Prospects for an improved US-Turkish strategic relationship

Could Turkey return to the F-35 program with the potential sale by the United States of a modernization package for its F-16s and potential sale of billions of dollars’ worth of F-16V aircraft? Can progress on this issue serve as a step toward reestablishing a strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey? And how could it transform the political and military relationship between Turkey and the United States?

As I reflect on these questions, I am reminded of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time when Turkish-US relations were at their peak. During this period, close to fifteen thousand Turkish Armed Forces personnel participated in the Korean War, demonstrating Turkey’s commitment to its alliance with the United States. The sacrifices were significant: 721 Turkish soldiers were killed and 2,147 wounded in the war. In February 1952, a little over a year before an armistice brought an end to the war, Turkey became a member of NATO. Many refer to Turkey’s participation in the Korean War as the “cost” of joining the Alliance.

In addition to the deepening political and economic relations between Turkey and the United States during that era, the two countries were also engaged in robust military cooperation, particularly in aviation. Admittedly, there were times when the political environment was fraught with tension. Some prominent examples include the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, crises involving Cyprus in 1964 and 1974, the 1975-78 US arms embargo on Turkey, and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which caused a strain in the friendly atmosphere, even interrupting it. Nevertheless, through prudent diplomacy, mindful of ever-changing realities and alliance interests, sagacious minds prevailed. Relations were eventually restored, and strategic-level contacts were established in both civilian and military spheres.

Ties between Turkey and the United States, already strained over the 2016 coup attempt and US criticism on ties between Turkey and Russia, fell further in 2019 over the war in Syria and Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system.

Impact of the war in Syria

Turkey has borne some of the burden of the consequences of the war in Syria since its start in 2011. According to the United Nations, Turkey hosts some 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. The large number of refugees has not only shifted the demographics in the border region, it has also added a crippling economic burden. Turkey has also faced cross-border terrorist attacks by Kurdish terrorist groups.

As a consequence of US policy miscalculations, northern Syria has become even more unstable with the presence of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the United States and the European Union (EU) consider to be a foreign terrorist organization.

Despite requests from Turkey, neither the United States nor the EU consider the PYD and YPG to be terrorist organizations. The United States first started providing support to the YPG and PYD in 2014 to assist them in their fight against the Islamic State in Syria. While the threat posed by the Islamic State in the region has effectively disappeared, the United States maintains its support to the PYD and YPG, which have been key partners of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The PYD and YPG also serve as the backbone of the coalition-created Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Despite Turkey providing Interpol and other senior US officials detailed allegations of terrorist acts by the PYD and YPG, aid to the terrorist organizations has not ceased, rather it has increased.

This support has caused significant harm to bilateral relations between the United States and Turkey. Early 2023 visits by the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander to the region, although described as troop visits, have also contributed to rising tensions between the two countries. Ankara views these activities as part of an attempt by the United States to establish a satellite Kurdish statelet in eastern Syria, similar to what was tried in northern Iraq.

Missile defense

In 2013, NATO responded to Turkey’s request for ballistic missile defense by temporarily deploying systems such as the Patriot and SAMP-T from five allied countries to the region on a rotational basis with command and control located in Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

However, following Turkey’s 2018-19 operation against the YPG and PYD in northern Syria to safeguard its own security, the systems provided by the allied countries, with the exception of the Patriot system from Spain, were withdrawn. Despite ongoing discussions during bilateral meetings between the Turkish Ministry of National Defense and the Chief of General Staff at NATO headquarters, the allied countries that had previously deployed their systems declined to redeploy them citing various reasons.

In 2018, Turkey launched an effort to manufacture its own long-range regional air defense system called Siper. The war in Syria added a sense of urgency to this mission and a thorough review of alternatives, including the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system, was conducted at the request of the Air Force Command. The United States declined to meet the terms of a Turkish request for the Patriots. A 2018 attempt by Turkey to buy the SAMP-T from a Franco-Italian consortium also ground to a halt due to French objections. Turkey eventually opted to procure the S-400 system from Russia despite US opposition to the deal.

The procurement of the Russian S-400 system, coupled with US support to the YPG and PYD in Syria, proved to be the breaking point in the already strained US-Turkey relations.

As the Turkish military representative to NATO in Brussels at that time, I personally experienced not only the reactions of my US counterparts but also the questions and concerns raised by other representatives about the procurement of the S-400 system. Naturally, each country viewed the issue from their own perspective, which was closely tied to their respective policies and interests. However, recurring concerns centered on the compatibility of the Russian S-400 system with NATO’s integrated air defense system and the difficulty of safeguarding the intellectual property and sensitive information pertaining to the F-35 aircraft. Furthermore, there were frequent inquiries about why Turkey chose to procure such a system from Russia, a country that ranked as the top threat in NATO assessments since 2014.

Turkey faces a backlash

Following the S-400 purchase, the US Department of Defense removed Turkey from the F-35 program in 2019. And in 2020, the United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) pursuant to Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Turkey had been a joint producer of the F-35 program, having signed a memorandum of understanding with the US government on January 26, 2007. Turkey had also paid for and completed the first package of pilot and ground personnel training. The justification for its removal was based on the claim that the use of the S-400 in the same environment as the F-35 could potentially lead to the theft of high-tech aircraft system information.

As a result of Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program, six F-35A aircraft that were produced for Turkey were confiscated and stored in hangars, and the personnel in training were sent back home. Negotiations are still ongoing regarding the repayment of the $1.25 billion that Turkey had previously paid for the program.

Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program led to a need to review the force structure of the Turkish Air Force, as relations between the Turkey and the United States became strained. It was decided to extend the lifespan of the F-4 aircraft that were originally planned to be phased out. Additionally, Turkey decided to acquire forty F-16V aircraft from the United States to meet its urgent air combat needs. The procurement by Turkey of seventy-nine modernization kits to boost the capabilities of its existing F-16 aircraft was also discussed.

A turning point?

Based on recent statements and evaluations made by Turkey and the United States, there appears to be a relatively positive atmosphere in administration circles. US President Joe Biden, who has not been very receptive to improving bilateral relations, has been supportive of Turkey’s request to procure aircraft and modernization kits. This support was especially visible in face-to-face meetings at the level of heads of state, such as the 2019 NATO summit and the Group of Twenty meeting in Rome in 2021. Yet, some members of the US Congress are dragging their feet regarding the implementation of these procurements.

It must be noted that even if the deal is approved today, delivery would take between three to five years in the best-case scenario. Nevertheless, reaching common ground can still be considered significant progress.

Rethinking the fate of the S-400 system, which was delivered in 2019, is of critical importance to resolving issues between Turkey and the United States. Regarding the S-400 systems that were stored in depots following some tests, I believe that a solution can be found involving either the frameworks proposed since then or by simply keeping the systems in storage.

A recent statement by Haluk Görgün, CEO of the Turkish defense firm Aselsan Elektronik Sanayi, is noteworthy. Görgün said that “with the development of UMBHSS-SIPER, we no longer need the S-300/S-400s.” Until the Siper system fully matures, though, SAMP-T might be a medium-term solution as well.

Removal of this obstacle may encourage members of Congress who are against Turkey to reconsider their positions on the supply of F-16Vs and modernization kits. With the establishment of such a positive climate, it is possible that Turkey could revive interest in its return to the F-35 program.

If Turkey can procure forty F-16V aircraft and modernization kits in sufficient numbers, it can easily embrace the motto “Leader in Its Region, Effective in Its Continent” that was popular in the early 2000s. A possible future return to the F-35 program might also lead to the reutilization of production capabilities that the Turkish defense industry lost after Turkey was removed from the program, the establishment of regional engine depot maintenance capability for domestic and allied use, and provide experience relevant to further development of the Turkish National Combat Aircraft (MMU).

Given Turkey’s formidable air force; its strategic location in a region with key transportation, energy, and hydrocarbon resources; and improving relations with Israel, the United States can again view it as a reliable and strong strategic ally. With the right mindset, Turkish and US state authorities can still turn back time.

The way ahead

The resolution of issues related to the S-400, PYD, and YPG is key to mending relations between Turkey and the United States. Ideally, this must be followed by the approval of the sale of F-16Vs, the lifting of CAATSA sanctions, and a return to the F-35 program.

Addressing Turkey’s security concerns is a prerequisite for successful and sustainable cooperation between strategic partners in the Middle East. This would allow for stability to be achieved in Syria, curtail the activities of foreign actors operating in the region, and encourage Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey to return to Syria. Combined, these developments would drastically reduce the threats to Turkey’s security. In addition, it would have positive implications for peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and it may also allow for the safe transport of natural gas extracted in the region to Europe via Turkey.

The United States, which has always prioritized Israel’s security in its Middle East policy, should also consider Turkey’s positive contributions to regional stability in the process of normalizing relations.

A partnership with Turkey is crucial for balancing China’s increasing economic and military strength in the Asia-Pacific region, especially as Russia’s position in the world has diminished as a consequence of its ongoing war in Ukraine. Turkey is located at a critical crossroads of the Middle East and the Caucasus. In the long run, Turkey’s strategic ties to Central Asia will also be an important asset for NATO. Hence, the United States must accept the importance of Turkey to NATO’s policy in these regions as an undeniable reality.

The Turkish-US relationship has had its bad days in the past. However, consultations resulted in the recognition of the significance of this strategic partnership, leading to a resumption of political and military relations. Now, similarly, I am hopeful that the US approach toward the support it provides to the PYD and YPG can be resolved in good faith alongside the S-400 issue.

Despite some members of Congress attempting to impose restrictions on Turkey similar to the 1975 arms embargo, I believe that the Biden administration will soon approve the supply of F-16V aircraft and the modernization package. This could potentially create a favorable atmosphere for Turkey’s return to the F-35 program as well, thereby removing obstacles to the development of bilateral political relations and a strengthened Turkish-US strategic partnership.

Turkish Air Force Lt. Gen. (ret.) Nihat Kökmen served as Turkey’s military representative to NATO from 2017 to 2019. Between 2001 and 2004, he served as the air plans officer at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. He currently serves as Executive and Supervisory Board member at the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).

Image: Six F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 31st Fighter Wing accompany approximately 300 personnel and cargo deployed from Aviano Air Base, Italy, to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve Aug. 9, 2015. This deployment coincides with Turkey's decision to host U.S. aircraft to conduct counter-ISIL operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Deana Heitzman)