The Trump administration’s decision to eject Turkey from the F-35 fighter-jet program in July has significant implications for NATO, Israel and the Middle East.
Washington formally ended Turkey’s participation in the stealth-jet program after Ankara ignored American warnings and acquired the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Turkey was supposed to receive its first two F-35 jets several months ago, but that transfer has been cancelled.
The Pentagon said that Turkish possession of S-400 missiles is incompatible with the F-35, and NATO officials expressed real concern that presence of the Russian-made system would enable Moscow to gain sensitive intelligence on the F-35 aircraft, thereby jeopardizing its edge.
As a result, Turkey was told it had to make a choice—either the F-35 and or the S-400—and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chose the latter.
These developments ultimately “increase the chance of Turkey, which is a NATO member, embarking on a route that will lead it to change sides,” Ofer Israeli, an expert on decision making and foreign-policy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, told JNS.
Turkey is more likely to give up on the Western bloc and join the Eastern axis that is currently developing “between Russia and the rising power of China,” said Israeli, who also lectures at Ashkelon Academic College in southern Israel.
NATO now has no choice but to recalculate its route “regarding Turkey’s status, and Turkey’s future in the alliance,” he assessed.
This also means re-examining the policy of stationing Western military assets in Turkey, said Israeli. He highlighted the potential threat posed by deploying tactical American nuclear weapons on Turkish territory, noting that, in a crisis situation, they “could become bargaining chips in the hands of the regime in Ankara.”
‘Widening the participation of Israeli defense industries’
Israel, for its part, must also reassess the geopolitical situation since the hope that existed in Jerusalem until recently—that Turkey’s departure from the Western bloc would be temporary, and that it would mend its ways and return to its traditional path—received a “painful blow,” said Israeli.
“For the first time, a regional state that is very critical of Israel will possess the advanced S-400 system, which could harm the operational capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli Air Force,” he cautioned.
Separately, Israel must take advantage of the opportunity that has been created by Turkey’s departure from the F-35 program and increase its own involvement “in this resource-rich, advanced project. This includes widening the participation of Israeli defense industries,” he said.
Israeli defense company Elbit Systems produces the helmet-mounted display of the F-35 fighter jet, together with U.S. company Rockwell Collins, while Israel Aerospace Industries manufactures the plane’s wings.
In May 2018, Israeli F-35 jets became the first aircraft of their kind to strike hostile targets in combat operations.
Israeli said that despite the Turkish reorientation towards the East, “Jerusalem should not upset the applecart with regards to Ankara, and it should preserve the possibility of returning the relations to their previous state of a strong military alliance, either due to a change in policy by the current Turkish President Erdoğan or one of his future successors.”
Meanwhile, Russia appears to be looking to peddle more military hardware to Turkey, recently offering to sell it its advanced Su-35 fighter jet, according to Russian media reports.
At the same time, the United States has not stopped engaging altogether with Turkey just yet. On Wednesday, the two countries reached an agreement to create a “safe zone” in northeast Syria to keep Syrian-Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border. The agreement may prevent a new Turkish invasion of Syrian territory to fight Kurdish forces. The two countries said that they would manage a joint operations center, though the details of this agreement remained scant.
Despite that agreement, Turkey appears to be quickly drifting away from America and the West, and that could lead to changes in the region Israel can’t ignore.
In a paper published last month at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, senior researchers Oded Eran and Gallia Lindenstrauss wrote that “a Turkish pivot eastward is a tectonic shift that is liable to work to the serious detriment of Israeli strategic interests in various realms such as energy, civil aviation, and trade. Israel would do well to give thought to these issues, as well as to the possibility of a bolstered Chinese or Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.”