F-35 programme through the roof. Turkey remains a NATO member for now, and the alliance is clearly keen to keep them on board; Turkey's strategic location, guarding the all-important Bosphorus strait and keeping Russia's naval ambitions firmly contained inside the Black Sea, and away from vital shipping lanes in the eastern Mediterranean, makes them a vital strategic partner to the West.

Keeping that partnership going, therefore, implies that the US and NATO may have to accept the risks posed by a Turkey which is ambivalent about supporting the West's wider policy objectives – and may involve potentially hostile states learning more about the F-35 than we would like.

While Turkey was selected to be the first European regional production and overhaul centre for the F-35's Pratt and Whitney F135 engine, the skills required to overhaul complex turbofan engines are, if not abundant, certainly present in the UK. It's a stretch too far to say that the UK could benefit if Turkey is kicked out of the programme, or that the economic benefits of absorbing the Turkish production would help offset the inevitable rise in per-airframe costs with the loss of 100 orders. The excellent War is Boring blog estimates that an F-35B – the model on order by the UK – costs a staggering $251m (£193.4m).

Currently there are 3,100 F-35s on order from 12 countries, with 2,400 of those being destined for the US. Britain's purchase of 138 F-35Bs is intended chiefly to equip the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm for deployment aboard Britain's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. ®

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