WASHINGTON --- The US Defense Department will likely be hard-pressed to transition hundreds of F-35 aircraft components away from Turkish suppliers in a timely manner in light of worldwide parts shortages and a lack of supplier production capacity as Russia stands ready to exploit the Trump administration's decision to eject Ankara from the program, analysts told Sputnik.
US Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Ellen Lord last week told reporters the Pentagon would unwind Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program by March 2020 due to Ankara's decision to purchase Russian S-400 defense systems. Lord also said the United States will spend up to $600 million in non-recurring engineering to shift the supply chain.
The United States has finally started delivering F-35s to twelve countries but the program has already been plagued by global spare parts shortages and is at risk of falling short of readiness assessment targets.
A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) official told Australia's ABC on July 17 that the Pentagon, which owns all spare parts, "doesn't even know how many it has or where they are."
Moreover, President Donald Trump's nominee to become Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, in mid-July told a Senate committee that the roughly 300-strong fleet of F-35s belonging to the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps "is not expected" to meet the Pentagon's readiness assessment target, primarily due to shortages in key parts including canopies.
About ten Turkish suppliers currently manufacture more than 900 F-35 part numbers, 400 of which are sole-sourced, although Lord last month claimed that the lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, has already secured domestic backup suppliers.
Last year, Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress he opposed suspending Turkey from the F-35 program because it would take 18 to 24 months to resource parts and could delay the production of at least 50 aircraft. Mattis said removing Turkey at this juncture could trigger a supply chain disruption for the US military and its partners.
In April, the GAO reported that F-35 aircraft were unable to fly almost 30 percent of the time between May and December of last year due to spare parts shortages. The Pentagon in the meantime is trying to boost availability by increasing supplier capacity to manufacture new parts and repair old ones, the GAO said.
According to a reprogramming request submitted by the Defense Department's Comptroller's office to Congress, the Pentagon wants to transition $200 million of funding towards the effort to find new sources of supply for the Turkish-made parts. The problem is those funds are being shifted from an account that is dedicated to purchasing spare parts.
Brookings Institution Scholar Michael O'Hanlon told Sputnik that while he agreed with Mattis' assessment on the timeline for resourcing parts, he hopes the United States has not squandered the last 6 months and has gotten a head start on the process.
O'Hanlon also warned, however, that Ankara could take advantage of the situation if the Pentagon does not swiftly accomplish the mission.
"We'd [the United States] have to be careful not to give Turkey leverage they could then play against us by threatening not to deliver the parts," O'Hanlon said.
Historical and political commentator Dan Lazare thinks the bigger challenge will be finding a country that wants to partner with the United States.
"Sure, a lot of countries want to get their hands on F-35 technology. But are the military gains really worth the cost of being tied hand and foot to an increasingly erratic US?" Lazare said.
From a commercial perspective the decision presents a lose/lose situation given Turkish suppliers will lose around $9 billion in business while the US F-35 program is likely to suffer supply disruptions and cost overruns. However, sometimes geopolitics interferes, even when the perceived benefits are flawed, experts have said.
Independent Institute Director Ivan Eland believes the half billion Dollar cost the United States will absorb is still relatively modest compared to the overall total cost of the F-35 program, which is "the most expensive weapon system in American and world history."
"The Pentagon does not operate like a commercial business, which chooses subcontractors on the basis of quality, lowest price, and speed of delivery, but instead heavily doles out contracts on the basis of political goals," Eland told Sputnik. "The Pentagon knows that sometimes the politics changes and costs will be incurred to take them into account."
However, Lazare has argued that the decision will not serve US geopolitical interests well because it will only strengthen Russia. Although the supply chain will certainly be disrupted, Lazare thinks that is the least of Washington's problems.
"It seems to me that the real risks lie elsewhere. One involves Russia, which is no doubt delighted by the latest turn of events since its leverage in the middle East is enhanced to the degree that Turkey is now in its corner," Lazare told Sputnik. "Unsurprisingly, reports are that it's already talking about selling Turkey its Su-35 'Flanker-E' fighter instead."
Lazare also observed the absurdity of the situation in light of the fact that Turkey is supposedly a NATO ally.
"Finally, there's NATO. With Turkey half inside the alliance and halfway out, all kinds of curious anomalies arise, e.g. the fact that Russian missiles are now guarding US nuclear warheads at Incirlik Air Base, as the folks at Foxtrot Alpha point out," Lazare remarked.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry has already condemned the US move as a "mistake" that might cause irreparable damage to bilateral relations. According to Ankara, the United States' claims that S-400 is incompatible with NATO's air defense systems and might compromise operations of the F-35 are groundless.