Downgraded Version for Turkey? Israel and U.S. Hold Talks on Withholding Vital F-35 Software From Ankara

Amid deteriorating relations between Turkey and Israel, which have come as Ankara increasingly distances itself from the Western bloc in its foreign policy, Washginton and Tel Aviv have held talks regarding the provision of the F-35 to the Turkish Air Force. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan having called Israel a ‘terrorist state’ engaged in ‘genocide,’ and the Islamist oriented leader threatening economic sanctions against Tel Aviv over the conduct of its military in recent conflicts with Palestinian factions supported by Turkey, relations between the two countries are increasingly hostile. Israel has as a result sought to ensure that should Turkey be delivered F-35 stealth fighters by the United States, of which the Turkish Air Force is expected to order up to 120 for its fleet, more than twice the number set to serve in the Israeli Air Force, these fighters will be less capable than its own. For Israel retaining qualitative advantage over its potential adversaries, Turkey now included, is essential, and the country has as a result called on the United States to deny Turkey cutting edge performance enhancing software for its fighters.

Calls from Israel to restrict sales of the F-35 to Turkey to downgraded variants using older software, which will be less capable than its own or those fielded by Western powers, come amid widespread calls in the United States to deny Ankara the new stealth platform entirely. This came as a result of both Turkey’s divergent foreign policy from that of the Western bloc, its increasingly close ties to Russia, and its choice of a Russian made S-400 air defence platform over Western made alternatives. On May 24th the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee released details of its draft of annual defence policy bill, which strongly supported blocking the delivery of the F-35 to Turkey in response to its choice to purchase the Russian missile platform. U.S. Senator James Lankford stated regarding the sale of the F-35 to Turkey: “Our concern is that Turkey is going through a very dramatic transition as a country. Turkey has gone a long way from being a NATO ally and an important partner in working against terrorism, to the situation today,” noting that the country was not behaving as an ally ought to.

Senator Lankford further stated regarding Turkey’s lack of reliability as a client for U.S. arms that America had “no hesitation with Israel. When we give them the F-35 or other military equipment, we know how they will use it. We know what they will and won’t do. I’m not sure we can say the same about Turkey.” He further stated regarding the importance of maintaining the Israeli technological advantage: “No one here has any doubt that Israel prefers to stay the only country in the region that has these attack capabilities. The Israelis know how to make that clear, in their own ways.” The Senator was one of many lawmakers to express such sentiments. U.S. Congressman David Cicilline, citing Turkey’s “thuggish, reprehensible behaviour,” proposed a bill in the House of Representatives to ban the sale of the F-35 to Ankara.

Turkey’s continued support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the Untied States and Israel, and its independence in conducting foreign policy which often conflicts with the interests of both the Western Bloc and Tel Aviv, could well disqualify it from the F-35 program. It remains critical to consider however that the F-35 in the Turkish Air Force would pose a limited threat to both Western and Israeli interests, as Turkey would remain severely restricted in how it employs the U.S. made fighters. The F-35’s heavy reliance on Western made parts and software, combined with its extreme maintenance requirements, would severely restrict the Turkish Air Force’s ability to operate it independently should the U.S. seek to ground the fleet. In a potential war with Israel, as unlikely as such a prospect seems today, Turkey’s F-35 fleet would most likely be left inoperable within weeks should the Western bloc side with Israel – more than compensating for the Israeli numerical disadvantage and leaving the stealth fighter a near useless asset in Turkish hands. Compounding this Turkey’s lack of air superiority capabilities, with no heavy fighters in service analogous to the Israeli F-15C, means the Israeli Air Force will retain a critical advantage in a potential air war between the two powers – with the lighter F-35 poorly suited to an air superiority role for which it was never designed.


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