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How two S-400 batteries removed 100 NATO F-35s from Turkey

By M Waqas Jan

Last week’s announcement by the White House regarding its decision to suspend Turkey from the F-35 Fighter Jet program marks the latest development in the steady deterioration of ties between the two NATO allies. The announcement which comes after Turkey received the first shipment of its Russian S-400 Air Defense System, represents the consequential outcome of Turkey developing closer strategic ties with Russia at the cost of estranging long-standing NATO allies such as the US. 

Within this context,  the White House’s announcement is being widely perceived as the US finally going through with the ultimatum it had set for Turkey to; either choose the 5thGeneration Fighter Jet which it had jointly developed with its NATO partners over the last two decades, or to choose the world’s most advanced air defense system that is in effect designed to target and neutralize next-gen fighter jets such as the F-35. The White House made this clear by stating that, “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.” As a result, Turkey’s order of 100 F-35 Fighter jets including the two it had already taken delivery of in the US stands effectively cancelled as of last week. 

While the US had already suspended Turkish pilots from training on the jet as part of this deal, this latest move also puts to rest the role of the Turkish Aerospace and Defense Industries which have so far been responsible for manufacturing around 937 different components for the F-35. These contracts estimated at around $9 billion over the course of the program included components for the F-35’s cockpit display systems as well as its landing gear. Hence, the diplomatic fallout that has resulted from Turkey’s choice of weapons systems also carry very tangible and far-reaching economic and industrial implications. 

As such these developments also serve as the consequential outcome of what many perceive as a major diplomatic victory on Russia’s part. This can be gleaned from the fact that the S-400 without engaging in combat nor launching a single missile has effectively struck down the F-35s designated for Turkey that had been a key component of the NATO framework. Russia’s sale of the S-400 to Turkey instead stands as part of a successful diplomatic maneuver that has effectively created considerable dissent and discord amongst NATO allies. Extending beyond the realms of international peace and security, this also carries very tangible and far-reaching implications for the development of long-term defense and strategic relations between Turkey and Russia. Turkey’s refusal to thus heed the US ultimatum represents a policy calculus which not only considers the S-400 as more strategically valuable than the F-35, but also a long-term partnership with Russia as being more important than the above-mentioned costs to its military-industrial complex.

This aspect is in itself immensely significant considering how Turkey has remained at the historical crossroads of Eurasia lying at the periphery of a NATO led Europe at one end, and a heavily Russian influenced Central Asia at the other. Not to mention its close historical ties and proximity to the volatile Middle East and Persian Gulf regions where both the US and Russian militaries boast a significant presence. Over the last few years, Turkey has attempted to leverage its relationships with both the US and Russia against the backdrop of the volatile situation at its borders (such as in Iraq and Syria) to its own strategic advantage. 

However, with the US going through with its ultimatum last week, Turkey’s complex relationship with the West has just taken another turn for the worse. This recent episode has thus added to the growing list of US’s grievances with Turkey that run across multiple fault-lines. These include the flare up over the Gulen-Bronson dilemma, the failed coup by allegedly pro-US elements in the Turkish military, and the Jamal Khashoggi affair all of which have considerably strained relations between both countries over the last few years.

Yet, it is perhaps keeping in mind these growing divisions that the US stopped short of lending a certain finality to its decision. With a view to maintaining unity within NATO the US has still said that it will continue to engage with Turkey as part of NATO and that it is only suspending Turkey’s role in the F-35 program still leaving perhaps a way back in. This impetus for maintaining the sanctity of NATO is perhaps what Turkey has been counting on as leverage in its decision to go ahead with its purchase of the S-400. Another major factor in Turkey’s decision has been attributed to President Erdogan’s personal chemistry with President Trump in which the latter has laid the blame largely on President Obama’s government for refusing Turkey’s request for the purchase of the Patriot Missile Defense system a decade ago. Mr. Trump’s personal bonhomie with President Putin too is also likely to play a major role where the decision if taken against Mr. Trump’s personal inclinations are indicative of a likely rift between the White House on one side, and the State Dept and Pentagon on the other. 

Therefore, considering how the S-400 has led to the creation of far-reaching political and diplomatic rifts within both NATO and the US politico-leadership, the above developments represent a major example of how Russia has come to exploit shifting geo-political dynamics to its strategic as well as economic advantage. Especially in a region where Russia has come to increasingly challenge the US’s role as a major power broker, Russia’s success in creating rifts within NATO and also perhaps within US policy circles represents a clear vindication of its strategic interests and approach to foreign policy not only with respect to Turkey, but also within an increasingly multi-polar world order.

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M Waqas Jan

M Waqas Jan is a Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad.

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