Bumps and grinds in the F-35 programme

The 400th Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft has been delivered. As of May 25, the total comprised 283 F-35As, 87 F-35Bs and 30 F-35Cs. Together the aircraft have passed the 200,000 flight hour milestone with F-35A contributing 125,850 hours, F-35B 52,410 and F-35C 22,630. The jet is in service with the United States Air Force, Marines and Navy and F-35s have also been delivered overseas to the air forces of the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan (where the jet is also built), Israel, Norway and Australia. The Netherlands, Republic of Korea and Turkey have, along with the other nations, aircraft and crews under training in the United States though that may not be the case much longer for Turkey.

Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Lightning II programme will be suspended as of July 31, 2019 unless it goes back on its stated intention to buy Russia’s S-400 air defence system. Delivery of the first system was expected imminently as AIR International went to press.

On June 6, 2019, Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan submitted a letter to Turkish Minister of National Defence Hulusi Akar stating the United States’ position that future Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (THK, Turkish Air Force) F-35 pilots currently in training at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida will have to leave those bases by July 31, 2019. After that date Türk Hava Kuvvetleri personnel will be prohibited from entering the bases and representatives from Ankara will not have access to the F-35 Joint Program Office.

Turkey had won significant sub-contracting work on the F-35 programme, but the United States has already halted delivery of F-35 materials and related equipment to Turkey. Work has already begun to distribute Turkey’s share of F-35 production to other manufacturers.

Of the 100 F-35A Lightning IIs the nation has ordered, four, having been handed over to Turkey, are flying with Luke Air Force Base’s 56th Fighter Wing for pilot training. An appendix to Shanahan’s letter states that the 5th and 6th jets nearing completion at Fort Worth will not now be delivered to the Turks.

Turkey’s invitation to the annual Chief Executive Officer Roundtable in the F-35 programme on June 12 was withdrawn and the nation will not take part in determining the programme’s future direction.

Shanahan stressed that the actions were independent of: “Russia-related Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act [CAATSA] sanctions. There is strong bipartisan US Congressional determination to see CAATSA sanctions imposed on Turkey if Turkey acquires the S-400.” The letter went on to stress that President Trump intended to increase trade with Turkey from $20 billion to $75 billion but mentioned this would be difficult if the United States imposes CAATSA sanctions. The United States and NATO believe Turkey’s acquisition of F-35 as well as the swing towards Moscow the S-400 buy indicates is an unacceptable operational security risk.

Turkey has invested $1.25 billion in the F-35 with the expectation it would recoup much more over the lifetime of the programme. Turkish industry is responsible for manufacturing over 400 components for the aircraft including engine and airframe parts. Notably, AYESAŞ, 40% owned by L3, is the sole provider of the aircraft’s panoramic cockpit display.

Shanahan said that the way is open for Turkey to prevent this happening: “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 United States’ position was reemphasized by Ellen Lord, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Sustainment on June 7. “If Turkey does not accept delivery of the S-400, we will enable Turkey to return to normal F-35 programme activities.” However, she stressed that should Turkey accept its first S-400 before July 31, the “unwinding” process of removing Turkey from the programme, will be “greatly accelerated.”