Even a post-Erdogan Turkey might not be readmitted into the F-35 program
The Turkish opposition alliance challenging incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a series of policy changes it promises to implement and intends to return Turkey to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. But even if it does win and reverses many of Erodgan's divisive policies, can it realistically hope to get Turkey back into that program?
In 2019, the U.S. suspended Turkey after Ankara began taking delivery of the S-400 air defense missile systems it had purchased from Russia. The U.S. had warned Turkey for months against acquiring that system, warning that it could enable Russia to glean sensitive intelligence about the F-35's capabilities.
Aside from banning Turkey from buying 100 F-35As for its air force, Washington also began removing Ankara from the co-production program. Under that program, Turkey had the lucrative opportunity to manufacture hundreds of different spare parts for other operators of the sophisticated stealth fighter.
The U.S. has repeatedly insisted that Turkey must rid itself of the S-400 and has staunchly refused any compromise on the issue. For its part, Erdogan's Turkey has doubled down on its purchase, although it has not deployed the system. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar reassured parliament last November that the Russian system "is in place and ready for use."
"It has a transfer time," he said. "After that, everything will be ready in an hour.
Having lost an opportunity to acquire fifth-generation aircraft for his air force, Erdogan requested 40 new advanced F-16 Block 70 jets and 79 modernization kits in October 2021 as part of a proposed deal valued at $6 billion. Those advanced F-16s, which are 4.5-generation fighters, would keep Turkey's F-16 fleet, the backbone of its air force, relatively up-to-date until it could develop or acquire fifth-generation jets sometime in the 2030s. Although, even here, there is substantial opposition from Congress due to Erdogan's many divisive policies.
After its expulsion, Erdogan also sought repayment of the $1.4 billion that Turkey had invested in the F-35 program. In late January, he again slammed the U.S., claiming it did not keep its word on the F-35 even though Turkey paid the $1.4 billion. "If you give nothing in return, then there will be a price for that, too," he warned.
The opposition alliance wants to reestablish relations with the U.S. based on mutual trust and somehow return Turkey to the F-35 program. They also want to maintain Turkey-Russia relations "with an understanding that both parties are equal and strengthened by balanced and constructive dialogue."
If the opposition has any hope of getting Turkey back into the program, it will undoubtedly have to rid itself of the S-400. That could mean permanently dismantling and destroying the system or transferring it to a third country. Turkey would not likely supply it to Ukraine since that would likely antagonize Russia.
However, even if a new government goes this far, it might already be too late.
"If the opposition honors its declaration, we should expect fundamental shifts in foreign policy toward the West, particularly the European Union," Suleyman Ozeren, a professorial lecturer at the American University and senior fellow at the Orion Policy Institute, told Gercek News. "However, IYI Party's shocking last-minute showdown indicates similar moves – resistance – in policies, even after the elections, and foreign policy seems to be one of those areas."
If the opposition alliance does win and there is a secure transition, the U.S. position still may not change until and unless the new government shows visible changes in its position, especially regarding foreign policy and the S-400 issue.
Ozeren said a "positive mood" in Washington could facilitate a faster F-16 sale. Regarding potential Turkish reentry into the F-35 program, he believes that it "may take some time once the new government declares its specific steps in foreign policy supported by tangible outcomes that may pave the way."
"Turkey's position in NATO, regarding Sweden and Finland's NATO membership, will be another critical indicator of whether to what extent a positive mood will produce any shifts in U.S. policies toward Turkey," he said.
Nicholas Heras, senior director of strategy and innovation at the New Lines Institute, highly doubts Turkey could hope to regain admission, even if the opposition wins the upcoming elections and reverses many of Erdogan's policies, especially the S-400 acquisition.
"Although a large amount of the American angst toward Turkey is focused on Erdogan and his government, there is also a dawning realization within U.S. policy circles that the challenges in the U.S.-Turkish relationship extend far beyond Erdogan and the AKP," Heras told Gercek News.
He explained that Erdogan has established a "deep and pervasive network of like-minded leaders" within the Turkish military and security elite that share his "skeptical instincts" toward both the United States and Europe. They also share his belief that no power can constrain Turkey from becoming a global power.
"There is now an entire foreign and national security apparatus in Turkey that sees the United States as naturally antagonistic to Turkey on a range of issues, and these elites will outlast Erdogan," he said. "Erdogan has succeeded in establishing what will likely be the norm for Turkey's broad strategic approach to diplomacy and security for years to come."
That norm is one in which Turkey is a global power "with discrete interests that must leverage relations with all potential partners, especially China and Russia, and not just the United States and NATO."
*Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about the political and military affairs and history of the Middle East.