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The F-35 is becoming the most popular fighter jet among NATO militaries — with one ‘baffling’ exception

Turkey takes delivery of first F-35Turkey takes delivery of its first F-35 at a ceremony in Texas in June 2018.

Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

  • Romania is the latest NATO member to say it will buy the F-35 stealth fighter jet.
  • More alliance members are buying F-35s, but one of NATO’s biggest militaries, Turkey, can’t.
  • Turkey is barred from the program because it elected to buy a Russian-made air-defense system.

Here’s a sign that the world has changed since the Cold War: A former Warsaw Pact nation is buying US stealth fighters and the country with the second-largest army in NATO is buying Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

Fifty years ago, the notion that Romania would purchase the latest US-made fighter jet would have laughable in Washington and might have provoked Moscow into sending tanks into the streets of Bucharest.

And who could have imagined in 1973 that Turkey would choose advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles over a chance to buy that US jet, when Turks and Russians fought a dozen wars between the 16th and 20th centuries?

“It still remains remarkable to me that Romania will now operate the F-35, but Turkey will not,” Aaron Stein, chief content officer at defense news website War on the Rocks, tweeted on April 11. “The S-400 purchase remains inexplicable. Just baffling beyond words.”

Romanian air force MiG-21 jetsRomanian air force MiG-21 jets during an air show in Romania in July 2017.

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder

Romania’s announcement in early April that it would purchase the F-35 would have shocked Nixon and Brezhnev, but it is hardly a surprise today. Though a Soviet satellite state, Romania pursued a remarkably independent foreign policy from the 1960s until the collapse of the Soviet Union, before joining NATO in 2004.

Like other European countries with long memories of Russian hegemony and vivid fears that Ukraine won’t be Vladimir Putin’s last victim, Romania is looking for advanced weapons such as the F-35.

While Romania has yet to specify how many F-35s it will buy or when it will receive them, procuring an aircraft that at least a dozen other NATO countries are buying or will likely buy is a logical move. At the least, it demonstrates that the former Warsaw Pact member is now solidly in the Western bloc.

To some in the West, Turkey’s decision to choose the S-400 over the F-35 just does not compute. As one of the original partners in the US-led F-35 program, Turkey should have been among the first to get the cutting-edge stealth fighter.

But Ankara was suspended from the program because Washington couldn’t accept a scenario where Turkey operated both the F-35 and Russian missiles that are designed to shoot down the F-35.

Turkey Russia S-400Turkey’s S-400 air-defense system during testing at an air base in Ankara in November 2019.

Getty Images

“It remains baffling to me that Ankara chose an air defense system over the F-35,” Stein, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a follow-up tweet.

Yet Turkey believes it is capable of operating both systems without jeopardizing F-35 secrets. Ankara still wants the planes, or at least the $1.4 billion it contributed to the program.

“Either they will give us our planes or they will give us the money,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed in 2021.

The F-35/S-400 controversy illustrates Turkey’s position as the odd man in NATO since it joined in 1952. During the Cold War, Turkey’s strategic position at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, its ability to bottle up the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet, and its large military combined to make it NATO’s southeastern anchor.

Yet as the name suggests, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is primarily a European and North American alliance. Most of Turkey is geographically in Asia, with just 3% of its territory – including much of Istanbul – on the European side of the Bosporus Strait.

Putin Erdogan Su-57Putin and Erdogan inspect a Russian Su-57 fighter jet at the MAKS air show in Russia in August 2019.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

In an alliance mostly composed of democracies, Turkey had three military coups between 1960 and 1980 — and what appeared to be an attempted coup in 2016. (Thwarting future coups may be a reason Erdogan wants a weapon that can shoot down Western-made jets.)

While already member of what is essentially a European military alliance, Turkey’s prospects of joining the European Union still seem dim, despite lobbying hard since 2005. Nonetheless, NATO still needs Turkey. Ankara has one of the alliance’s largest militaries and is a counterweight to Russia in the Mediterranean, Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asia.

While the US is blocking Turkey from the F-35 program, Washington just announced a $259 million deal to upgrade Turkey’s F-16 fighters, despite objections from US lawmakers. And Turkey’s vote is still needed for Sweden to join NATO.

Polls show that the majority of Turks still want to join the EU. Some influential Turks say the country doesn’t really need the S-400 when it can manufacture its own anti-aircraft missiles. And while Erdogan — who now faces a tough reelection campaign — may feel a need to stand firm on the F-35 issue, that doesn’t mean warm ties between Turkey and Russia will become a lasting romance.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider
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