July 16, 2019

Turkey, Erdoğan, the S-400 and the F-35

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - is anyone else tiring of him?

I was asked a few questions about the Turks and the delivery of the Russian S-400 (NATO: SA-21) air defense system. My replies.

Q. The US Senate starts to discuss sanctions on Turkey, but Trump doesn't want such a move. How do you think is it possible that we can see the US impose sanctions on Turkey for this issue?

A. There are bipartisan demands in Congress for sanctions on Turkey for purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system. The President is hoping that he can walk a fine line between economic sanctions on Turkey and just removing Turkey from the F-35 program. I am not sure he will be able to do that - there is US law that would require sanctions. He may be legally able to waive the sanctions, but he will be taking a political risk among his Republican supporters.

In any event, Turkey has to be removed from the F-35 program. That means the jets Turkey has already purchased and are located on a US Air Force base in Arizona will not be delivered to Turkey. The Turkish Air Force pilots there for training have already been restricted from access to the aircraft and its systems.

I do not believe the United States is willing to have the world's most advanced fifth-generation stealth aircraft be delivered to a country that is operating a near-state-of-the-art Russian air defense system. The risk to sensitive technology ending up in Moscow is much too high.

Q. If the US imposes sanctions, what can be the response of Turkey (within the cooperation with China (SCO))?

A. It appears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a conscious decision to pivot to the east - that includes better relations with what I would consider our (U.S.) adversaries and potential enemies: Russia, China, Iran, and even Pakistan. If he thinks he will be able to continue this eastern foreign policy reorientation and at the same time maintain a good relationship with the United States, I believe he is miscalculating.

The NATO alliance is important to the United States and our European allies - Turkey included, at least for now. If Erdoğan wants to remain a NATO ally, he needs to start acting like one again. Procuring an air defense system from our principal antagonist is not the act of an ally. There will be a price.

Q. Turkey invested in the F-35 project, does the US have the right to reject the sale within international law?

A. The reality of this is that the F-35 program is American technology and in the end the United States will determine where that technology is allowed to be exported. The parts of the program in Turkey will be moved to another location. They lose the business and the aircraft capabilities.

July 14, 2019

Some thoughts on Bastille Day

Many Americans are not very familiar with an alliance that was in a large way responsible for the successful conduct of the Revolutionary War.

After the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, very few - well, no - other countries were willing to recognize the United States, let alone provide assistance in its fight against the world's premier military power. The thought that a rag-tag group of rebellious farmers could hold their own against well-trained, well-equipped, and well-led British forces was laughable.

For its own reasons, France recognized the United States in 1778 - the two countries signed a treaty which, among other provisions, promised the new country French military support in case of attack by British forces indefinitely into the future. A French fleet arrived in the United States in 1780.

French troops were present in the fight against the British until the final battle at Yorktown in 1781. If you have not walked the battlefield there, I highly recommend it - the area is well-marked and nicely interpreted. The positions of the French forces were perfectly placed to counter the British under the command of Lord Cornwallis.

I often speak about the French alliance, facetiously remarking that if it were not for the French forces at Yorktown in 1781 - both naval and army - under the command of Comte de Rochambeau, we would all be speaking English. Facetious, yes, but when no one else would help the newly formed United States, the French stepped up and sent a fleet and troops. We may owe our freedom and independence to them.

We Americans have repaid the debt, some say several times over. On July 4, 1917 - during the intense fighting that was World War I - a U.S. Army infantry battalion marched to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. The French aristocrat had led American troops in the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War - it was Lafayette's troops that fought a blocking action against British forces until other American and French forces could position themselves for the final battle at Yorktown.

At the tomb, the battalion commander, Colonel Charles Stanton, uttered the now famous words that signify the bond between the two countries, "Lafayette, nous voilà" (Lafayette, we are here).

On a much less significant, but personal note. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, “In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil.” An elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, “You are welcome in France.”

After 241 years, the alliance remains - American and French troops continue to serve side by side around the world.

Bon 14 juillet!

July 12, 2019

Turkey receives Russian S-400 air defense system - a symptom of "Erdoğan disease"

Russian Air Force AN-124 at Murted Air Base, Turkey

On Friday, July 12, two Russian Air Force AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy lift aircraft delivered initial components of the S-400 Triumph (NATO: SA-21 Growler) air defense system to Murted air base on the outskirts of Ankara, Turkey. Turkey's purchase of the Russian system is the latest in a series of issues between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey, a key member of the transatlantic alliance, is also, at least currently, a member of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The F-35 is a fifth generation stealth fighter produced by Lockheed Martin and in service with at least 10 air and naval forces around the world. Turkey is a Level 3 participant in the program, having ordered 30 of possibly 120 aircraft. The initial four aircraft have been delivered to the Turkish Air Force at the F-35 pilot training facility at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Turkish Air Force maintenance personnel are also being trained at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

The Turks have been warned that acquisition of the S-400 from Russia will halt their acquisition of the F-35 and terminate their participation in the distributed manufacturing program. The U.S. Air Force has stopped pilot training for Turkish pilots, and restricted access to the aircraft and training materials. Congress has passed legislation prohibiting the transfer of the Turkish jets in Arizona to Turkey pending the resolution of the S-400 issue.

The United States has been clear. The words of Acting Secretary of Defense to his counterpart, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar: “If Turkey procures the S-400, our two countries must develop a plan to discontinue Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program. While we seek to maintain our valued relationship, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400.”

This was reinforced by Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord: “Turkey still has the option to change course. If Turkey does not accept delivery of the S-400, we will enable Turkey to return to normal F-35 program activities. Turkey is a close NATO ally and our military-to-military relationship is strong.”

As of today, I would say that the issue has been settled. It seems that Erdoğan either does not think the American Administration is serious about removing Turkey from the F-35 program, or he has made a calculation that his relationship with the United States and NATO is not that important to his country's future.

I do not think the Trump Administration is bluffing. It is inconceivable that the United States would allow the same country that is operating a Russian near state-of-the-art air defense system to operate the world's most advanced aircraft, replete with sensitive avionics and reduced radar cross section technology.

While one might think that NATO ally Turkey would allow American intelligence access to the Russian S-400 system, the fact is that the "modified for export" version is delivered without source codes, advanced radar modes, and uses downgraded electronics.

When the Russians, or the United States for that matter, export these advanced systems, it is assumed that much of that technology will end up in foreign hands. We assume that exported U.S. technology will end up in Moscow or Beijing. The Russians will want to exploit the technology for intelligence and countermeasures, and the Chinese will just steal and clone the technology.

The S-400 purchase is just another symptom of what I will call "Erdoğan disease" - the myopic, blundering foreign policy moves that has cost Turkey much of its standing and likely its economy. Erdoğan seems to have pivoted to the east, favoring his burgeoning relationships with Russia and Iran at the expense of what used to be Turkey's attempts to align itself with Europe.

Other manifestations of Erdoğan disease?

When the United States began operations in Syria against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkey, actually Erdoğan himself, was grossly unhelpful. The fact that most foreign ISIS fighters found their way into Syria via Turkey is not lost on the West.

I've spent a lot of time on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. It is not a border I would attempt to cross clandestinely - it is replete with guard towers, minefields, patrols, etc. Turkish guards have orders to shoot anyone attempting to cross in either direction. Whoever crossed into Syria did so with Turkish help - either officially or unofficially.

As the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - whose main component is the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (know by their Kurdish initials YPG) - did the lion's share of the ground fighting that eventually dislodged ISIS from controlling territory in Syria, they were attacked by Turkish military forces.

Erdoğan considers the YPG to be just an extension of the designated Turkish Kurd terrorist PKK armed insurgency. The Turkish president insisted that Turkish troops be the forces to liberate the main ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqah, even though his forces were months away and would have had to fight their way though the SDF. The whole concept was so ludicrous that U.S. commanders dismissed it out of hand.

The ill-fated al-Raqqah plan was followed by the Turkish invasion of 'Afrin - claimed to be an anti-terrorism operation, but in realty was just an excuse to attack the YPG in northern Syria and prevent the YPG/Kurds from controlling the Syrian side of the border from the Iraqi border to Idlib province.

Then there is the Turkish presence in Syria's Idlib province, ostensibly to prevent the Syrians - with their Russian and Iranian-backed allies - from eliminating the remaining rebels and Islamists who are bottled up in the province. One might get the impression the Turks are protecting the al-Qa'idah faction and other jihadists. There is probably a reason for that impression....

Decision time is coming for Turkey, for the Turks and for Erdoğan. The three might not be the same thing. Erdoğan is fast losing internal support - the recent elections in Istanbul were a blow to Erdoğan and his AKP party. His popularity, especially in Trakya, has been steadily waning. Cozying up to the Russians and Iranians will not help.

Is there a cure for Erdoğan disease? Turkey and the Turks will have to figure that out.