Cold Turkey: Shanahan Pushes Ankara Out of F-35

The first F-35A produced for Turkey is unveiled during a June 2018 ceremony at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, facility. Lockheed Martin photo.

[Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. on June 7.]

Starting June 12, Turkey will be out of the multinational F-35 program unless it immediately cancels an order for Russian S-400 Triumf air defense systems, the Pentagon said June 7, laying out a series of economic and military steps that would end all of Turkey’s involvement in the program in the next six weeks.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in a letter to Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar, said “you still have the option to change course on the S-400,” but if that doesn’t happen, “an orderly cessation of Turkish participation” in the program will begin nearly at once, starting with Turkey’s exclusion from a June 12 CEO roundtable in Brussels, Belgium.

Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters Turkey still has time to change its mind.

Although the Pentagon needs to “start unwinding” Turkey’s industrial involvement in the F-35, “None of the steps we are taking are irreversible,” Lord said. “If Turkey chooses to forego delivery of the S-400, we look forward to restoring normal program activity.”

Steps beyond the dis-invitation will require all Turkish F-35 pilots training in the US at Eglin AFB, Fla., and Luke AFB, Ariz., to leave the country by July 31. According to charts provided with Shanahan’s letter, there are 42 Turkish pilots in the US, attending F-35 training at Luke and Eglin. A total of 18 of those students were to have completed training in June.

Lord said the Pentagon is letting current student pilots continue their training to be “respectful.”

Also by July 31, all Turkish officers attached to the Joint Program Office in Crystal City, Va., will be banned from entering the JPO offices; their travel orders and Common Access (CAC) Cards will be cancelled.

An upcoming Production, Sustainment, Follow-on Development (PFSD) meeting will also exclude Turkey, which will be left out of any decisions taken at that meeting, and the US will “suspend indefinitely” all deliveries of F-35 materials and activities to Turkey. That will include the planned delivery this summer of the first two operational F-35 models owned by Turkey that have been used at Luke for training. Lord said the Pentagon hasn’t decided yet what will happen to those airplanes.

Moreover, Turkey will “receive no new workshare in the F-35 program. Its current workshare will be transitioned to alternate sources as they are qualified and come into rate production,” Shanahan said.

Among the Turkish companies supplying F-35 elements are:

  • Turkish Aerospace Industries, which makes center fuselages, composite skins, landing gear doors, weapon bay doors, and air inlets
  • Fokker Elmo, which makes 40 percent of the F-35 Electrical Wiring and Interconnection System
  • Alp Aviation, which makes airframe structures, landing gear parts, and F135 engine integrated blade/rotors
  • Ayesas, which is the sole supplier of the panoramic cockpit display and also makes the missile remote interface
  • Kale Aerospace, which makes structural components and components for the F135 engine

Turkish companies produce 937 parts for the F-35, some 400 of which are made only by Turkey, Lord acknowledged. Despite the depth of knowledge of the jet needed to produce these parts, she reported that the US isn’t worried about the security of F-35 data.

“We control what is downloaded from our computers, we have shared what’s appropriate,” Lord asserted. “The Turks have no critical documentation that we are concerned about.”

She said the Pentagon is finding alternative sources for these parts, and the potential vendors are largely based inside the US. Lord did not comment on what will happen to F-35 tooling already set up and producing components in Turkey.

While Shanahan’s letter didn’t mention Turkey’s membership in NATO or its hosting of US forces at Incirlik Air Base, Andrew Winternitz, the deputy undersecretary of defense for Europe and NATO, told reporters the Pentagon hopes Turkey’s ouster from the F-35 won’t affect the strategic relationship between the US and Turkey.

He said the US still expects to send six F-15s to fly in the Turkish-hosted “Anatolian Eagle” exercise this month; the first time the US is slated to participate in the drill since 2015. If Turkey goes ahead with the S-400, though, future exercises may well be affected, he said.

“We’d have to evaluate what we’re doing, exactly, there,” Winternitz asserted. “Obviously, if they do set up the S-400, that is going to affect how we do those types of exercises in the future. But for now, we’re committed to sustaining our strategic partnership with them, including this upcoming exercise.”

The US and its NATO partners have been alarmed at Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400, saying that operating it in close proximity to the F-35 would give Russian technicians critical insight into how to detect and track the stealthy jet. The US has offered a discounted buy of US-built Patriot air defense systems in lieu of the Russian system. Turkey has rebuffed these offers, insisting the S-400 is a “done deal” and declaring it will collaborate with Russia on development of the S-500 successor system.

Lord said on May 10 that if Turkey was ejected from the 11-nation F-35 partnership, the program would experience both schedule delays and cost increases, but she also said the Defense Department has been working with Lockheed Martin since last fall on ways to “mitigate” the effects of such an outcome. Lord said she sees, “a potential slowing-down of some deliveries over the next two years,” as well as “some potential cost impacts. But right now we believe we can minimize both of those.”

On June 7, however, Lord backtracked that comment, saying that if the schedule described in Shanahan’s letter is enforced, there will be no “major disruptions or delays.”

In addition to Turkey contributing funds up-front as an F-35 development partner, it plans to buy 100 of the F-35A model for its air forces and is developing new munitions specifically for the jet. Turkey was also set to be a regional overhaul center for F135 engines. Turkey is tooling up to be the second source to Northrop Grumman for F-35 aft center fuselages.

The event that seems to have pushed the US past the limits of its patience on the S-400 issue seems to have been the revelation to Shanahan that Turkish operators are now in Russia receiving training on the S-400. In Shanahan’s letter, he reports being “disappointed” to learn this information, and said he warned Akar in a May 28 phone call that Turkey’s participation in the F-35 would “discontinue” if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400.

Shanahan further noted that all of these actions are solely based on Turkey’s plan to buy the S-400, and are “separate from Russia-related Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions ACT,” or CAATSA. He pointed out that there’s “strong bipartisan US congressional determination to see CAATSA sanctions imposed on Turkey if Turkey acquires the S-400.” Those sanctions would be tougher than the steps Shanahan laid out, potentially banning all military exports and support to Turkey.

Shanahan said fielding the S-400 would “hinder your nation’s ability to enhance or maintain cooperation” with the US and NATO, and lead to Turkey’s “strategic and economic over-dependence on Russia,” thus undermining Turkey’s defense industry and “ambitious economic development goals.”

Shanahan warned of lost jobs, gross domestic product, and international trade if Turkey doesn’t change its mind. He further noted that while President Donald Trump has “committed” to increasing bilateral trade between the US and Turkey from $20 billion now to $75 billion, “that may be challenging if the United States imposes CAATSA sanctions.”

Shanahan ended the letter by expressing his hope that the issue can be “managed in a respectful way, to preserve other aspects of our deep security cooperation.”

Winternitz told reporters that throughout the S-400 discussions with Turkey, Ankara has insisted it wants to maintain cooperative ties to the US and other western nations.

“Our counterparts really want to continue our strategic partnership and our cooperation at NATO,” he said. “We hope this is an aberration,” he added, referring to the S-400 dispute.