F-35 faces Turkish uncertainty as US sanctions loom over Russian defence deal

F-35 Lightning II. [EPA-EFE/US NAVY/MATTHEW FREEMAN]

Washington is looking to impose financial sanctions on Turkish firms beyond those that build parts for the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 fighter jet, due to Ankara’s plans to buy a Russian-built S-400 NATO non-compatible air defence system, a top Pentagon official said on Monday (17 June).

According to chief arms buyer Ellen Lord, an inter-agency US government group was looking at potential sanctions against a wider range of Turkish firms under the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

“There have been no decisions made on that point. However, it would be very, very significant for Turkey,” Lord told reporters at the Paris Air Show.

“But that’s not really what we want to do,” she said. “We want to find a way to continue to work with Turkey.”

Turkish firms currently build 937 parts for the stealth fighter, and Ankara had planned to buy 100 of F-35 fighters, which would have a total value of $9 billion at current prices.

Lord’s comments at the Paris Airshow reflected growing concern in Washington about Turkey’s refusal to reverse its purchase of the S-400 system. So far, two planes have been produced for the country.

US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar remain in contact about Ankara’s plans to buy the Russian air defence system and might meet during NATO ministerial meetings in Brussels next week to discuss the matter, NATO’s new commander in Europe, US General Tod Wolters, told reporters on Tuesday (18 June).

“We won’t co-locate those two assets, the S-400 and the F-35,” Wolters told reporters on the sidelines of the Paris Airshow.

He added that despite the current Turkish stance, the military-to-military relationship between the United States and NATO remained “absolutely, positively solid.”

US and NATO officials are working to preserve their close cooperation with Turkey on military matters, mindful of Turkey’s strategic location as a gateway to the Middle East.

Turkish officials argue that Ankara is fulfilling its responsibilities in the F-35 project and they expect the programme to continue as planned.

The Pentagon, however, recently announced that it would reallocate Turkish work for the F-35 programme to US sites and other partners in 2020, ending Turkey’s manufacturing role by early next year, unless Ankara reversed its S-400 procurement decision.

“We are always looking for alternative sources of supply, to mitigate against any kind of risk, be it financial, political, or something else,” Greg Ulmer, vice-president and general manager for the F-35 programme, speaking at the Paris Air Show on Monday (17 June), told reporters.

But “as of today, nothing has changed. The programme-of-record stands and we are still producing aircraft for Turkey,” Ulmer said, adding that he is “not going to speculate beyond that”.

Asked whether such an alternative could be Poland, industry officials said that “all possibilities lie on the table”.

Only last week, US President Donald Trump confirmed Poland’s decision to purchase 32 F-35A fighter jets, as part of a larger deal that will see the US strengthen their defence relationship with Warsaw.

Currently over 400 aircraft of this type are operating worldwide, stationed across 17 bases. According to the companies’ projections, in 2023, there will be more than 1,000 aircraft in more than 40 bases and warships.

In addition to the US, nine partner nations have funded its development and produce components, including: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom. Foreign military customers include Israel, Japan and South Korea. Belgium has also elected to procure the plane.

Under pressure from the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin has been working to bring F-35 costs down.

At the same time, work is underway to improve various elements of the plane.The fighter jet will receive additional capabilities in the coming years including significantly enhanced range, weapons capacity and cooperation with unmanned systems, the company’s officials confirmed to reporters at the Paris Air Show.

Meanwhile, European companies brace themselves to face their much bigger American rivals.

On Monday (17 June), Germany, France and Spain signed an agreement for the joint construction of Europe’s largest arms project to date, the so-called Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

Given the high interest in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet among European partners, with Poland recently sealing a deal to purchase 32 of those aircraft, the new military project is also seen as part of a broader push to unify Europe’s military might and reduce its reliance on US equipment.

The previous edition of the world largest air show, then taking place in Farnborough, saw the unveiling of the UK’s future sixth-generation fighter jet Tempest, which Italy and the Netherlands also joined forces to help develop.

Next-generation European fighter jet cooperation ready for take-off

Germany, France and Spain inked on Monday (17 June) a framework agreement for the joint construction of Europe’s largest arms project to date, the so-called Future Air Combat System (FCAS).

 

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