Turkish Defense Industry Measures Price of Lost US Jet Contract
(Source: Voice of America news; posted July 31, 2019)

By Dorian Jones
Lockheed Martin officially handed over the first two F-35A fighter to Turkey in November 2018, during a ceremony at its Fort Worth plant. The aircraft remained in the US, where they are part of the F-35A pilot training pool at Luke AFB. (LM photo)
ISTANBUL --- Washington's suspension of the sale of its F-35 warplane to Turkey has dealt a severe blow to both the Turkish military and the Turkish defense industry.

Ankara's purchase of Russia's S-400 missile system triggered U.S. President Donald Trump to suspend the sale of 100 F-35 jets to Turkey. The U.S. said the Russian missile system could compromise the jet's stealth technology. The decision also ended the Turkish defense industry's decade-long link to the project.

Turkey's defense manufacturers had a coveted position as joint partners in the $400 billion F-35 project. Turkish firms were set to earn around $10 billion producing around 900 parts for the aircraft, including critical components such as landing gear, and cockpit and fuselage parts.

The development of an indigenous defense industry is a priority for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vowing to turn Turkey into a world leader. The country is in the initial stages of developing its own fighter jet.

Exclusion from the F-35 is seen as a significant blow to those aspirations.

"In recent years, Turkey has one of the fastest-growing defense industries," said Galip Dalay, a visiting scholar in international relations at Oxford University. "So, F-35 not coming, that puts major trouble for Turkey's defense industry, unless the issue is resolved down the road."

Given the scale of Turkish firms' involvement in the F-35, Erdogan repeatedly dismissed threats of exclusion, claiming Turkey was irreplaceable in the jet's production.

"We are proceeding with a very orderly wind-down (of Turkey's participation in the program) through March 2020. At this point ... we are winding down in March of 2020," said Ellen Lord, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

Last week, Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-35, also confirmed it was on track to meet the Pentagon's deadline.

Under the F-35 program, Turkey was to be one of the regional maintenance hubs for the jet, worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Turkish companies.

Analysts point out the F-35 is one of world's most advanced jets, and now Turkish firms will lose out on access to advanced technology and know-how. Ankara had also invested around a billion dollars in the jet project.

Analysts warn that Turkey's exclusion from the F-35 threatens to further deepen the rift between the country and its Western allies.

"This will further push Turkey to seek more engagement with places like Russia, China, etc.," said Dalay, who is also a research director of the al-Sharq Forum, an Istanbul-based Middle East research group. "But it's true these countries are no replacement with the West in terms of the defense industry, in terms of institutional ties."

"Recently, one of the (Turkish President's) advisers, Gulnor Aybet, said we will also buy (Russia's) S-500," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University.

Still in development, the S-500 is Russia's latest missile system. Moscow has indicated a willingness to sell its most sophisticated weapons systems, a move analysts say is part of Russian attempts to weaken Turkey's ties with its Western allies.

Last month, Russia's leading defense company suggested the possibility of selling its latest stealth fighter, the SU-57, as an alternative to the F-35. However, any such deal may offer limited advantages to Turkish defense companies.

"The Russians will never share the brain of their systems. Never," said Bagci. "We can produce certain parts of it here in Ankara, but not the system. The basic technology will remain in the hands of the Russians. The Chinese are different. They give to a certain degree."

With tensions escalating between Ankara and Washington, Moscow has sweetened the pot to Turkey, enhancing the technology transfer in the S-400 sale.

A Russian-based analyst, speaking anonymously, claimed Russia's military already has reservations about the sale of sophisticated weapons systems to Turkey, a NATO member. The analyst said Russian President Vladimir Putin, for now, overruled those concerns, prioritizing the strategic goal of courting Ankara.

Washington retains considerable leverage over Turkey's defense industry. Last year's sale of 30 Turkish attack helicopters to Pakistan was blocked by the United States, with its refusal to grant an export license for the helicopter engines.

Observers point out that given the interdependence of Turkey's defense industry on U.S. and European parts, it could face similar problems in future international sales.

However, Ankara could yet be holding on to the hope of reviving Turkey's role in the F-35 project. Turkish officials point out its participation has only been "suspended," not ended. Such a belief appears to be pinned on Trump.

Analysts warn that given the speed the Pentagon is moving to end Turkey's participation in the jet, expectations of a reversal in policy appear to be diminishing fast.

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