It was supposed to be an object lesson in bringing a recalcitrant ally back into line, but kicking Turkey out of the Pentagon’s $1.6 trillion F-35 program has proved much more difficult than expected, raising questions about whether Washington made a threat it wasn’t fully ready to back up.
More than a year after the Trump administration formally ousted Turkey, a key NATO ally, from the 21st-century fighter aircraft initiative because of Ankara’s growing military ties with Russia, Turkish companies remain embedded in U.S. supply chains with no clear time frame to get them out. All Turkish participation in the program was supposed to end by March, but defense industry leaders said it’s likely to continue for at least another year.
Officials with Lockheed Martin, the F-35 lead manufacturer, told The Washington Times last week that the company “continues moving away” from Turkish suppliers but offered no specific dates for a full and final break. Defense Department officials conceded earlier this year that Turkish involvement would continue long past the original March deadline.
The U.S. and a number of other NATO countries protested without avail the plan by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to purchase a major Russian missile defense system, warning it could compromise alliance security systems. Turkey said it turned to Moscow only after it was blocked from buying a U.S. alternative.
The inability to break ties with Turkey is the latest setback for the high-profile F-35 program, which has been plagued by cost overruns and other issues. Anger has been mounting on Capitol Hill as well. Lawmakers argued last week that millions of dollars in taxpayer money has been lost because of poorly written contracts and a lack of proper oversight.
The F-35 production process was conceived as an alliance-enhancing measure, with key allies such as Turkey allowed to share in lucrative parts of the production process.
Defense insiders say the Pentagon and its partners in the private sector have struggled to find non-Turkish companies capable of making certain key parts for the cutting-edge aircraft. The COVID-19 pandemic also has slowed production lines and hampered coordination, further delaying a complicated transition away from Turkish firms.
“I think it was harder than people anticipated,” said retired Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” J. Carlisle, now president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA).
“People at Lockheed Martin, people at DoD … it was more difficult than they thought, by some degree, and then you put COVID-19 on top of that,” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “I think it’s a manufacturing readiness and a capacity and scale capability [issue]. The Turks produced a manufacturing capability … to meet all the requirements for a very complex jet to make the parts they’re making for them. Cut that off, and you have to find a company that has the background and the capability to do it.”
Turkish companies still provide hundreds of parts for the F-35 program, arguably the most ambitious air program in Pentagon history and one that is designed to produce planes that will replace legacy jets in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
The Turkish firms mainly provide parts related to the F-35’s physical frame, industry sources said, not the complex sensors, systems and electronics inside the aircraft.
While Turkish involvement is somewhat limited, lawmakers of both parties are angry that Ankara is still playing any role at all. Last year, the White House and Pentagon ousted Turkey from the F-35 program because of Ankara’s decision to buy the Russian-made S-400 missile system.
U.S. officials argued that the F-35 and S-400 cannot be used together because the S-400 — a highly sophisticated system in its own right — could learn and exploit any weak spots in the F-35 program, potentially undermining NATO security.
When Mr. Erdogan went ahead with the Russian deal, the U.S. kicked out Turkish pilots who were in America learning to fly the plane and halted sales of completed aircraft to Ankara. Earlier this month, the Air Force confirmed that it will buy eight F-35s that were supposed to be delivered to Turkey.
Also as part of the new policy, all Turkish participation in the manufacturing process was set to end by March, and members of Congress want to know why that hasn’t happened.
“Unfortunately, Turkish manufacturers are still producing and delivering key components of the aircraft despite the statutory prohibition on such participation in manufacturing line of the program. We believe more urgency is needed and hope you will accelerate the process to ensure a more prompt removal,” reads a July 6 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper from Republican Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
“Based on recent revelations, it is clear that the Pentagon is not following its own timeline or the intent of Congress in this matter,” the senators wrote. “We encourage you to reexamine the present approach and take action to ensure an expedited removal of Turkey from the manufacturing line as required by law.”
The lawmakers argued that Congress already has set aside tens of millions of dollars to help the Pentagon find alternative sources for parts. They also raised concerns that the current Pentagon plan seemingly could allow for contracts with Turkish companies through 2022.
Defense industry officials dispute that date and say a full break should be made by next summer.
Lockheed Martin told The Times that the company is moving away from Turkish suppliers as contracts end and “fully qualified alternatives” are found. The complex technical and security parameters of the F-35 program, industry sources said, make it difficult to find fully qualified companies that can produce parts at scale on the schedule the administration initially envisioned.
Although industry may be optimistic about a quicker transition, Defense Department officials seem reluctant to make more promises they may not be able to keep. A Pentagon spokesperson told The Times that “extended transition times” away from Turkish parts do not signal any change in U.S. policy and that Turkey remains suspended from the program.
Although a majority of Turkish parts have been removed from the supply chain, Pentagon officials would guarantee only that the final Turkish products will be delivered by the end of 2022.
The COVID-19 outbreak, officials said, also has greatly complicated matters while exposing the larger U.S. dependence of unreliable foreign suppliers in many industries critical to national security.
F-35 production is now just one piece of the much larger movement to “onshore” production of military and medical equipment in order to prevent other countries from holding the U.S. hostage during a crisis.
“The challenge we face — in the middle of on-shoring some stuff from Turkey — [is] you’re on-shoring all this other stuff inside defense and outside defense,” Gen. Carlisle said.
Meanwhile, the F-35 program as a whole has come under fire from lawmakers and other critics who say Lockheed Martin ought to repay American taxpayers for delivering parts that weren’t fully ready to be installed on the planes. Defense Department officials say their personnel in many cases had to fix “electronic equipment logs” that come on some key F-35 parts.
The Pentagon is estimated to have incurred at least $183 million in labor costs. Lockheed Martin, on the other hand, can receive bonuses if F-35s hit certain flight time thresholds, even if it was Pentagon personnel who carried out the crucial final few steps to make the craft airworthy.
“If you want to avoid reputational damage, you need to rethink the terms of that contract,” Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, Massachusetts Democrat, told Lockheed Martin officials last week during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Lockheed Martin officials said they are still negotiating with the Pentagon and are in the process of figuring out how much money, if any, should be returned.
“It’s a complex problem,” Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, told lawmakers at the hearing. “It’s not all associated with Lockheed Martin performance.”