The US Senate late on June 18 passed a defence bill that would block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey unless Ankara scraps its deal to buy S-400 missile-defence systems from Russia.
The provision targeting Turkey is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorises over $700bn in defence spending on military programmes and weapons. The legislation was passed by 85-to-10. However, the House of Representatives has passed its own version of the bill and the two measures must be reconciled before a compromise measure can be passed and sent to Donald Trump for his signature or veto.
Nato officials have repeatedly warned Turkey that the S-400 systems it agreed to buy from the Kremlin in 2016 are not compatible with the military bloc’s defences, and there are even worries that should they be tested against F-35s acquired by Turkey then Ankara would be in possession of highly sensitive performance data.
Turkey is one of the Nato partner countries in the F-35 programme. It has plans to buy about 100 of the stealth jets, manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp as the most advanced fighter planes the world has ever seen.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim responded to the Senate's passage of the bill by saying that it went against the spirit of strategic partnership. Turkey has alternatives and the bill would not make the country vulnerable, he asserted. Showing defiance just prior to the US Senate’s move, Turkey proposed to Russia the joint production of S-500 anti-ballistic missile systems that are still under development.
On June 20, Turkish Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag was cited by Haberturk as saying the first F-35 delivery to Turkey would be made on June 21, but the plane will actually be presented to Turkish officials at a US air base and will stay there until an agreement is reached on sending it to the actual country.
US lawmakers have also been unsettled by Ankara's warming strategic ties with Moscow and Turkey’s arresting of US citizens and consulate staff as part of the massive purges that have been seen in the country under its near-two-year-old state of emergency, including a US pastor who is on trial for alleged collaboration with groups Turkey blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
On April 23, it was reported that the future maintenance of the UK’s F-35 fighter jets might be put at risk by Washington’s displeasure with Ankara over its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems. Turkey builds components for the F-35 and, critically, is the US-designated country for an engine overhaul plant that will serve European F-35 customers.
The Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and Norway are other European countries buying the F-35 that may be affected by the row between the US and Turkey over the S-400.
UK-Turkish jet project hits trouble
In another potential blow to Turkey’s plan to build up its armed forces, the Financial Times reported on June 12 that Turkish and UK ministers are battling to save a flagship partnership to develop a fifth generation fighter jet.
Rolls-Royce, the British aero-engine group, has been working with Turkish industrial giant Kale to bid for the engine development contract on the TF-X jet, an ambitious project to produce Turkey’s first indigenous combat aircraft. But a dispute has emerged over the role of a company with close ties to Qatar and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The project ran into problems after Turkish defence officials demanded that Rolls-Royce share sensitive technology with TR Motor, a company that is 55%-controlled by a subsidiary of BMC, a defence manufacturer whose major shareholders include the Qatari ministry of defence, and a tycoon, Ethem Sancak, known for his links the Turkish president.
“The UK government does not want to fully lift export controls. They say: ‘What if in 10 years’ time there is a huge row with another country and we want to stop selling this to them?’” a Turkish official was quoted as saying by the financial and business daily.
If Rolls-Royce is forced to pull out of the project this could call into question the role of BAE Systems, which last year signed a £100m contract with Turkish Aerospace Industries to help design the jet.