- - Sunday, April 28, 2019

Selling top-shelf weapon systems to our allies means sharing some or all of its secrets with those allies. And that’s not always a good idea.

Two incidents — one actual and one inchoate — have put the stealthy F-35’s secrets in play. The first involves the loss of a Japanese F-35. The second is the Trump administration’s decision to deny Turkey F-35s, some of which it has already paid for.

The F-35 is the most expensive weapon system the Pentagon has ever bought. Engineering problems — some of which remain unresolved — delayed its production for years.

Eight nations, including Turkey, have partnered with the United States in the F-35 program. Three more — Israel, Japan and South Korea are purchasing them through our foreign military sales program.

On April 9, one of the Japan Air Self-defense Force F-35s disappeared and apparently crashed about 85 miles from Misawa in northern Japan. We and the Japanese have been searching the area ever since. Some parts of the aircraft have been recovered, but the pilot’s body and the remainder are still missing in seas about 5,000 feet deep.

Soon — if they haven’t already — other nations with other motives will join the search. If Russia, China or nations allied to them find parts of the lost F-35, some of its secrets may be discovered with them. For example, if one of the aircraft’s several computers are recovered, more secrets will pour from it than water.

When a Soviet ballistic missile submarine was lost in 1968, the CIA had the “Glomar Explorer” ship built to recover it from a depth of more than 16,000 feet. The effort, begun in 1974 under an elaborately conceived cover story, was ultimately unsuccessful. More modern technology could recover critical parts of the Japanese F-35.

We usually sell weapon systems to allies that are slightly less capable than the ones we buy for our forces in order to protect some secrets. The Japanese clearly aren’t to be blamed even if some of the F-35’s secrets are discovered by our adversaries as a result of the crash. Enabling them to buy the F-35 was a good move because they were and remain a trustworthy ally. Turkey isn’t.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his nation’s realignment with Russia despite Turkey’s membership in NATO. His treaty with Russia and Iran to keep Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power has led to the establishment of two of our principal adversaries’ military presence in Syria.

In furtherance of that realignment, Turkey is buying Russian S-400 anti-aircraft/anti-missile systems that are scheduled to be delivered starting this summer. The Trump administration has stopped the delivery of F-35s as well as support equipment to Turkey, and has threatened economic sanctions if the S-400s are delivered.

If the F-35s and S-400s are delivered to Turkey, the Turks — with Russia’s help — will be able to test one against the other. In doing so, they would be able to determine many of the F-35s capabilities, including, most importantly, its ability to avoid the S-400’s radars. That information could lead to the discovery of how to reprogram the S-400 to detect and shoot down the F-35.

But the Turks have already paid about $8 billion for F-35 aircraft and support equipment. Moreover, Turkish companies are among the suppliers of parts for the F-35. Stopping Turkey’s participation in the program has already disrupted the F-35 program.

If the aircraft are not delivered, Lockheed-Martin will have to refund some or all of what the Turks have already paid. That, too, will disrupt the program, but both of those problems are remediable. Mr. Erdogan’s perfidy is not.

The weight of U.S. opposition to Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400s was evidenced in February, when Vice President Mike Pence said the United States “…will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries.”

In March, Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, NATO boss and commander of European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Turks should not be allowed to get the F-35 if it goes ahead with its purchase of the Russian missile system.

In his decision to buy the S-400s, Mr. Erdogan has been entirely inflexible. But the threat of U.S. sanctions, under a law that imposes them on nations that purchase military equipment from Russia, is having some effect.

The threat of economic sanctions may bring Mr. Erdogan to his senses. The Turkish lira is weak, having lost about 30 percent of its value last year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and several senators have reportedly warned Turkey of sanctions against it.

Russia is the only likely source of aid to offset any U.S. sanctions, but it hasn’t promised such aid probably because the Russian economy isn’t strong enough to do so.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a mid-April press conference that Turkey is considering NATO’s — meaning the United States’ — concerns about the S-400 purchase. If Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400s, our sanctions should go into effect immediately, even at the risk of bringing the Turkish economy to a dead halt.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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