ANKARA --- Despite their longstanding strategic alliance as members of NATO, since 2017 Turkey and the U.S. have been at odds over Turkey's decision to buy the S-400, a Russian-made missile defense system, and U.S. threats to break its contract to sell Turkey F-35 jets over the dispute.
To defend itself, Turkey first sought to purchase U.S.-made Patriot missiles, but even as the U.S. was sending weapons and ammunition to Turkey’s avowed enemies, the terror group YPG/PYD in northern Syria, Washington chose to ignore its ally's needs and national interests and rebuffed Turkey’s overtures.
In its 40-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK -- the YPG/PYD’s parent group -- has taken some 40,000 lives. Turkey, U.S., EU and NATO consider PKK a terrorist organization.
Despite growing calls from the U.S. for Turkey to abandon its deal with Russia, including in front of cameras just this week, Turkish officials describe their transaction with Russia as a "done deal."
"Turkey must choose,” Vice President Mike Pence told a NATO anniversary event in the U.S. capital on Wednesday, at the same forum with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our NATO alliance?"
A rejoinder to Pence was not long in coming.
"The United States must choose,” Vice President Fuat Oktay quickly responded on Twitter. “Does it want to remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defense against its enemies?"
Pence also said despite the long-signed deal for the U.S. to sell Turkey F-35 jets, Washington is suspending shipments of the jets.
But in a speech at a Washington NATO foreign ministers meeting on Wednesday, Cavusoglu rejected this “us or them” perspective.
"We don't see our relations with Russia as an alternative to our relations with others,” he explained. “And nobody, neither the West nor Russia, should or can ask us to choose between themselves."
Turkey's contributions to F-35 project
The U.S. threat to cut Turkey out of the F-35 project ignores not only its settled contract to buy the jets, but also its long and integral role in producing technology for the advanced planes.
Spearheaded by defense giant Lockheed Martin, Turkey joined the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program in 2002, along with the U.K., Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Canada, and to date has invested more than $1.25 billion.
Turkey has partnered with Lockheed Martin for more than 25 years, primarily on the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft.
It also manufactures various aircraft parts for all F-35 variants and customers.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a family of single-seat, single-engine, fifth-generation multirole fighters set to perform ground attack, reconnaissance and air defense missions with stealth capability, according to Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), which has also undertaken important responsibilities in the F-35 project.
Industries of participating countries have been contributing to the program.
One of the most complex structural sections of the aircraft, the F-35A Center Fuselage, is produced by Turkish Aerospace Industries as a second source.
Top Turkish defense firms Aselsan, Havelsan, Kale Aero, Kale Pratt & Whitney, Ayesas, and Alp Aviation also manufacture essential components of the F-35 and provide cutting-edge engineering services.
According to a 2014 paper by Serhat Guvenc of Kadir Has University in Istanbul, the U.S. limited the number of participating countries and level of participation in the joint project in light of lessons from its coalition operations in the 1990s.
Under the U.S. system, as a Level 1 country, Britain has the most privileges, followed by Italy and the Netherlands at Level 2, and five other countries, including Turkey, at Level 3.
Israel, Japan, and Singapore have participated in the project as export customers.
Under the project, Turkey received delivery of its first aircraft in June 2018, in a ceremony held at Lockheed Martin facilities in Fort Worth, Texas.
"The F-35 aircraft will remain in the U.S. for a while for the training of our pilots, and will start to arrive at their duty posts in our country starting in November 2019," Serdar Demirel, Turkey deputy undersecretary for defense industries, told the ceremony.
Demirel also said: "Turkey has provided the strongest contribution to this program since its beginning, and has allocated significant resources to this partnership."
He added that Turkish industry’s participation contributes significantly to the program’s cost effectiveness.
Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant.
Israeli role in row?
In 2017 Israel, for its part, procured seven F-35s, and the jets made an appearance in Lebanese airspace the very next year.
Tel Aviv intends to buy dozens more, a total of up to 100, according to Israeli media reports.
Although officially denied by Israel, analysts believe that it may have a role in the U.S.' row with Turkey over the delivery of the promised F-35s.
According to a top Israeli defense official, as reported by Russian outlet Sputnik and Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel “wants to remain the only country in the region with F35 jets to maintain its military's qualitative edge."
Haaretz also reported that Israel is concerned about the F-35 sale to Turkey and expects the U.S. to withhold “upgrade capabilities.”
"While the Pentagon had previously expressed its willingness to follow through with its pledged delivery of US made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, Congressional opposition fuelled by a unique alliance of the US-based Armenian, Hellenic and Jewish lobbies continues to oppose the US delivery of the jets to NATO member Turkey," wrote Adam Garrie, director of Eurasia Future, an international policy think tank.
However, given Turkey's financial and technical commitment and contributions to the project, jettisoning Ankara from the jet deal seems technically and legally very difficult. Or even impossible, unless the U.S. applies the military slogan "we don't fight fair" to diplomacy and the rule of law.