Explained: The missile system and treaty at the heart of US anger with Turkey

Om Marathe
FILE – A US F-35A fighter jet prepares to land at Chungju Air Base in Chungju, South Korea. (AP/file)

In the middle of this week, relations between the United States and Turkey hit a crisis after the administration of President Donald Trump announced that it was terminating Turkey s participation in the F-35 fighter jet programme in response to Ankara s purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia.

The US has asserted that the sale of S-400 systems by Russia to Turkey violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark agreement which has been credited with curtailing the arms race in Europe towards the end of the Cold War.

Turkey and the US have been strategic allies since the Cold War, and both are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a military alliance that was formed in 1949 to counter Soviet influence. However, in the recent past, Turkey has drifted away from the US over serious differences in forging alliances as part of the Syrian War.

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

The INF Treaty was signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987, in which both powers agreed to destroy two categories of lethal missile systems from their own stocks as a means to decelerate the nuclear arms race.

The need for such an expansive treaty was felt after a considerable build-up of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads by both sides in their European spheres of influence, threatening the security of the entire continent. The treaty came to fruition after years of negotiations during the leadership of US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Not only did the treaty provide for the elimination of intermediate-range and medium-range missile stocks, but it also allowed verification by observers from both sides — thus leading to the dismantling of 2,619 missiles in three years.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the successor state of Russia remained bound by the INF obligation, but the end of bipolarity in global geopolitics diminished the treaty s utility. The rise of other military powers, especially China, led to calls for converting the INF into a multilateral agreement — an effort that was made by both the US and Russia at the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, but which did not deliver results.

Read | Donald Trump says not fair that US can t sell F-35s to Turkey

In February 2019, the Trump administration announced that the US was suspending its participation in the treaty, as a reaction to what it believed was Russia s building of a prohibited missile.

The Joint Strike Fighter programme (F-35 programme)

Described as the arms deal of the century , the F-35 programme is an international weapons contract between the US and its allies aimed at developing fifth-generation fighter jets. The signatories to the deal contributed capital for the research and development of the F-35 jet. The fighter jet was so that the US military could replace four or five different kinds of aircraft that were in use when the programme was initiated in 1994.

According to a paper by Srdjan Vucetic and Kim Richard Nossal published in the International Journal in 2012, contract partners of the US in this treaty are categorized based on the quantum of their investment in the program. Level 1 partner UK pledged $2.2 billion to the program, followed by Italy and Netherlands at Level 2 with around $1 billion, and finally Turkey along with four others at Level 3 with contributions between $100-200 million. Based on the levels to which they belong, the participant countries get offered technological transfers, training of pilots, and prospects for local manufacturing.

Since its inception, the programme has gone over budget by billions of dollars and has also witnessed considerable delays.

It is estimated that Washington s decision to cancel the F-35 s sale to Turkey would ensure losses of between $500-600 million for the US. For Turkey, it would result in losing out on manufacturing opportunities, and its pilots would have to cease their training in the US.

Why suspend Turkey

Turkey recently acquired the S-400 missile system from Russia, an advanced anti-aircraft system capable of defending against stealth aircraft that can evade radars, like the F-35.

The US is concerned that this might jeopardise non-disclosable information regarding the F-35 jets, as Russian engineers who would arrive in Turkey to install the S-400 might get access to such sensitive data.

India also signed a deal with Russia in 2018 to acquire the S-400 systems but did not invite Washington s ire under the Countering America s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).