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Stealth Fighter Sale to Turkey Risks Russian Interference

Senators turn to spending bill, NDAA in bid to block purchase

President Donald Trump stands in front of an F-35 fighter jet at the White House on July 23, alongside CEO Marillyn Hewson and test pilot Alan Norman of Lockheed Martin. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump stands in front of an F-35 fighter jet at the White House on July 23, alongside CEO Marillyn Hewson and test pilot Alan Norman of Lockheed Martin. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The United States’ plans to sell the stealthy F-35 jet to a key NATO ally could allow Russia to study the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history like a lab sample — a threat that has drawn the attention of several senators intent on protecting the pricey plane.

Turkey is just one of many NATO members that plans to buy the American-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but it is the only country in the alliance that has also inked a deal to purchase the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

If those weapons systems worked in tandem, it could give the Russian military a front-row seat to the F-35’s capabilities — and, perhaps more importantly, its potential vulnerabilities.

“The F-35 and the S-400 are just nonstarters,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said shortly after visiting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

Graham and fellow Republican James Lankford, along with Democrat Chris Van Hollen, are so opposed to the Turks mixing Russian missile defense systems with U.S. jets that they included a provision in the Senate’s Defense spending bill banning Turkey from acquiring F-35s if Ankara also purchases the Russian missile defense system.

North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis and New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen have a similar provision in the Senate’s defense authorization bill that would block the sale of the F-35s to Turkey. House and Senate conferees on Monday wrapped up negotiations on the final version of the Pentagon policy bill, which the House could vote on as early as this week.

While Graham and other hawks don’t believe that Ankara would willingly hand over key information on the F-35 to Moscow, Russian missile defense experts would have to train Turkish missile defense operators.

Turkey received its first F-35 in June, and Turkish pilots are currently learning to fly the jets at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Meanwhile, Turkey plans to receive its Russian-made missile defense systems no later than July 2019, which means members of the Russian military could be in Turkey with access to Turkish missile defense while F-35s fly above them.

“An aircraft operating within range of S-400 sensors, those sensors could, and the weapons system itself could be used to gain some significant information on the characteristics of an F-35,” said Mark Gunzinger, a former senior Pentagon official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Would the S-400 actually be able to detect the range, altitude, speed and everything of an F-35 to be able to launch an accurate intercept? That’s really a difficult topic to discuss in an unclassified way.”

But Thomas Christie, who served as the Pentagon’s top weapons tester from 2001 to 2005, thinks Moscow may already know plenty about the F-35 after the Israelis flew their F-35s within range of Syria’s Russian-made missile defense systems.

The Israeli flights, though, weren’t broadcast ahead of time to the Syrians or Russians. If Turkey were to operate both systems simultaneously, it would make it much easier for Russian trainers in Turkey to collect information on the jets.

“I think [the Russians] already have everything they want,” Christie said. “If they don’t, it’s certainly a mechanism whereby they could get it.”

Turkish government officials said they would ensure such a scenario never occurs. But removing Russia’s hands from the Turkish system would be difficult, considering that Russia will be involved in the missile system’s maintenance and upgrades.

“In today’s day and age, understating the kinds of technologies that have been developed and matured, and Russia’s ability to use cyber tools and other capabilities to gain information surreptitiously, you have to be concerned,” Gunzinger said.

Regional dynamics

Turkey’s decision to buy the missile defense system came shortly after one of the lowest points in recent Russian-Turkish relations.

In 2015, a Turkish F-16 downed a Russian SU-24 fighter jet that Turkey claims entered its airspace. The pilot and navigator ejected, but the pilot was shot and killed by rebels in Syria while parachuting to the ground, a violation of the Geneva Convention. The navigator was rescued.

Furious with Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin squeezed the Turkish economy, banning visa-free travel for Turks, barring Russians from chartering vacations in Turkey and levying sanctions on Turkish food imports. The pressure worked. Erdogan apologized to Putin in June 2016 for downing the Russian jet, and Russo-Turkish relations strengthened.

Turkey’s economy, however, is still sputtering. Erdogan could be seeking economic growth by increasing trade with the United States, said Graham. Erdogan floated the idea of a free-trade agreement with the U.S. when the two met in June, Graham said.

If Turkey were to pursue free trade with the United States — and if President Donald Trump would entertain the idea — the missile defense system would surely be a sticking point. But Turkey has scrapped missile defense deals before, like in 2015 when Ankara canceled a deal with a Chinese company to develop a new long-range missile defense system. Turkish government officials insist the S-400 buy is a done deal.

Personalities at play This spat between allies, though, is far more than a geopolitical nightmare. It’s personal.

After a failed July 2016 coup aimed at dislodging Erdogan, the Turkish government jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson — one of Tillis’ constituents who has evangelized in Turkey for more than 20 years — on espionage charges.

Brunson’s prosecutors have relied on “secret” witnesses to testify against him.

“Any time an American is wrongfully detained anywhere by a foreign government, it is our country’s duty to do everything we can to bring him or her home,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Despite senators’ personal diplomacy, Brunson was ordered to remain behind bars at a June 18 hearing and will stay there until his next hearing in October. The decision enraged the White House.

“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison,” Trump tweeted after Brunson’s hearing.

The tweet marks a rare public break between Trump and Erdogan, who have maintained a cordial relationship since first meeting in Washington last year. Turkey’s intransigence seems to be wearing on the president, which may help align Trump with lawmakers who see Ankara turning away from the West.

After surviving the coup attempt, Erdogan fired more than 150,000 public officials based on alleged links to the coup and jailed more than 64,000 on terrorism charges, according to the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch. Additionally, Turkey has jailed hundreds of journalists and a Turkish national who worked at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul.

Erdogan has since consolidated his power through a 2017 constitutional referendum that eliminated the role of the prime minister and elevated the president to the head executive position.

Emboldened, Erdogan moved up Turkey’s planned November 2019 presidential election to June 2018, which he won. He will now rule Turkey uninhibited for the next five years, a prospect that concerns Capitol Hill.

“This is an issue that has to be solved long-term with Turkey,” Lankford said. “Ultimately, it’s not about the F-35, it’s about Turkey and its future. We don’t need to turn over one of America’s finest pieces of technology to a country that we don’t know who they’re becoming.”

Strategic location

Walking away from F-35 sales to Turkey would be easier said than done. Ten Turkish companies currently produce F-35 components, from electrical wiring to the jets’ fuselages. In 2014 the Pentagon chose Turkey to be the plane’s regional repair depot.

Blocking F-35 sales to Turkey, which plans to buy more than 100 of the jets, would not only drive up the price per plane for other buyers, it could also provoke Ankara to cease production of the jet’s key components.

That threat alone is enough for both the Pentagon and plane-maker Lockheed Martin to oppose it.

Lockheed Martin’s Vice President for Legislative Affairs Kristine Fauser warned congressional staffers in a June 22 email. “We would just ask that the national security impacts be considered as part of this debate and that folks understand that the impact is broader than just the international Turkey program,” Fauser wrote. “Access to the Turkish supply chain could have dramatic impacts to our ability to deliver aircraft to the US and our other allied partners.”

Lockheed may very well get its wish. House Defense Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, who represents the Texas district where the planes are assembled, said she opposes the Senate language, creating a significant issue to tackle in negotiations on a final spending bill later this year.

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey hasn’t given the measure a vote of confidence either. “Whether it survives or not, honestly, I don’t know,” Frelinghuysen said.

For Lankford, though, this is about more than supply chains, unit cost and spending bills. It’s about the future of the NATO alliance.

“We need to think this through long and hard,” Lankford said.

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