The Turkish government has confirmed its second order of F-35s from US prime contractor Lockheed Martin, even as Turkey is tilting toward a ruling style that more closely resembles Russia than Western governments.
Turkey’s Defence Industry Executive Committee, which is chaired by the prime minister, announced the first planned delivery of F-35As for 2018, with the second order to be delivered between 2021 and 2022, according to a 28 October press release. The release also mentioned the planned procurement of a command and control aircraft and Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk helicopter modernisation project.
The first order of two jets in low-rate initial production lot 10 will begin in 2018 with the second order of four jets in LRIP 11 starting in 2019, according to Lockheed. Turkey plans to order 100 conventional takeoff and landing F-35As and has funded a total of 30 jets so far, with eight aircraft scheduled for lots 12, 13 and 14.
As a NATO member sitting on the border of the Syria, Turkey has emerged as a crucial partner for the US in the fight against ISIS. Turkey has also sealed its place as a key contributor to the F-35 programme, with the first heavy engine maintenance centre in Europe in 2018, supporting the Pratt & Whitney F135 powerplant for the F-35A, and with Turkish Aerospace Industries as a second source producing the aircraft’s centre fuselage. Beyond sales for Lockheed, Turkey plans to buy 109 Sikorsky/TAI T-70 utility helicopters.
But over the past year president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made several moves that drew criticisms from his NATO allies. Erdogan's response to a failed coup attempt on 15 July strained relations with the US government. In recent weeks, Erdogan met Russian president Vladimir Putin to sign a gas pipeline deal
While current arms deals to Turkey could prove lucrative for Western defence contractors such as Lockheed, the tenuous situation mirrors US relations with Iran before the 1979 revolution, says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis for the Teal Group. Although there’s no reason to prematurely assume an adversarial situation with a NATO ally, the US government’s policy has gone on autopilot, he says.
“The US hasn't thought through the consequences or it hasn’t registered yet,” he says. “It’s not just about the technology, it’s about operational procedures and training.”
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and now resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, also draws parallels to US sales to Iran. In 2010, Rubin warned a Congressional foreign affairs committee of the critical transfer of F-35 technology to Turkey, which had already begun a change in domestic and foreign policy. Unlike the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, Turkey’s government appears to be transforming from within, Rubin says.
“The government we’re dealing with now may not be the government down the pike, even if it’s the same people,” Rubin says. “It shows how mercurial Erdogan is. He’s gone from hating to Putin, to being his best friend in a couple months.”
Still, if Turkey wants to nurture its burgeoning defence industry, it would be prudent to foster a democratic government, Aboulafia says. He points out that Russia’s brute aircraft are not globally competitive and limited to sales in mostly developing countries, particularly China and India.
“Open societies are great for aerospace, closed societies are not,” he says. “Try designing a plane when engineers can’t use Google.”