Is Turkey still a friend to keep close, or an enemy to keep closer?
On Wednesday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Turkish officials over the country’s detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, on flimsy charges. It’s the latest incident in deteriorating relations with the NATO ally, complicating matters far beyond the captive pastor.
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still considered a model ally, Turkey became a partner in a 2001 program launched by Lockheed Martin to manufacture the state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jet, designed to consolidate the West’s air superiority in battle.
To lower development costs, the United States partnered with 12 countries, each financing or manufacturing parts of the project. Israel’s Elbit, for example, developed a high-tech pilot’s helmet, which is integrated with the aircraft’s other systems and enhances its combat capabilities. But Like Britain and other European F-35 partners, as well as Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea, Israel is a staunch US ally.
Turkey? Well, it’s complicated.
In December, Ankara signed a deal with Moscow, reportedly worth $2.5 billion, to buy Russian-made S-400 antiaircraft systems, scheduled for delivery next July. NATO officials worry the alliance’s American-made anti-aircraft systems will be incompatible with Turkey’s Russian ones, and that Russia will learn too much about our defense tech.
In June Lockheed Martin transferred the first two F-35s to Turkish ownership for training purposes, but they remain at Luke Air Force base in Arizona. Scott Bishop, the F-35 program director at Lockheed, says it’ll be years before they arrive in Turkey, if ever.
Will Turkey, a partner in the program and still due to receive more F-35s, now help Russia learn how to override the aircraft’s stealth capabilities and defeat other advantages? “Maybe, maybe not,” Bishop says cryptically, suggesting there are ways to mitigate such harm.
“Don’t think of stealth as a mode. Think of it as one of many weapons systems that pilots utilize to enhance lethal capabilities,” says David Berke, a former Marine pilot, considered an F-35 guru.
(This week Berke helped me “destroy” enemy MiGs and ground targets during a simulated F-35 flight at Lockheed’s Virginia offices.)
Unlike prior jet fighters, the F-35 carries external items — bombs, extra fuel tanks, etc. — inside the shield that renders it invisible to radar. But there are other technical components enhancing its invisibility, and they can be updated like your iPhone’s operating system. Not all those capabilities are known to all partners.
Yet fear of Erdogan’s newfound love for Putin and other unsavory global players has pushed some in Congress to try to block the sale of F-35s. Turkey’s drifting away from us too quickly, they say.
In the late 1990s, Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula (ret.) was stationed in Incirlik, Turkey. That NATO base is crucial, he says, because 75 percent of the world’s major conflicts since WWII happened within a 750-mile circle around it. “Back then, if someone told me Erdogan was going to shift Turkey to a theocracy, I would start laughing,” Deptula says, “but here we are, 20 years later.”
This week Erdogan accused America of a “Zionist mentality” for pressuring him to release Brunson. Last week he said there’s no difference between “Hitler’s Aryan race obsession and Israel’s mentality.”
Israel is the only country to have used the F-35 in real-life combat. Turkey’s partnership in the program, coupled with its enmity and increasing closeness to Islamists abroad, especially Iran, has surely been noticed by Israeli military planners.
Turkey has few allies left in the region, says Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Erdogan has pivoted Turkey toward Russia and Iran, since he feels more comfortable among authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes who do not bother him with concerns of human rights or rule of law,” he says.
While geopolitics would seem to make Turkey as important as ever to have as an ally, its behavior cries for some distance. The F-35 dilemma is instructive: We can’t outright cancel a deal struck when we were friends, but we’re wary of carrying it out.
If we can’t manage to keep Erdogan close as a friend, he’ll be an enemy so close even old Vito Corleone wouldn’t be able to pull him closer.
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