F-35 Sales Are America’s Belt and Road
The United States uses the fighter jet program to further its own influence while leaving allies dependent.
Imagine a globe-spanning economic and security project—with a cost of over a trillion dollars and whose members encompass 46 percent of the global economy—designed to advance the interests and influence of the lead state, even as it binds the smaller ones into an asymmetric interdependence. Recipients get large economic rewards for participating, but they will find it even more expensive to extract themselves from the network in the long run.
Perhaps one day, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which by the most generous definition of membership encompasses 40 percent of the world economy in its sprawling infrastructure initiatives, will live up to this description. But the United States’ Joint Strike Fighter program, peddling the F-35 fighter jet, already does, something the recent brinkmanship between Turkey and the United States makes clearer than ever.
On Friday, Ankara received the first parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system, which Washington says is incompatible with Turkey’s participation in the F-35 consortium. The Department of Defense has already stopped training Turkish pilots on the aircraft at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and Congress is threatening to kick Turkey out of the program entirely. In the worst-case scenario for Turkey, the United States can apply various sanctions on the country under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, ranging from denying visas to restrictions on almost any Turkish arms exports to banning access to U.S. financial institutions.
The F-35, a highly capable fifth generation aircraft, has been rightly criticized for being over budget, long delayed, and burdened with design flaws. Yet the “jet that ate the Pentagon,” to use one critic’s biting phrase, has yet to lose out to any other fighter in any formal procurement competition. And whereas many countries can build a port, albeit not as cheaply as China, building weapons is different. No other country has yet built a high-end fighter like the F-35 at any price.
Modern fighters require thousands of subcomponents drawn from many different technologies and involving a dizzying supply chain. The upfront development costs of the F-35 are staggering and can only be offset by purchasing large quantities. And once a country has several F-35s in its fleet, switching to a (less advanced) competitor is unappealing. Meanwhile, laggard states—facing the prospect of potential rivals buying larger, more advanced jets—will be pressured to join the winning program, leading to market dominance.
China has been criticized for using Belt and Road-related debt coercively, for example by taking over a Sri Lankan port lease for 99 years after the country failed to repay a loan. And China’s Defense Minister recently confirmed that the initiative has a military component. But the F-35 program goes far further. It makes a state’s very security reliant on the United States for decades—and Washington uses that leverage. In 2005, it suspended Israel’s access to the program in retaliation for Israel selling drone parts to China. Israel quickly stopped those sales.
Turkey is even more dependent on the F-35 network, because its own aviation industry supplies a number of F-35 components. It would face major losses if the United States cut Turkey off for good. Whereas the Pentagon estimates that finding alternate domestic suppliers to replace Turkey will cause at most a few months’ delay, Turkish production lines will be unable to so easily adapt, putting at risk the $12 billion in component parts business Turkey expected. That figure may be a rounding error for the trillion-dollar F-35 program, but it is equivalent to eight years’ worth of all Turkish aerospace exports. Erdogan will thus pay a high cost if he crosses the United States and persists in his purchase of Russian weaponry.
Before the United States stopped sending F-35s to Turkey in April, Belgium ordered 34 planes, Singapore took steps to order 40 to 60, and Japan increased an existing order by 105, more than making up for Turkey’s 100. Meanwhile, although Italy’s governing Five Star Movement ran on a platform of canceling the program, it has since backed down. As Five Star’s junior defense minister reported to parliament in December 2018, “It is obvious we cannot deprive our Air Force of a great air capability that puts us ahead of many other countries.”
Relative to the fighter network, Belt and Road’s optimistic projections cover a larger landmass and more countries, and—crucially—the initiative brands itself as a generator of wealth and peaceful co-existence on a global scale. But Joint Strike Fighter membership provides its own benefits in terms of prestige, access to technology and subcontracts, and close security ties with the United States. Sovereign states will balance these benefits against the potential for dependency—and indeed which country they will have to depend upon. Perhaps Belt and Road wins out in the future, but the current reality favors the U.S. version.
Jonathan D. Caverley is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ethan B. Kapstein is a professor at Arizona State University and a co-director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project at Princeton University.