I was reading that the USA is blocking Turkey from acquiring F-35s. Turkey is reportedly anxious, and throwing some hollow threats.

I have two questions regarding this:

  1. Why are countries like Turkey (even UK and Germany) dependent on the USA for F-35s? Why can't they build their own F-35-like airplanes?

  2. Is that they can't afford the development cost, or is it that they don't have technical expertise to do so?

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    It might be worth asking a third question: Why do countries like Turkey think they need F-35 fighter jets, and not say a lot of (relatively) cheap but effective antiaircraft missles?
    – jamesqf
    May 9, 2018 at 18:21
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    Turkey GDP $857.7 billion. US GDP $18.57 trillion. US military spending: $598 billion. = cannot haz cheeseburger.
    – Mazura
    May 10, 2018 at 0:50
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    It seems similar to why most middle-class people are dependent on shops for clothes, food, electronics, etc.
    – NotThatGuy
    May 10, 2018 at 8:35
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    Turkey is a member of NATO, as is the USA. Refusing to supply an ally with hardware would be concerning to any country. That said Turkey has been purchasing Russian AA missiles recently which is against the NATO agreement.
    – Burgi
    May 10, 2018 at 13:35
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    "... UK ... Why can't they build their own F-35-like airplanes?" - large parts of the airframe and many of the electronic systems, amounting to a 13-15% workshare per unit, are manufactured in the UK by BAE Systems and hundreds of other suppliers. Nominally, 10% of R&D costs are borne by the UK. Estimates put the real share of UK-origin technology, design and development at 30%. The F-35 is the product of the "Joint Strike Fighter Program". In a very real sense the UK is building an F-35-like plane - the F-35. It just isn't doing it alone. May 10, 2018 at 20:23

6 Answers 6


It takes a long time and a lot of money, infrastructure and expertise to build military aircraft.

Take the Eurofighter Typhoon as an example:

In 1988, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces told the UK House of Commons that the European Fighter Aircraft would "be a major project, costing the United Kingdom about £7 billion".

It was soon apparent a more realistic estimate was £13 billion... By 1997 the estimated cost was £17 billion; by 2003, £20 billion, and the in-service date (2003, defined as the date of delivery of the first aircraft to the RAF) was 54 months late.

This was a collaborative effort between the UK, France, Germany and others, some of the world's largest economies, and they didn't get it right!

So when one country that is not an economic powerhouse, such as Turkey, has their defence needs declined by a supplier country that is technically competent and resource rich, then that makes them anxious. Their needs are imminent, but aircraft production takes decades and billions.

  • 28
    @yahoo.com This answer addressed the question(s) asked very nicely. It states that the cost of R&D (time and money) is prohibitive, and shows an example of a collaboration with more resources having extreme difficulty with such an undertaking.
    – GOATNine
    May 9, 2018 at 15:27
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    @yahoo.com US defense projects experience EXTREME cost overrun. The F-35 program is enormously overbudget (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…). Fortunately for other nations, most of this development cost is borne by the US.
    – Deolater
    May 9, 2018 at 15:49
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    @yahoo.com No, you're drawing wrong conclusions from this answer. Countries often don't want to invest in military R&D because it's expensive and unpredictable. That the US invests in R&D anyway doesn't mean it's less expensive and unpredictable there. It means that the US government is OK with spending much more time and money than many nations want to, and indeed most nations can afford.
    – Cubic
    May 9, 2018 at 15:59
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    @yahoo.com It's not that US defence projects don't overrun on cost or budget. It's that they do both, enormously, but the US goes through with them anyway, because they can afford it. Countries like Turkey can't afford it, so in many cases they don't even bother starting projects of this kind, because they know it's quite likely they'll have to cancel when it inevitably goes over budget, leaving them out of pocket with nothing to show for it. Better for them to let someone like the US handle that part, and then buy the results. May 10, 2018 at 8:43
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    The cost of a new fighter has been roughly tripling every decade since WW1. This is Augustine's 16th Law. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine%27s_laws. Its just like Moore's Law, but in reverse. May 10, 2018 at 9:40

Building supersonic stealth fighter jets is very, very hard. It requires cutting edge engineers in many different disciplines, processes to manufacture materials used nowhere else for stealth purposes, advanced computers and software, and much, much more.

To make something like that you need not just a company to make the final plane itself, which is just the tip of the iceberg, but companies to extract the raw materials, to refine those materials, and to make parts and components of the final product.

Consider this: a major TV movie has credits that list thousands of people. Building a real jet fighter takes something on the order of a thousand to ten thousand times as many people to make as a major TV movie.

There are only about six companies in the entire world that are capable of making supersonic fighter jets (two in the U.S., one in Western Europe, one in Japan, one in Russia and one in China).

Stealth technology is very cutting edge and rare, and access to that technology is highly controlled. The U.S. developed it the first time in the 1980s, and the Chinese and Russians are just bringing into service now stealth aircraft reverse engineered from information available about the U.S. version.

There is also a huge upfront cost. The F-35 has a per unit cost, all in, of about $150 million a unit, assuming that about 800+ will be built, for a total cost on the order of $1,200 billion. But, at least half of that cost goes to designing, prototyping and testing the first few units. If you build just one, it costs $600 billion. The economies of scale are extreme, so if you can't afford to buy several hundred of them, it is prohibitively expensive to design your own.

So, it is mix of lack of manufacturing infrastructure, lack of technical expertise, and economies of scale.

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    The European situation is slightly complicated, in that the Eurofighter is built by a consortium, so it's equally true to say there are several companies which can each build a bit of an air superiority fighter.
    – origimbo
    May 9, 2018 at 16:05
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    @ohwilleke: BAE Systems built a demonstrator for the Typhoon programme called EAP in the 1990s, without help from other companies. Dassault produces the Rafale, which is in the same class as the Typhoon. Saab builds the Gripen on its own. That makes one consortium plus 3 individual companies capable of building fighter jets.
    – Hobbes
    May 9, 2018 at 18:00
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    @ohwilleke Given that each partner country has a local assembly line, and given that e.g. one company builds the left wing while another builds the right, it's fairly probable that each of them could build you a fighter from scratch if they really needed.
    – origimbo
    May 9, 2018 at 21:12
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    "ten thousand times as many people" - are you really suggesting that around 10-50 million people were involved in F-35 creation? Like, every 10th person in USA was working on it in some capacity? May 10, 2018 at 7:05
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    Building a real jet fighter takes something on the order of a thousand to ten thousand times as many people to make as a major TV movie. [Citation needed] Under your stated set of rules, you'd also need to take into account the supply chain for all the equipment for the movie. Certainly, for the film itself (or the drives it's stored in, if digital). Also, the cameras. And the editing software involved, that might be reasonable to include. And where do we stop? Do we count the supply chain of the truck that hits the main character in scene 3?
    – xDaizu
    May 10, 2018 at 10:16

Most countries would want to give all their defense contracts to domestic suppliers, both to spend the money in the domestic industry and to retain strategic independence. (There are a few cases where buying foreign gear could be seen as a deliberate bribe of the supplier, I'll exclude those.)

As ohwilleke pointed out, major defense projects have a huge initial R&D cost before the first aircraft gets off the ground and small or even medium countries are unable to afford that on their own. So the options if they want a modern jet fighter are:

  • Develop one despite the huge cost. Israel once tried that with the Lavi and failed.
  • Buy an existing model from a big foreign supplier. Iran found the problems with that after their revolution when spare parts for the Tomcat became hard to get.
  • Enter into a consortium with others for joint development. That's the European approach, with the Tornado and Typhoon.

The US mostly uses the first option, but they have been known to use the second or third option.

  • Once upon a time, the US licensed the British Canberra bomber. That project taught how expensive and time-consuming it is to build a local copy with 'minor' changes to materials and equipment.
  • Some US special forces use variants of the Heckler & Koch submachine gun.
  • The M1 Abrams is armed with a German-designed Rheinmetall gun, manufactured in the US so this is a consortium approach rather than just purchase.
  • The purchase of a new tanker aircraft has seen foreign bidders cooperate with US companies, the process and outcome were bitterly contested.

The various EU states mix the first, second, and third option. They found that both both separate national programs and multinational programs with diverse specifications are highly inefficient, yet the national ministries of defense loathe to abandon purchasing decisions. They promise to do better in the future, but we'll see.

  • "the Heckler & Koch submachine gun" I think you mean the Heckler & Koch MP5. Keckler & Koch is the company / brand that produces them. Unless, of course, you're also talking about the MP7 and UMP, in which case you meant just "Heckler & Koch submachine guns". For what it's worth, both the MP7 and UMP are also used widely, so it wouldn't at all be unfair to give all of them as examples of slight variations being used across the world despite being designed and/or made in Germany.
    – anon
    May 10, 2018 at 22:54
  • @NicHartley, I was thinking of the UMP as a new-model MP5, and I had forgotten the MP7. The point remains: The US buys abroad from time to time, smaller countries do it more frequently.
    – o.m.
    May 11, 2018 at 5:05
  • The F-35 in particular was also a joint project (USA, UK and Canada), though the US supplied the vast majority of the budget (though possibly not expertise - that's a lot harder to determine). The whole project was designed to replace NATO fighters all over the world, including Turkey.
    – Luaan
    May 11, 2018 at 7:29
  • The Lavi failed because of American political pressure, not technical or economical reasons. It was preceded by "local copy" of the French Mirage with less (Nesher) or more (Kfir) changes to the original
    – Rsf
    May 11, 2018 at 9:50
  • @Rsf, I thought that the Americans subsidized the Lavi and then stopped subsidizing it. Which killed the project.
    – o.m.
    May 11, 2018 at 13:40

This also has a relation to the United States' reputation for how it fights its wars, namely, by fighting dirty. The US military has a huge R&D budget so that when a war breaks out, they have the best toys to overwhelm the enemy forces, they can mass produce them, and they aren't going to get left behind because there isn't a war. The list of things that you own today because of US military R&D is crazy huge as well.

Now, the question morphs to a logical follow up: Why does the U.S. give other nations their latest and greatest toys to play with? Three Reasons: First, the United States has a long history of avoiding war hurting the country by keeping war "Over There" as it were. This policy is known as the Monroe Doctrine, and was named after our 5th president, James Monroe, who used it as foreign policy. Americans were largely apathetic to war in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East unless they take some action against us first. In modern use of Monroe Doctrine, we would rather an ally fight battles that don't directly pertain to us than to come in and help, so we're more than happy that they can have our guns if it means it stays out of the Americas.

Secondly, nobody robs the gun store. What I mean by this is that as the supplier of arms to a host of nations around the world, the United States is less likely to have someone declare war on us because they are fighting with our own complex weapons that we made for them. We have more of them, we can replace the ones they broke, and even if you're crazy enough to still try it, you're not the only customer in the store. Not to mention, we don't give you the best toys always. The F-22 is a superior plane by every measure to the F-35 but it relies on classified technology that we don't want the rest of the world knowing about and to such a degree that if it were stripped, it would be a brick. So we could not sell it to allies, so the F-35 is functionally a sellable version of the F-22.

Finally, there is an easy intelligence angle. The companies that make these weapons have to clear the orders from anyone other than the U.S. Government with the U.S. Government. If getting countries to willingly hand you intelligence on their entire airforce and making money off of that deal to boot isn't dirty fighting, I don't know what is. Not to mention, we can impose limits. Say Turkey wants 30 F-35... we can say we won't sell them one plane over 20.

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    In what way does spending lots of money to buy superior conventional weapons constitute "fighting dirty"? That term normally refers to using treachery in lieu of conventional warfare.
    – ohwilleke
    May 9, 2018 at 17:57
  • Not really... Gurilla Warfare and Asymmetrical Warfare are both maximizing effective attacks while exposing myself to as little attacks as possible. A fair fight would mean I invade Afghanistan with Calvary or that I meet the British in an open field and fight Napoleonic Tactics.
    – hszmv
    May 9, 2018 at 18:00
  • So, in your view a "fair fight" means using 19th Century tactics that will get you slaughtered? In that case, no military in the world "fights fair" any more, and no military should.
    – ohwilleke
    May 9, 2018 at 18:04
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    @hszmv: "Fair fight"? You think war is a sporting event?
    – jamesqf
    May 9, 2018 at 18:24
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    @hszmv You seem to be very, very confused about what war is. May 10, 2018 at 12:57

There are two factors in why another country wants to buy weapons from another country.

One, the cost side, is already very well explained by the other answers.

But there is also an diplomatic part to this. Buying weapons from a friendly state brings dependency and an economical boost for the selling state, as well as a sign of trust towards the buyer. If you look for example at the German military post-WW2, they bought a lot of weapons from other now-allied states to show that they are now with them, such as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.

On the other side, if you distrust someone, you won't help them arm themselves - especially if your weapons are some of the best that are available - and this is mostly why the Turkish government is so angry about not getting the F-35. It shows that they are losing the support of the US.


Cost effective production of high tech aircraft requires selling them to other countries. Without export, the costs quickly become (more?) prohibitive. There are some countries who could eat the costs - without exports - if they wanted to, Turkey is not among them (China, USA, India a couple decades from now, the EU if it counts as a "country", and formerly the USSR).

Turkey as a brand for military high tech aircraft does not exist, so they would need to build the brand and expertise from scratch, which is a very expensive, very high risk, and very slow process. Politically, it can go wrong while the politicians who started it still hold office, but it cannot possibly succeed while the politicians who started it still hold office (even Erdogan will be retired 25 years from now).

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