Turkish pilots will continue training in F-35s until DoD Report - Pentagon

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday signed a national defence bill that will prevent U.S. weapons sales to Turkey for 90 days, including the new generation F-35 fighter jets ordered by the country.

The $716 billion John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (NDAA) asks the U.S. Department of Defense to produce a plan within 90 days to outline how Turkey will be phased out of the production chain of the F-35 and how much this change of plans will cost the U.S. and other countries. 

F-35 Production Industrial Participation opportunities for Turkish companies had been projected to reach more than $12 billion, according to the F-35 Lightening II website. Ten Turkish companies have supported the development and/or production of F-35 / F135, with a total Turkish investment of more than $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Turkey received its first of a projected 100 F-35 fighters in June. However, the jets remain in the United States where their Turkish pilots are receiving training, and are not due to arrive in Turkey until at least Sep. 2019.

Since the United States had no prior plan to deliver more F-35 to Turkey within the next 90 days, the suspension of the delivery as required by the NDAA until the the Pentagon report is prepared does not, in reality, stop any jet transfer to Turkey.

Eric Pahon, Pentagon spokesperson told Ahval in an email that “[t]he training of Turkish F-35 personnel at Luke Air Force Base will continue until the NDAA-required Secretary of Defense F-35 report has been submitted to Congress for their decision on the way forward.” 

Pahon added that “[t]he F-35 Joint Program Office is supporting the Defense Department's report submission requirement to Congress on status of the United States relationship with the Republic of Turkey as directed in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.” 

Pahon added that “[t]he F-35 JPO, in conjunction with all F-35 Partners, will continue to execute current program plans and will abide by any future policy directions as required.”

In other words, if the result of the prepared report is that the U.S. Government favours phasing Turkey out of the production chain of F-35, which will be surely under the direction of White House, then the F-35 JPO will take the necessary measures. Therefore, the NDAA indeed only temporarily halts the transfer of F-35s to Turkey, but also leaves a door open to bring new and permanent blocks based on the report's findings. 

At a time when a Turkish president for the first time in nearly 70 years of alliance is openly fighting with a U.S. president, it is hard to predict how the relations between the two countries will be shaped in the next 90 days. 

Henri Barkey, a prominent expert when it comes to U.S. and Turkish relations, proposes that the only way to get out of this serious impasse is a summit between Trump and Erdogan. Other than that, Erdogan is expected to visit New York for the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September and that will be another chance for leaders to meet up on the margins.

However, the fact that the U.S. Congress has passed a first bill passing embargoes on Turkey is bad news in itself, since there are still more bills at Congress that could bring various restrictions on Turkey.

A senate bill introduced by a prominent group of bipartisan U.S. senators called on the Unites States government to work with other international monetary institutions “to restrict loans from financial institutions until Turkey ends the unjust detention of U.S. citizens.” The bill has already passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Apart from Congress, the White House has been threatening to sanction the Turkish government. Two high-profile ministers who are close allies of Erdoğan have already been targeted by the Magnitsky Act. Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu’s Gül and Soylu’s assets in the United States were blocked, and U.S. citizens are prohibited from engaging in financial transactions with the pair in the sanctions announced by the United States last week, in response to the “leading roles” they played “in the organizations responsible for the arrest and detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson.”

In addition, Turkey's purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system would possibly trigger CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which applies secondary sanctions to countries engaging which deal with Moscow in the fields of defence and energy.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.