In the spring of 2019, the United States halted the transfer of equipment related to the F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation stealth fighter after Ankara moved to acquire the Russia-produced S-400 air defense system. U.S. and NATO officials worried that Turkey’s operation of both systems could compromise the security of the fighter. Ankara refused to back out of its deal with Moscow, so Washington expelled Turkey, a NATO member, from the program.
In the years since, a number of options have been floated regarding the aircraft, including a potential sale to Turkish rival Greece, another member of the international alliance.
Source of Contention
Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program has remained a source of contention between Washington and Ankara, which has sought to recover the money paid to the United States for the fighters. Turkey, which had been a key member of the F-35 program, has called the expulsion unjustified.
“We have clarified our view on the S-400. We have been unfairly removed from the F-35 program despite being one of the partners in it. These aircraft are not being supplied to Turkey,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in an interview in October 2021. “If the U.S. does not want to resolve the issue about F-35s, or if the U.S. Congress blocks it, Turkey will consider other options.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also expressed frustration over the stalled deal and last year stated, “We will get this $1.4 billion of ours one way or another.”
One solution floated had been for Turkey to obtain forty new Lockheed Martin-made F-16 Fighting Falcon combat aircraft, along with nearly 80 modernization kits for the Turkish Air Force’s current fleet.
It seems little progress has been made in the year since U.S. President Joe Biden met with Erdogan. In fact, the U.S. may have purposefully added insult to injury.
This week, according to reports on social media, U.S. military officials called for Turkey to pay the United States for storing the F-35s that were originally owed to Ankara.
“The U.S. demanded ‘rental fee’ from Türkiye (Turkey) on the grounds that they ‘kept the F-35s allocated to Türkiye in the hangar,” the Clash Report tweeted on Tuesday.
Israeli analyst Dana Levi of Millhouse Capital cited a report from the Sabah newspaper, “The #US demanded rent from Turkey on the grounds that it ‘had kept in the hangar’ the F-35A fighter jets produced for #Turkey. #Ankara, on the other hand, demands the return of the $1.4 billion paid for the project.”
Turkey’s Future in NATO
The situation has been further compounded by Turkey’s refusal to ratify Sweden and Finland’s membership in NATO. The two historically neutral nations opted to join the international alliance this year after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Even before Ankara tried to mediate peace between Kyiv and Moscow, Turkey had maintained friendly relations with both nations, and it supplied Ukraine with a number of drones before the invasion began.
Now it seems that the war is pushing Turkey closer to Russia.
Erdogan has maintained regular contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while economic ties between Turkey and Russia remain largely unbroken despite Western sanctions. Turkey is among the nations to actually increase its imports of Russian crude oil.
As a result, Turkey’s membership in NATO is truly being tested.
The expulsion from the F-35 program may not have been a tipping point for Turkey, but Ankara’s ties to Moscow now could convince NATO it has finally had enough.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.