On Jan. 5, Turkey’s Defense Industry Executive Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, authorized the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries to open negotiations with Lockheed Martin for the purchase of two F-35 multi-role combat fighters. The announcement represents yet another reversal for the troubled program, considering Turkey’s original intention in 2002 to acquire 100 F-35s. It was followed by Britain’s declaration in February that it will postpone making any formal commitment to the F-35 until 2015. Australia, too, is currently reconsidering plans to buy 12 F-35s, and the F-35’s structural problems, which emerged during recent flight tests, led the U.S. Department of Defense to issue a technical report in December 2011 that recommended slowing down U.S. acquisitions as well.
But Ankara’s decision to drastically scale back its F-35 purchase is not just driven by the project’s technical problems. It also has to do with the United States’ uneasiness in sharing technology with Turkey, a problem dating back to the 1980s, when Turkey purchased its first F-16s. Turkey’s main interest is in acquiring software source codes for weapon systems, which the U.S. Congress has so far refused to share. In particular, Turkey wants control over the aircraft’s identification friend or foe (IFF) system in order to offer more flexibility with regard to how its fleet identifies foreign air force jets. The default setting of the original U.S. software for Turkey’s F-16 fleet, for instance, identified Israeli air force jets as exclusively friendly. To overcome the problem, ASELSAN, one of Turkey’s leading defense companies, developed a new IFF system, which was finalized in September 2011 and is now operational on Turkey’s F-16 fleet. The new system allows Turkish fighters to bypass the original software restrictions, allowing Turkish pilots to determine whether to recognize Israeli fighters as either friendly or hostile. (…)