Turkey, girding for the worst despite encouraging messages from President Donald Trump, has stockpiled crucial spare parts for American-made weapons in case Congress sanctions it over a contentious Russian missile purchase.
It’s unclear when the stockpiling decision was first taken, but Turkish officials say the preparations were made in anticipation of possible U.S. embargoes. The U.S. has been threatening sanctions against Turkey since 2018, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to buy the Russian S-400 missile-defense system, a competitor to American-made Patriots.
Still haunted by a crippling U.S. arms embargo half a century ago, Turkey’s military has been amassing parts for F-16 jets and other military hardware, according to two Turkish officials familiar with their country’s defense strategy. Relations between the two countries deteriorated over the course of the Syrian civil war, when the U.S. armed a Kurdish militia that Turkey views as a terrorist group, and in the aftermath of a 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan that his government blames on a Turkish imam residing in the U.S.
NATO member Turkey is determined to acquire ballistic missile technology, and aims to co-produce the next generation of the S-400, the officials added, citing discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan said his country will take delivery of the S-400 within days.
“The first batch of S-400s will be delivered in a week or 10 days,” Haberturk newspaper cited him as saying in a report Monday. “I’ve clearly told this to Trump, Mr. Putin also said it.”
The U.S. argues that the pivot to Moscow could allow Russia to collect critical intelligence that would weaken NATO and compromise the American F-35 stealth fighter, which Turkish companies are helping to build. Yet while Congress is drawing up potential sanctions plans that at their harshest would cripple the Turkish economy, Trump has cast Turkey as a victim in the saga.
At the Group of 20 nations meeting in Japan on Saturday, the U.S. president said Erdogan was treated unfairly by the Obama administration when he sought to buy an American missile-defense system. While the S-400 deal is “a problem,” the U.S. is “looking at different solutions,” he said.
The optics of Trump’s support for Turkey were undercut by a later White House statement that he had “expressed concern” about the Russian missile deal.
Turkey turned to Russia to address weaknesses in its air defense after failing to persuade the U.S. to share technology from its Patriot air-defense system as part of any acquisition deal. A missile deal with Moscow was announced in July 2017, and to try to head it off, the State Department last year approved a possible $3.5 billion Patriot sale to Turkey.
Turkey isn’t convinced a Patriot deal would go through, due to doubts about opposition in Congress, and it won’t leave its air space vulnerable to penetration any longer, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
On Monday, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Erdogan “needs to stop playing games and choose between the West or Russia.”
The S-400 deal “jeopardizes NATO and our own national security,” Engel said in a statement. “Turkey cannot operate an advanced Russian air defense system alongside sensitive NATO and American systems, period. President Erdogan must know there will be consequences.”
U.S. sanctions would degrade the alliance between the countries, and while Turkey would retaliate, it would leave the door open for resolving differences, they added. Last summer, Washington penalized Ankara over the jailing of an American pastor, compounding an already challenging economic outlook. The Turkish lira lost about a quarter of its value, inflation and joblessness soared, and the economy entered its first technical recession in a decade.
The officials declined to say which spare parts have been accumulated, where they were bought, or how long the inventory could last. The accumulation of parts is meant to signal that Ankara is better prepared to withstand American sanctions than it was when the U.S. imposed a four-year arms embargo over the Turkish military’s seizure of northern Cyprus in 1974, they said.
“In addition to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Turkish defense acquisition programs that could be affected by sanctions include the Patriot air and missile defense system, CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopter, UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft,” the resolution says.
The U.S. has threatened to end Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter program by July 31 if Ankara doesn’t scrap the S-400 deal. Turkey could separately face sanctions under two pieces of legislation that allow punishment of entities doing business with parts of the Russian state. Major Turkish defense contractors could be cut off from the U.S. financial system and virtually barred from buying American components or selling their products in the U.S.
If Turkey is excluded from the F-35 program, it will look for alternatives, including Russian jets, while trying to develop its own warplanes and ballistic missiles for domestic use and export, the Turkish officials said.
Turkey regards standalone Russian S-400 missiles as superior to Patriots and capable of protecting the Turkish capital and the commercial hub of Istanbul, the officials said. Their presence would alleviate concerns over the security of Turkish straits linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, they added.