by Paul Iddon
Turkey’s apparent inability to prevent leaks of sensitive American and British military and technical information to third parties may be one factor that results in it losing an opportunity to field not one, but two types of fifth-generation warplanes in the near future.
On April 1, the United States halted the delivery of training equipment Turkey will need for the 100 fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II jets it has ordered. Two unnamed sources told Reuters that the next shipment of such equipment had been cancelled.
Washington is withholding these items in order to show Ankara that it is serious about cancelling the delivery if it goes ahead and takes delivery of highly sophisticated S-400 air defense systems it is purchasing from Russia.
U.S. Air Force Colonel Mike Andrews, a Defense Department spokesman, summed up Washington’s position very succinctly when he stated that: “Pending an unequivocal Turkish decision to forgo delivery of the S-400, deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability have been suspended.”
On May 3, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned Turkey that the U.S. would remove Turkey from the F-35 production program – which would see the manufacture of parts of the aircraft’s cockpit displays, fuselage and landing gear moved elsewhere – if it buys the S-400.
Speaking at the International Defense Industry Fair in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that Turkey is an integral and irreplaceable member of the F-35 production program, something that is not reflected by reality according to U.S. sources familiar with the program.
Also on May 3, three House Armed Service Committee lawmakers put forward a bill to ban the sale of F-35s to Turkey if it buys the S-400. One of its sponsors, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi, said that “the bill sends a strong and important message to Turkey – proceeding with the S-400 is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” However, Ankara does not seem to heed these warnings: Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay reaffirmed Turkey’s stance on the issue two days later, saying that U.S. concerns are not legitimate and that Ankara would push ahead with its Russian purchase.
The U.S. opposes Turkish acquisition of S-400s, invariably pointing to that system’s non-compatibility with other NATO systems. Washington’s main concerns, however, is that Turkish S-400s could end up relaying sensitive information about the F-35 to Russia if they are both operated together, information such as radar signature and profiles for Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF). Additionally, if Russian technicians are sent to Turkey in order to train the Turks how to operate the system, they could get an opportunity to see how capable the S-400 is at detecting and tracking the stealthy warplane.
Another fear is that if Turkey manages to directly integrate the S-400 with its other air defense systems and related networks also linked to the F-35 this could compromise even more information about the aircraft to Russia (for example data stored in the cloud-based multinational Automatic Logistics Information System ALIS). This would be a major intelligence breach since the F-35 is set to become a preeminent front-line fighter in the U.S. Air Force as well as other air forces in the NATO alliance.
Turkey may have tried to address these concerns. According to the pro-governmental Daily Sabah, Turkey rejected a Russian offer to send military technicians to help to field the system. It instead asked Moscow to train its personnel on how to “run the system on their own without Russians setting foot on Turkish soil”. Turkish officials also seem to have told a concerned American delegation in January that the Turkish S-400s “will be based on domestic software”. Turkey claims it does not have any plans to link its S-400s with either its own networks or those of NATO’s.
In mid-February, Turkey rejected an alternative last-minute U.S. offer to buy U.S. MIM-104 Patriot air defense missiles instead, indicating that a showdown on this increasingly contentious issue could transpire in the coming months. Turkey is currently expecting Russia to begin delivering the missiles in July.
“Ankara’s reassurances have failed to assuage the concerns about sensitive information on the F-35 ending up in Russian hands,” noted Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in a recent piece for War on the Rocks. “Indeed, it seems increasingly likely that Washington will block the transfer of the jets to Turkey […] undermining a key element of the modern Turkish-American alliance: defence industrial cooperation.”
This, incidentally, is not the only case whereby concerns over military information being compromised are posing obstacles to Turkey acquiring fifth-generation aircraft.
According to the Financial Times, the British company Rolls-Royce “has scaled back” its bid to join the Turkish Kale group in a contract to make engines for Turkey’s planned fifth generation air superiority fighter jet, the all-weather Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) TF-X.
Rolls-Royce is concerned about its intellectual property being compromised as a result of the involvement of a subsidiary to the Turkish arms manufacturer BMC. Qatar is a major shareholder of BMC, and military ties between Ankara and Doha have been continuously expanding in recent years. Rolls-Royce opposes the inclusion of BMC in the project since it fears its intellectual property, which it has agreed to share with Turkey to enable Ankara to manufacture indigenous jet engines, could be either passed on or leaked to a third party.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has eagerly sought even more exorbitant arms deals in the Middle East in the wake of the Brexit referendum of 2016. She visited Turkey in January 2017 and negotiated a £100 million deal to help Turkey build the TF-X. One official in the UK at the time summed this up as a “gateway” agreement which could lead to successive arms deals worth billions of pounds in the years to come.
Turkey’s inability to allay Rolls-Royces’ concerns might mean the contract will instead go to another non-British firm. A Russian firm, for example, expressed interest about a year ago to participate in the project. Not having the help of a British company will not necessarily prevent Turkey from developing the TF-X, but it could potentially delay the project significantly. That would be a setback for Ankara since it doubtlessly wants the aircraft, or at least its prototype, operational by 2023 for the centennial of the Turkish republic’s foundation.
Additionally, Rolls-Royce not getting the contract could ultimately result in Turkey developing a national jet fighter with inferior engines. Ankara currently plans to power the TF-X’s upcoming prototype and its initial batch with General Electric F110 engines. “If the Turks go for the GE option, they will have to compromise on the stealth capabilities of the TF-X,” said one defense specialist cited by Defense News.
Even though both these cases are quite distinct, they share one common theme. That being Turkey’s failure to reassure either the United States or Britain that it remains a trustworthy partner with whom to share military technology. This might prove detrimental for Turkey’s largely American and European-equipped military in the long run.