US removes Turkey from F-35 fighter programme

Washington ratified its decision to exclude Ankara from the arms production agreement following the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-missile system in 2019
Un F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter despega en una salida de entrenamiento en la Base de la Fuerza Aérea de Eglin, Florida PHOTO/ U.S. Air Force photo/Randy Gon/Handout via REUTERS

PHOTO/ U.S. Air Force photo/Randy Gon/Handout via REUTERS  -   An F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter takes off on a training sortie at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The United States on Wednesday excluded Turkey from the F-35 fighter programme and signed a new cooperation agreement with its partners, Anadolu Agency reported. The US Department of Defence moved the final decision to remove the Ottoman country after it suspended its participation in 2019, when Turkey acquired the Russian S-400 air-launched missile system.

The joint memorandum of understanding, signed in 2006, was an eight-state arms collaboration agreement that included the Ottoman country among the developers of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. Turkish companies were responsible for manufacturing certain parts of the equipment until 2019, when Turkey's participation was suspended. 

The Department of Defence justified Turkey's exclusion on the grounds that its purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-missile was incompatible with NATO postulates and threatening. However, Turkey maintained the terms of the agreement with Russia. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu assured Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the purchase was 'a done deal'. The US responded by imposing a sanctions regime on the Ottoman arms industry.

El presidente de Turquía ha criticado a Estados Unidos por echar a su país del programa de aviones de combate F-35 después de que Ankara comprara un sistema ruso de defensa antimisiles PHOTO/ Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP
PHOTO/ Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP-Turkey's president has criticised the United States for kicking his country out of the F-35 fighter jet programme after Ankara bought a Russian missile defence system.

Washington withdrew Turkey from the F-35 Lightning II aircraft programme in 2019, arguing that the S-400 airborne missile systems acquired by Turkey could be used by Russia to covertly obtain classified details of Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft and is incompatible with NATO systems.

For its part, the United States renewed the F-35 fighter programme with the remaining signatory partners in 2006, including the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Canada and Norway. No new members joined the programme, so the only new development was the definitive exclusion of Turkey.

Despite Turkey's withdrawal from the programme and the imposition of US sanctions on Turkey in December, Ottoman contractors are continuing the process of manufacturing parts for the fifth-generation fighter. The Pentagon acknowledged in March that it will continue to rely on Turkish contractors for F-35 development. Turkey had been planning to buy 100 F-35s, but the US has refused to deliver the four completed jets following the country's expulsion from the programme.

Sistema de misiles tierra-aire S-400 "Triumph" REUTERS/VITALY NEVAR
REUTERS/VITALY NEVAR-S-400 surface-to-air missile system "Triumph".

The Turkish defence industry hired former Lockheed Martin executive Stephen Williams to lobby Washington on behalf of Turkey's interests. The aim of the Turkish Defence Industry Presidency (SSTEK) was to reinstate Turkey's participation in the F-35 fighter programme. The publicly owned institution also hired the Washington-based law firm Arnold & Porter to reverse the US Department of Defence's decision. 

Turkish Defence Industry President Ismail Demir in March called Turkey's withdrawal from the programme an "injustice" and said that the country's intention was not necessarily to rejoin the programme, but to recoup its financial losses. At the time of its withdrawal from the agreement, Ankara was producing parts for an order for 100 F-35 fighter jets. 
REUTERS/VITALY NEVAR

A deteriorating relationship

Tensions between Washington and Ankara have led to the latter's formal exit from the arms programme. However, this has not been the only point of friction between the two. Prior to Biden's arrival at the White House, Erdogan sought to temper diplomatic relations with the US after the constant confrontation with former President Trump. Yet the Democrat has yet to hold any talks with Erdogan after three months in office. 

Once strategic partners, US-Turkey ties have deteriorated over major foreign policy differences. Washington and Ankara hold divergent views on Syria, on cooperation with Russia and, finally, on the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. On this last point, the US views Turkish naval interventions as destabilising.

The latest confrontation between the two may come in the coming days as President Biden prepares to formally recognise the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the regime that preceded the current Turkish Republic. Armenian-American lawmakers and activists have pressed the Democrat to make the announcement before or on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which will be observed this Saturday. "If the United States wants our relations to worsen, it is up to them," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a statement.