With the U.S. Congress passing a new defense bill that could remove Turkey’s —a NATO ally—participation in the F-35 program due to the recent acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-missile defense system, Ankara could very well turn towards Moscow and start negotiations to acquire the new Russian fifth-generation Su-57 multirole fighter aircraft.
While the U.S. government has been pressuring Turkey to rethink its S-400 purchase based on the alleged incompatibility with NATO systems, Washington was never keen on providing its Patriot missile system. However, both allies are still holding talks on inking a possible deal on the U.S.-made surface-to-air missile system.
Currently, Turkey is severely lacking anti-air capabilities and with the growing tensions in the region, it has to rapidly remedy to that problem. The Russian-made S-400 missile systems has proven quite effective in a deception role against the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, and Ankara view that as a good example of the effectiveness of the S-400. Adding to that, its role in Crimea’s A2/AD is significative.
Because of Turkey’s willingness to improve their anti-air capabilities, the U.S. government is about impose severe sanctions by removing their ally from the F-35 program. By doing so, Turkey, a level 3 partner in the F-35 program, would lose the ability to acquire the 119 fighter aircraft they were planning on.
The fact that Turkey has been negotiating with Russia on the S-400 missile system give them a good opportunity to reach out for a possible agreement on the Su-57. With India withdrawing from the FGFA—Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft—project, Russia would most likely be inclined to find a new partner for its fifth-generation aircraft, and fast.
With a price tag estimated at half the price of an F-35, the Su-57 would also be a good deal for Turkey. That said, the investment made through the partnership program would be lost.
Possible sanctions for Turkey due to operational security?
One of the main reason behind the refusal to provide the F-35 to Turkey, if they operate the Russian S-400, could be based on operational security. With Ankara entertaining better diplomatic relations with Moscow, the U.S. congress—through Lockheed Martin lobbyists and staff officers—might be concerned over a possible study of the F-35 capabilities against the S-400 missile system.
If Turkey ends up with both systems, it could very well become a very good opportunity for Russia to study the capabilities, especially since the S-500 is currently under development. The overt support of Kurdistan by the United States also fuels up the declining diplomatic relations between Ankara and Washington, meaning the level of trust has been reduced. Considering the reduction of trust between the two NATO allies, the U.S. is becoming uneager to provide Turkey with its newest fighter, especially since it will hold a considerable place in America’s future air strategy.
Knowing the fifth-generation aircraft main capability is stealth, its design has been—and still is—developed to fight against countries that has modern anti-air systems such as Russia and Iran. However, Turkey is maintaining good relationship with both countries, and have been seen as the black sheep of NATO. So the U.S. justification behind the possible sanctions against Turkey has to be based on operational security.
Considering its current status, it wouldn’t be surprising the see Turkey leave NATO and forge even better relationships with Iran and Turkey. It would even be conceivable to witness the integration of Turkey within the CSTO on a long-term view.
The Russian Su-57 is currently undergoing its final testing and should be available to enter service in 2019. Last February, the Su-57 was deployed to Syria in a very risky move to test out its combat capabilities. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, one of the Su-57 fired a cruise missile in combat. The missile was likely a Kh-59MK2.
The Su-57 can reach a maximum speed of Mach 2 and a range of 3,500 km in subsonic flight. It has a service ceiling of 65,000 ft and can pull a +9 g. Its weaponry consist of a 30 mm Gsh-301 autocannon and has 12 hardpoints (6 x internal, 6 x external) for various missiles.
Ultimately, the U.S. is playing with Turkey’s future within NATO and with its current military installations throughout their territory. If the decision is taken to remove Turkey from the F-35 program, there is a good probability to see them slowly drift towards the Russian-Iran axis as well as pressuring the United States to start thinking about the future of their military installations in country.