F-35, Turkey and the EU Common Position

Although under the autocratic regime of president Erdogan, Turkey expected to receive its F-35 fighter aircraft. According to plan the first plan would be delivered June 21 and stationed in September 2019 in Turkey’s Malatya province which borders Iran, Iraq and Syria. But remarkably the program is now under fire in the US.

The detention of the American pastor Andrew Craig Brunson, the role of Turkey in fighting the Kurdish YPG in Syria (an ally against IS) and most prominently the acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defence system pushed US-Turkish relations to the edge.

The F-35 plays a central role in the debate. It is part of the 2019 defence budget deliberations (NDAA 2019) in which the US House of Representatives stated:

“Requires DOD to provide Congress with a report on the impact that increasing strains on the U.S.-Turkey relationship, caused by provocative actions taken by the Turkish government over the past year, will have on all U.S. military and diplomatic activities currently conducted in Turkey, including joint operation of the F-35 and other military platforms. Prohibits DOD from taking any action to execute the delivery of a foreign military sale for major defense equipment under section 36 of the Arms Export Control Act to Turkey, until the report is complete.”

When this amendment is adopted, military deliveries to Turkey will be frozen for the 60 days following until the report is submitted to the relevant Committee of Congress. A US procurement official, cited by Defense News, fears the Bill will “kill all US-Turkish procurement business in the several years ahead.” And so do Turkish commentators. The CEO of Turkish defence firm ASELSAN stated recently that the whole F-35 program will collapse if the U.S. blocks deliveries of the fighter jets to Turkey. An annalist with the Turkish C4 defence magazine said: “The US will shoot itself in the foot, it would definitely harm the entire project.”

Also a Bill was introduced by two Republicans and one Democrat senator to “limit the transfer of F–35 aircraft to Turkey”, because Turkey degrades NATO security by acquiring the S-400 air defence system from Russia. And Turkey has wrongfully or unlawfully detaining one or more United States citizens”, referring to pater Brunson who is accused of being a Gülen supporter.

The reasons for the debate is clearly NATO and US domestic affairs, not Turkish human rights and peace record. And it is predictable that in the end the F-35 cooperation with Turkey will not be blocked. The F-35 is the largest defence program ever. According to US General Accounting Office (GAO) worth $400 billion in new build fighter planes and $1,000 billion in overhaul and maintenance for the next 60 years; an enormous figure contributing to the already incredibly high US military expenditure.

The F-35 is often regarded a US program, but the US has tried to get as many international partners as possible. The UK is most prominent, followed by the Netherlands and Italy, the second tier participants But also Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Turkey are part of the program. Several Turkish companies participate (see earlier Explosive Stuff blog) and according to the Daily Sabah, a pro-government paper, Turkish firms expect to make a profit of $US 12 billion from it. A a branch of Dutch Fokker Elmo in Izmir for example will produce a major share of the Electrical Wiring & Interconnection System (EWIS) for the F-35 engine (the F135),” according the F-35 program website.

But how can the European Union contributers to the F-35 program reconcile with it’s Common Postion on arms exports? Is seem Turkey fits many criteria not to export arms to a country:

Criteria 2 states: Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law.

Criteria 3 states: Internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts.

Criteria 4 states: Member States shall deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the military technology or equipment to be exported aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim.

Criteria 6 states: Behaviour of the buyer country with regard to the international community, as regards in particular its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and respect for international law.

F-35 deliverances of many EU states however fall under a so called General Export License. This kind of license was introduced to facilitate arms exports to NATO, EU, and allied countries (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland). The licenses provide general export permission for a limited number of countries and items. SIPRI described General Licenses as a “shift to a reduction in licensing requirements for less sensitive exports.” But fighter plane (components) to a country using fighter planes regularly against its own population and against neighbouring states can hardly be considered non-sensitive.

The UK has recently updated its Open General Export Licence (OGEL) “to export or transfer goods, software or technology for the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35 Lightning II) (JSF) Programme from the United Kingdom to any of the destinations or countries listed in this licence” such as Israel and Turkey. The Dutch General Export License for the F-35 (Regeling Algemene Vergunning NL009) is less clear and refers to parties adjusted to approved agreements in the framework of the F-35 Lightning II program, without naming them, but Turkey is surely one of them. Recently the Dutch export authorities stopped several F-16 deliveries, but it must be feared the F-35 faces a less restrictive policy. 

Ankara is spreeing misery by its police and detention centers, but also by its air force. A closer look on the biggest weapon program in the history of mankind is needed, also when it only concerns components. When the entire F-35 project hings on Turkish participation, as Turkish commentators suggest, it may be doubted if the program ever took on board the arms export principles of the EU.



MB May 2018