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Not Divorce but a Defense Decoupling: What’s Next for the U.S.-Turkish Alliance

Though this article is late in getting here, it’s no less important to the birth pangs scenario.

War on the Rocks

After decades of speculation about the future of the U.S.-Turkish alliance, Washington and Ankara have finally reached a fork in the road. The day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced plans to deepen defense cooperation with Russia, his government formally submitted a request to the United States for 40 new Block 70 model F-16 aircraft and upgrade kits for 80 F-16s already in service with the Turkish Air Force. The U.S. Congress may well block the sale. (I’m anticipating that the sale will be blocked) And even if it goes through, Erdoğan may well decide to buy more Russian weapons anyways.

Early reports suggest that the US congress will block this sale

Over 40 US Representatives  – led by Congressman Chris Pappas (D-NH) and Congressional Hellenic Caucus co-chairs Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) – are pressing the Biden administration to put the brakes on Turkey’s request to purchase 40 F-16s, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).

The Pappas-Maloney-Bilirakis letter has received broad-based support from a coalition of ethnic, faith and civic groups that worked successfully with Senate and House leaders to block an earlier sale of F-35s to Turkey and also encouraged US sanctions on the Erdogan regime under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The coalition includes the Hellenic American Leadership Council, ANCA, American Friends of Kurdistan, the Hindu American Foundation and the Middle East Forum. Among the other groups opposing the F-16 sale are the American Jewish Committee, PSEKA, American Hellenic Institute, Coordinated Effort of Hellenes and the Armenian Council of America.

One wonders if Turkey made the request to demonstrate the reality that the US is not an ally? Or to make clear the idea of NATO’s one for all and all for one is a concept that has no basis in the real world.?

Back to War on The Rocks

This impasse was the inevitable result of Ankara’s 2017 decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system and Washington’s subsequent decision to impose sanctions and remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter program. As a result, the Turkish Air Force faces a serious issue in the near future. Ankara remains steadfast in its commitment to deploy the S-400, a system that Washington and major NATO allies have deemed a threat to Western tactical aviation. Absent a compromise on the deployment and location of the S-400, Ankara could be left without a fighter to replace aging F-16s. Turkey has made clear that it intends to develop its own fighter, dubbed TF/X, but the project is marred by issues with engine procurement and, at best, will not be produced at scale until the mid-2030s.

The S-400 Impasse

Turkey’s cooperation with American defense firms is not as easy as it once was. In 2017, the U.S. Congress responded to Russia’s election interference by passing the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. This legislation placed sanctions on Russia, but also threatened sanctions against third countries that purchased weapons from Russian state-owned defense industries. Turkey met the significant-transaction threshold when it purchased the S-400 missiles and then received the system in July 2019

The Trump administration delayed imposing the sanctions.

Which was irrelevant

Congress responded to Trump’s inaction in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 by tightening the language about sanctions and limiting the role of the executive in the process. Section 1245 clearly underscores the mood of Congress about future arms sales to Turkey. The text states that lifting sanctions or transferring the F-35 cannot take place unless Ankara “no longer possesses the S-400” and “provides credible assurances” that it will not procure the S-400. During the confirmation testimony for former Senator Jeff Flake, President Biden’s selection to be the next Ambassador to Turkey, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez went further, saying, “I do not see any new sales of (US) weapons systems in Turkey, unless there is a dramatic change in the conduct of the S-400s.”

On the S-400, the Trump administration suggested a compromise to avoid sanctions: The missile system would have to be kept in storage and not activated. This compromise would not have allowed Turkey to regain access to the F-35, but could have avoided the imposition of sanctions and eased the Congressional blockade on arms exports. Instead, the Turkish government chose to test the system in late October 2020, which led to the Trump administration to sanction Turkey in its final months in office. By delaying, the Trump administration pushed Congress to tighten language about sanctions and to block foreign military sales to Turkey.

The Future of the Turkish Air Force

The Turkish Air Force suffered a serious crisis after the failed July 2016 coup attempt.. The follow-on purges of officers had a deleterious effect on the pilot-to-aircraft ratio in the air force. (Pretty sure 5 years later some of these issues would be addressed)

The loss of the F-35 upended Turkish defense planning and undermined key assumptions the air force had made about the future of its fighter fleet. In this sense, the current effort to replace the F-35 with older models makes sense: The Block 70 fighter shares certain sensor characteristics with the F-35 and could help sustain the air force for the decade or more needed to build a capable indigenous fighter.

Turkey is not without options

The Turkish government has also suggested that it may purchase fighters from Russia. This approach makes little economic sense, given that the entirety of the Turkish Air Force logistics and maintenance operations are tethered to the F-16 and other U.S.-origin fighters. Despite this, Turkish political elites could decide investing further in bilateral relations with Russia has benefits beyond narrow concerns about military sustainment and logistics.

Turkey moving on..

The Turkish letter of request for the F-16 purchase and upgrade kits is the first indication that Ankara is making concrete preparations for a future without the F-35

The Turkish political elite could decide that the benefits of breaking free from Washington outweigh the short-term problems caused by decoupling from the United States. This would accelerate Ankara’s ongoing efforts to find alternative suppliers of air and cruise missile engines for the unmanned and rotary wing programs currently in development. Finding alternate suppliers would also sidestep American restrictions on the re-export of Turkish-made defense products that include U.S.-origin equipment. This approach could shield Ankara’s defense industry during times of tensions with Europe and America, which have been ongoing for close to decade.

What Now?

The U.S. Congress has made clear that future arms exports depend on resolving the S-400 issue. The Biden administration has, since taking power, shown deference to congressional prerogative on this issue. The likelihood for stalemate in the U.S. system is high. Turkish officials would be wise to seriously consider a compromise on the S-400. The future of the Turkish Air Force is murky and a single S-400 regiment is not worth the problems it will cause.

Ankara, however, may think differently, and prefer to turn back to Russia. Turkey’s original purchase of the S-400 made no sense — Ankara could have purchased U.S. or European alternatives and had ample warnings that procuring this Russian system would lead to sanctions and the loss of the world’s only fifth-generation fighter built for export. But Turkish civilian leadership defied Washington in spite of these consequences, and Turkey now has an operational S-400 at Murted Air Force Base.

Put simply, both sides should compromise. But both sides should also be prepared for the fact they probably won’t.

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