The United States Air Force will officially acquire eight F-35A Lighting II jets previously bound for Turkey, plus six more F-35A stealth aircraft in an $861.7 million dollar contract the Pentagon announced on Tuesday.
This announcement comes after a year of uncertainty about what would happen to F-35s that had been earmarked for Ankara after the United States ousted the Turks from the joint strike fighter program. As part of the deal, an additional six F-35As will be built for the Air Force and will include “recurring engineering” that will bring the Turkish jets back in line with the U.S. configuration. All of the work is to be completed by May 2026.
A statement from the Pentagon said that the contract modifies a previous fixed-price deal and “exercises options to procure eight Lot 14 F-35A Lightning II repositioned aircraft as a result of the Republic of Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program.” The other six Air Force F-35As included in the contract are from the same lot.
According to Defense One, the FY21 NDAA, which is in the Senate but has not yet been approved, contains additional language that would allow the Air Force to accept, operate, or even modify the first six Turkish F-35s.
The contract sets the price of an F-35A model at $77.9 million.
Turkey had originally planned to buy 100 or more F-35s, which would have made it among the largest F-35 operators. However, the Turkish government’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system set off alarms within the Pentagon. Defense Department officials last year said that the Turks having the S-400 was “incompatible” with also owning the F-35 Lightning II.
Russian technicians sent to Turkey to help in operating the S-400 would in far too close proximity to the F-35 and would be able to understand the intricacies of the aircraft. This, in effect, would handle to the Russians the secrets of what makes the aircraft unique.
Turkey has disputed this and said that the S-400s will not be integrated into NATO’s defenses. Turkey had announced that it would make the Russian missile defense systems operational in April, but as of today, that has yet to take place.
In November of last year, CNN Turk reported that Turkey had run tests of the S-400 air defense system against U.S. aircraft, scrambling F-16s and F-4s in a test of the communications of both the aircraft and the S-400. Obviously, the tests were conducted at the behest of Moscow who no doubt wanted to see how well their S-400 performed against American aircraft.
In June of 2019, the White House released a statement stating that the decision to sell the F-35 to Turkey was being stopped but left open the possibility of restarting the sale if the Turks canceled the S-400 purchase.
“Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible,” the White House statement had said. “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
“Turkey has been a longstanding and trusted partner and NATO ally for over 65 years, but accepting the S-400 undermines the commitments all NATO Allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems.”
“Turkey cannot field a Russian intelligence-collection platform in proximity to where the F-35 program makes repairs, and houses the F-35,” Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Ellen Lord had said last year. “Much of the F-35′s strength lies in its stealth capabilities, so the ability to detect those capabilities would jeopardize the long term security of the F-35 program. We seek only to protect the long term security of the F-35 program.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, in the days before Turkey was officially suspended from the program, that a refusal by the U.S. to hand over the F-35 fighter jets that Turkey had purchased would violate the terms of the contract and amount to theft.
However, the first F-35s that were earmarked for the Turkish Air Force had already been produced and its pilots and maintainers were training and how to fly and maintain them at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona., and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. And while the F-35As were never delivered to Turkey, their pilots and maintenance crews have first-hand knowledge of what their capabilities are.
Since the decision to oust Turkey from the F-35 program, the question remained as to what would happen to the jets that the Turks had already made arrangements to purchase.
Congress authorized the DOD to spend $30 million dollars to fly the first four to six F-35As to a secure location where they would be stored and preserved until a plan was formulated for their eventual disposition. That money was included in the FY20 version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The Air Force Magazine reported that the USAF has stated the need for 72 new fighters annually to replenish its aging fighter force. In its fiscal 2021 defense bill, Congress added 12 F-35As to the 48 aircraft that the Air Force requested, bringing the year’s total to 60. Lawmakers also approved a planned purchase of 12 F-15EXs, achieving the 72-jet target.