Washington’s F-35 Embargo Against Turkey — Success or Failure?


For someone President Donald Trump considers a “hell of a leader” and a “friend,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan’s recent statements have not been very friendly. In December, Erdoǧan threatened to close two major air bases the United States uses for strikes on the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria. One of those bases, Incirlik, reportedly houses up to 50 U.S. nuclear weapons. This latest crisis stems from the U.S. decision to embargo Turkey’s F-35 acquisitions in response to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system.

As a measure to coerce Turkey into abandoning the S-400, the F-35 suspension has failed. The missile systems have already arrived in Turkey, and there’s no going back. Erdogan views the S-400 purchase as a matter of sovereignty and a hedge against future coup attempts. Missing out on the latest American fighter technology stings, but it is not a potentially existential threat to his regime — unlike looking soft in the face of American coercion. Rather, Erdogan wants to express strength. Publicly caving to demands from a domestically unpopular United States exhibits the opposite.



By using the F-35 embargo to explicitly coerce Ankara, the United States is far more likely to further damage relations with its NATO ally than find common ground. Washington should only use embargoes to decrease the ability of a client to do harm — to deprive and weaken rather than coerce. The U.S. actions with Turkey perfectly capture the promise and peril of such an embargo. The F-35 embargo serves two different purposes. The first, and more aspirational, was to coerce Turkey to reverse its S-400 acquisition. The second was to deprive Moscow of insight into the most advanced features of the F-35. In this respect, it has been far more successful.

Coercion and Deprival

The F-35 experience with Turkey provides valuable lessons for U.S. policymakers. The objective of the embargo defines its success. States can use arms embargoes for a variety of reasons. One of the most common is to coerce. According to RAND, coercion is “causing someone to choose one course of action over another by making the choice preferred by the coercer … more attractive than the alternative, which the coercer wishes to avoid.” In other words, changing the cost-benefit analysis of the target state to favor the coercer’s preferred choice. The goal of coercion is to either “deter the target state from some action or compel the target state to take some action.

Another potential objective for an arms embargo is deprival, or the ability of the arms producer to deny the target state some capability or weapon system. The advantage of using an embargo for deprival purposes is that the success of the embargo does not depend upon the target state’s behavior, will, or preferences. Thus, while an embargo in practice always looks similar, the objective of the embargo and surrounding messaging can differ significantly. The U.S. F-35 embargo on Turkey provides an fascinating case study because it attempts to both coerce and deprive.

On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 on the Syrian border after Turkey claimed the Russian jet violated Turkish airspace. The event, which Russia called a “stab in the back,” could have sparked a much larger conflict. Remarkably, in June 2016, Erdoǧan publicly apologized to Moscow for downing the jet. By late 2017, the Russians announced a deal to sell Turkey four S-400 missile battalions for $2.5 billion. In response, the United States threatened to suspend F-35 deliveries to Turkey, remove Turkish industry from the F-35 program, and implement future sanctions. Yet, in July 2019, Turkey took delivery of their first batch of S-400s. Likewise, Turkey has been making overtures to purchase Russian-made Su-35 fighter aircraft. Clearly, the U.S. coercion attempt didn’t work.

U.S. arms exports to Turkey are only a small part of the bilateral relationship. There are myriad other considerations affecting the decision calculus of both states — economic factors, trade, the “Kurdish question,” and NATO, for example. The F-35 and subsequent embargo were not, and are not, the single most important aspect of U.S.-Turkish relations. This is in fact highlighted by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) debate, which encompasses far more than arms transfers and was sparked by the S-400 purchase. Section 235 of the legislation directs economic and property sanctions on any state engaging in a “significant transaction” with the Russian defense sector. The U.S. Congress believes the S-400 purchase qualifies as a “significant transaction.”

Yet, these sanctions are unlikely to be applied in this or most other cases. For starters, the legislation as written allows for broad interpretation, providing the president considerable leeway. Additionally, if the president was to enact CAATSA sanctions against all states engaged in a “significant transaction” with the Russian defense sector, he would sanction a long list of U.S. allies and partners such as Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Indonesia, and India. Thus, the threat of sanctions is less than credible. They would, to understate the obvious, sacrifice “some pretty important US equities,” in the words of one U.S. official.

Even if the United States eventually enacts all available CAATSA sanctions as a punitive measure, as a coercive measure the sanctions have already failed and are likely to continue to fail in the future. No U.S. government official working on Turkey relations that I spoke with believes Erdogan will give up the S-400 at this point. Indeed, despite threats of additional sanctions, Erdogan recently announced his desire to purchase additional S-400 systems with delivery in the first half of 2020. Thus, even full implementation of new sanctions will be a coercive failure.

Some argue that the failure of sanctions to coerce Turkey lay not in the sanctions themselves but convoluted signaling and muddled implementation by the U.S. government. This misses the point. Not only do the new sanctions go far beyond a simple arms embargo, the mixed signals and muddled implementation simply reflect the fact Turkey can hold U.S. interests at risk. U.S. military basing, overfly rights, refugee access to Europe, and ISIL prisoner housing are but a few examples. While CAATSA is worthy of debate in its own right, regarding the F-35 embargo discussion, it’s a moot point.

Instead, the evidence shows the United States clearly attempted to coerce specific Turkish S-400 policy decisions through the embargo of the F-35 and its implied industrial-base loss. U.S. government statements clearly tied Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 to a suspension of F-35 deliveries and its associated industrial participation. As one U.S. official stated, “The United States has consistently and clearly stated that Turkey will face very real … consequences if it proceeds with its S-400 acquisition, including suspension of procurement and industrial participation in the F-35 program.”

The United States does not want a NATO ally operating a state-of-the-art, Russian surface-to-air missile system. The system cannot be integrated into the larger NATO air defense system. More critically for the United States, operating advanced Russian equipment in such close proximity to the F-35 with such regularity remains a nonstarter. As one scholar commented, “The end result is … for Turkey, a tenuous waiver from sanctions, an angry Congress, and a future without an aircraft Ankara has paid well over a billion dollars to procure.” And it’s not just Washington that’s upset with Ankara. French President Emmanuel Macron asked, “How is it possible to be a member of the Alliance, to work with our office, to buy our materials, to be integrated, and to buy the S-400 from Russians? Technically, it’s not possible.” In other words, conditions were ripe for a successful, coercive arms embargo and yet, today Turkey possesses the S-400 and not the F-35.

The More Things Change…

This latest embargo against Turkey is hardly unique. In 1975, in a far more sweeping embargo that lasted three years, the United States blocked all U.S. arms deliveries to Turkey in response to the latter’s invasion of Cyprus. The embargo was meant to coerce Turkey to the negotiating table and re-establish the status quo. Instead, the result was severely strained relations, closure of and restrictions on U.S. facilities in Turkey, a weakened NATO, and no progress on the underlying Cyprus issue.

The 1975 U.S. embargo clearly failed as a coercive measure. At the time, the New York Times argued flatly, the “present total embargo has failed.” A recent military analysis concludes that while the embargo made operations difficult for the Turks in the short run, it stiffened their resolve on the Cyprus issue and pushed them to put considerable time and money into growing their domestic arms industry. Turkey’s “Cyprus Plan,” which eventually ended the embargo “provided no … substantial territorial concessions.”

The results of these U.S.-Turkey examples should not be a surprise. Arms embargoes, for a variety of reasons, have a track record of failure when it comes to effective coercion. Indeed, a recent RAND analysis highlights the inherent difficulty of interstate coercion and the particularly poor ability of arms sanctions to coerce. The authors argue there is “little actual coercive utility” to an arms embargo. What then might an arms embargo be good for? Interestingly, the RAND authors leave the door open for embargoes designed to weaken or deprive.

What Makes This Embargo a Success?

If the U.S. F-35 embargo failed to coerce Turkey to reverse course on the S-400, how can it be considered successful? In this instance, it accomplished the more immediate objective of helping to safeguard sensitive F-35 information from Russian espionage. Consistently operating F-35s and the S-400 in the same geographical area would likely provide Moscow significant insight into the stealth jet’s operating characteristics, training patterns, and potential vulnerabilities. Preventing Turkey from possessing the F-35 is one way to ensure that does not happen.

Suspending these fighter jet deliveries deprives Turkey, and therefore Russia, of its ability to disclose sensitive F-35 information. In this sense, it is an unmitigated success. Turkey cannot give, even unintentionally, what it does not have. While Turkey is unlikely to deliberately divulge sensitive F-35 data, Ankara is far more willing than the United States and partner nations to risk it in pursuit of other political goals. This situation is admittedly unique compared to other U.S. arms embargoes used for, among other things, deprival purposes (e.g., Iran in 1979 or Venezuela in 2006). Turkey is still a U.S. ally, and the United States maintains significant military forces on Turkish territory. Rather, this current F-35 embargo is narrow in scope and, while possessing a coercive element, remains far more effective as a deprival maneuver.

Arms Embargoes Still Matter and the Exception That Proves the Rule

America’s recent experience with Turkey does not mean that embargoes should never be used. For example, there might be ethical or moral reasons for enacting an embargo. In fact, the recent debate over a proposed U.S. embargo on Saudi Arabia for its actions in Yemen sparked such a discussion. Even if coercion is likely to fail, there are other legitimate reasons for an embargo. An arms embargo to deprive an adversary state of military capabilities or increase its opportunity costs might be a very reasonable course of action. As the U.S. embargoes of Iran and Venezuela demonstrate, they can significantly degrade the target state’s military readiness and capabilities.

Finally, coercion does not always fail, but the successes are few and far between. One example is the reported 2005 U.S. threat against Israel to prevent it from inclusion in the F-35 program until the Israelis agreed to stop providing drone upgrades to China. Israel reversed course under American pressure, even if specific details remain unclear. In this instance, it appears a coercive arms embargo led to a meaningful foreign policy success. However, the U.S.-Israel relationship is unique and has many other sources of leverage —  the $2 billion of U.S. aid Israel receives annually and the de facto security guarantees the United States provides — that may have proved decisive in Jerusalem. Moreover, Israel’s deal with China was worth only $70 million, a small sum for an Israeli defense industry that posted nearly $15 billion in sales between 2000 and 2004.

Such successes often include significant mitigating factors, like aid money, economic interconnectedness, basing rights, or, quite frankly, low stakes. For example, one recent commentary argued a slight delay in Egypt’s enforcement of a harsh NGO law in 2014 represented a coercive embargo success. If this is so, reasonable minds might simply have to disagree on what meaningful success means in international politics. In fact, not long afterward Egypt passed an even more repressive NGO statute. At best, the exceptionally limited examples of successful coercive embargoes, particularly the oft-used Israeli case, point to serious and limiting scope conditions for future use.

All of this of course begs the question: What should the United States do now with respect to Turkey and the S-400? First, the United States should continue to prohibit Turkish possession of an F-35 with the S-400 in country. Turkey simply cannot have an operational S-400 and F-35s flying in the same military. However, as others have recently argued, even with a full F-35 embargo in place, the United States “should work to isolate the damage by seeking to preserve the broader defense relationship.“ To this end, the embargo should not be explicitly tied to reversing course on the S-400. Suspending F-35 deliveries should not be a punitive measure, but a defensive one. Similar logic applies to many of the aforementioned CAATSA sanctions. They are largely punitive and send a strong signal to important potential partners about the dangers of doing defense deals with a sometimes fickle United States. This is particularly true of India, which has also purchased the S-400 and strongly values its strategic autonomy in arms partners. In sum, the United States should suspend F-35 deliveries because it cannot afford to have its technology compromised — not because it has any hope of Turkey reversing its S-400 decision. 

Schrödingers Embargo

Using an arms embargo for coercive purposes is unlikely to succeed. Over time, the target state can acquire defense items from another source. However, withholding weapon systems to deprive another state of a certain capability can be effective. The F-35 embargo against Turkey, for example, advances important U.S. counter-intelligence interests. The move has made it much harder for Moscow, and by proxy Beijing, to acquire sensitive operational F-35 information.

In that sense, the embargo is a coercive failure and deprival success. Like Schrödinger’s cat, which is both alive and dead until one opens the box, Schrödinger’s embargo can be both a success and a failure at once. As a measure to protect sensitive information, Washington’s decision to deny Turkey the F-35 is a worthwhile policy. As a means of forcing Ankara to send S-400s back to Moscow, however, the embargo is too little, too late.



Lt. Col. Ray Rounds is a U.S. Air Force F-15E instructor pilot and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown University. He is a U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies graduate and a former Mirage 2000 exchange pilot with the French Air Force. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other branch or agency of the U.S. government. You can follow him on Twitter: @banzaIRay.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Alexander Cook)