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Turkey cannot get both the S-400s AND the F-35s!

By on January 2, 2019
Endy Zemenides

by Endy Zemenides

The week after the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue kicked off, Turkey violated Greek airspace hundreds of times.  The Hellenic Air Force intercepted the Turkish jets — which promptly turned back to Turkey.  These continued provocations by Turkey have increased to such a frequency that even the US Ambassador to Greece has repeatedly expressed concerns over an “accident” occurring between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean.

While the chances of an accident are greater than ever, these provocations are being treated more as a severe annoyance and a test rather than an imminent military threat.  But let’s fast forward a few years.  Imagine that the Turkish jets violating Greek airspace are not F-16s, but F-35s.  Greece scrambles its F-16s to intercept.  They are in the air late because radar did not immediately pick up the F-35s due to their stealth technology.  As the Greek jets approach the eastern edge of Greece’s airspace, they are locked on by the S-400 missile system Turkey purchased from Russia – a missile system that has been designed to specifically take down warplanes like the F-16.

It could be several years before such a scenario plays out, but whether it eventually does will be determined in 2019.  Since 2002, Turkey has been one of the US’s partner nations in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program, through which it has committed $1.25 billion for a planned acquisition of 100 F-35 jets.  Turkey has also been part of the production of the F-35s, manufacturing various aircraft parts.  The first two F-35 jets have been legally transferred to the Turkish Air Force but remain on American soil for training purposes.  Two more are due to be delivered in the spring of 2019, with the first two due to be physically delivered to Turkey in the late fall of 2019.

Despite this security relationship, Turkey announced an agreement to procure the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia in July 2017.  The U.S. has consistently protested this acquisition, but the Turkish government has repeatedly and publicly stated that it has concluded its agreement to procure the S-400 and that the “chance to drop S-400s is zero”.  The initial delivery date will reportedly occur as early as July 2019.  2019 has thus shaped up as a tipping point in the F-35/S-400 debate, and perhaps as a tipping point in how much of a flashpoint the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean become.

In 2018’s John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the U.S. Congress passed a halt on the delivery of F-35s to Turkey pending a report by the Department of Defense over US-Turkish relations.  That report, delivered on November 26, concluded that “The Administration will reassess Turkey’s continued participation as one of eight partner nations should they continue with their purchase of the S-400.”  The end of 2018 also brought a flurry of activity that affects the issue.  The State Department secured Congressional consent to cut a deal with Turkey over Patriot missiles – a deal that would be conditioned on the cancellation of the S-400 acquisition.  Furthermore, while the federal government went into Christmas without a deal to continue funding government, the ultimate budget is likely to contain appropriations language imposing a further halt to the delivery of F-35s to Turkey pending a reevaluation by Department of Defense of the US-Turkey relationship and the status of the S-400s.

When HALC began the #NoJetsForTurkey campaign with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), some people treated it as if it was a quixotic campaign with little chance of success.  Yet week by week it grew – In Defense of Christians co-sponsored the campaign, the pro-Israel community joined in as well, Evangelical Christians tied the F-35s to the fate of Pastor Brunson.  Restrictions on the F-35 transfers were passed as part of the NDAA and in Senate Appropriations bills.  Now this issue is part of the mainstream debate.  It is a critical issue for US national security.  Very simply, Turkey cannot have both the S-400s and the F-35s; it will raise the prospect of intelligence gathered on how S-400s can track and target F-35s, negating the jet’s stealth technology and making America’s top warplane vulnerable.

The #NoJetsForTurkey is no longer a quixotic effort.  It has been effective, and in 2019 it is a hill that we must all be prepared to die on.  If the Trump-Erdogan phone call that preceded President Trump’s announcement of a Syria withdrawal is any indication, we cannot rely on a hardline position on S-400s/F-35s coming from the White House.  Fortunately, Congress gets a say.  Whether you prioritize American military superiority, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Greece, or the safety of Cyprus, the choice is clear: Turkey cannot get both the S-400s AND the F-35s.  Whoever cannot make the commitment to you that they will fight to prevent that (and they will have the opportunity legislatively, not just with statements that require no action) does not deserve your support.

About Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides is the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), a national advocacy organization for the Greek American community. To learn more about HALC, visit www.hellenicleaders.com