The US government has ordered the termination of Ankara’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet programme if the Turkish government does not back down from its S-400 missile deal with Moscow, in its most severe warning yet to Recep Tayyip Erdogan's administration.
The escalation came in a letter sent on Thursday by US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar. The letter makes it clear that Ankara’s participation in the F-35 programme will be over if it acquired the Russian S-400 missile system, scheduled to be deployed in July.
“If Turkey procures the S-400, as we discussed during our call on May 28, 2019, our two countries must develop a plan to discontinue Turkey's participation in the F-35 programme,” Mr Shanahan wrote.
“While we seek to maintain our valued relationship, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400. You still have the option to change course on the S-400."
The US is not waiting, however, until July to start ousting Turkey from the programme. Mr Shanahan announced that Ankara will not be taking part in next week’s meeting in Brussels for F-35 programme members.
“To facilitate an orderly cessation of Turkish participation in the programmatic management activities of the F-35 programme, we will not plan for Turkish participation in the annual F-35 Chief Executive Officer Roundtable on June 12, 2019 and planned updates to the programme's governing documents will proceed without Turkey's participation,” he said.
Turkey has been a member of the Joint Strike Fighter programme since 2002, and has at least 100 F-35 fighters on order from the United States. This membership and those deliveries are now on their way to being discontinued.
Additionally, training for Turkish pilots will be suspended by the end of July if Ankara does not delay or nix its S-400 deal. “The training will not occur because we are suspending Turkey from the F-35 programme; there are no longer requirements to gain proficiencies on the systems,” an attachment to the letter read. There are 34 Turkish pilots who were expected to get training on the F-35 from June to November. This will no longer be possible, the letter explained.
Mr Shanahan added “in addition to threatening the security of platforms like the F-35, Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 will hinder [Turkey’s] ability to enhance or maintain co-operation with the United States and within Nato, lead to Turkish strategic and economic over-dependence on Russia, and undermine Turkey’s very capable defence industry and ambitious economic development goals”.
“Pursuing this path will cause a loss in jobs, gross domestic product, and international trade.
“President Trump committed to boost bilateral trade from $20 billion currently to more than $75 billion, however that may be challenging if the United States imposes CAATSA sanctions,” he said.
CAATSA, the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, will immediately slap sanctions on Turkey if the S-400 equipment is delivered. Another Senate bill under consideration would block F-35 deliveries to Turkey and oust it from the production consortium over the Russian deployment.
The US house of representatives is considering a similar bill to the Senate, called “Protecting Nato Skies Act of 2019”.
Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Centre for New American Security, said Mr Shanahan’s letter is a reminder that “we are approaching zero hour in the US-Turkish military relationship”.
With less than a month left before the Russian equipment is delivered to Turkey, Mr Heras told The National, "the Pentagon, with strong bipartisan support in the US Congress, is taking the fight to Turkey because the US military is mortified that the most advanced US fighter jet [F-35] could be operated by the same country that has advanced Russian air defence systems".
Senior US officials have repeatedly warned that the S-400 radar system could provide the Russian military sensitive information on the F-35 aircraft.
“For the United States, this is a matter of grave concern related to keeping a technological edge on Russia…while Turkey considers the S-400 system as vital to its national security,” Mr Heras said.
With neither side backing down, he expects more escalation to come that could affect military, intelligence and trade relations between the US and Turkey.
Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, likened the situation to a “slow motion car crash”.
"We have run out of runway," he said. "The US actions are, in theory, designed to be reversible. But to be reversed Ankara has to cancel its deal with Moscow. Turkey has said it won't do that so this slow motion car crash continues to unfold," Mr Stein told The National.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed on Tuesday that his S-400 deal with Russia would go ahead as planned.