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U.S. Suspends Turkey’s Role in F-35 Over Russian Missile System

Updated on

U.S. Suspends Turkey’s Role in F-35 Over Russian Missile System

  • Trump administration says ‘impossible’ to have F-35, S-400
  • Phase-out of Turkish role will take until March of next year
F-35B Lightning fighter jet
F-35B Lightning fighter jet

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

F-35B Lightning fighter jet

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The U.S. has suspended Turkey’s ability to buy the F-35 fighter jet and help build it because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to begin receiving parts for the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, the Pentagon said.

But it’s an “orderly wind-down” that won’t be complete until March 2020, Ellen Lord, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, told reporters Wednesday.

“The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities,” according to a White House statement on Wednesday, reflecting the U.S. contention that the S-400 will provide Russia with information about the fighter jet’s advanced technology.

Turkey’s cutoff from Lockheed Martin Corp.’s $428 billion F-35 program, the costliest U.S. weapons system, was a move that President Donald Trump has made clear he was reluctant to take. He told reporters on Tuesday that “it is a very tough situation that they are in, and it’s a tough situation that we have been placed in, the United States.”

It’s “impossible” for Turkey to have both the U.S.’s F-35 and Russia’s S-400, according to the White House statement. The description that it will take months to end Turkey’s F-35 role appeared to leave some room for Turkey to change its position.

But Lord said at a Pentagon briefing that “the Turks have made a decision” and “we will work forward at this point to unwind the relationship,” and shift parts production to first U.S. companies. She said that revamping of the supply chain will cost $500 million to $600 million.

She added that Turkish pilots being trained in the U.S. to fly the F-35 are in the process of being sent home.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said “the exclusion of Turkey as one of the main partners of the F-35 program is unjust and the allegation that S-400 system will weaken the F-35s is invalid.”

“This one-sided step does not comply with the spirit of the alliance and has no legal basis whatsoever,” the ministry added in a statement.

Sanctions Act

The Trump administration’s decision is separate from economic sanctions Trump might impose on Turkey through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. Those penalties range from limiting the size of American bank loans to Turkish entities to more severe efforts such as cutting off access to the U.S. financial system, an unlikely step that would shatter the already fragile Turkish economy.

Turkey, with its planned purchases of about 100 of the F-35s, was one of the four top foreign customers for the program, along with Japan, Australia and the U.K.

Ten Turkish companies will be suspended from making more than 900 parts for the F-35 that over the program’s lifetime could generate more than $9 billion in orders, according to the Pentagon.

The Turkish companies will “certainly and regrettably lose jobs and future economic opportunities,” Lord said. The Pentagon will have to develop alternative sources for key components for which Turkish companies are suppliers or subcontractors -- from the cockpit display built by Turkish Aerospace Industries and Northrop Grumman Corp. to the center fuselage and weapons bay doors.

“This is a government-to-government matter,” Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed said in a statement, adding that it has been “partnering closely with the U.S. government and our supply chain to minimize impact to the F-35 program.”

QuickTake: Why Russian Missiles Divide Turkey and the U.S.

Despite having the second-biggest military in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey has increasingly been at odds in recent years with the U.S. and the West. Erdogan blames Washington for refusing to extradite an exiled Muslim cleric in Pennsylvania he says was behind a failed coup attempt in July 2016 and has bristled at higher tariffs imposed on his country by the Trump administration.

The Turkish president has also pushed to get the U.S. to withdraw forces from neighboring Syria, where he’d like to target Kurdish militias allied with Washington.

Nevertheless, Erdogan has sought to blunt any sanctions effort by appealing directly to Trump. Referring to a conversation the two leaders had at the G-20 meeting in Japan last month, Erdogan has said that Trump doesn’t favor sanctions, even if they are supported by some U.S. officials.

The U.S. has long said Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian equipment is incompatible with its role in both NATO and the F-35 program. In a June 6 letter to Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said there was still time for Turkey “to change course on the S-400” missile system, but he also laid out a timeline of how cooperation on the next-generation fighter will wind down.

Erdogan has repeatedly said the purchase is essential to meeting his country’s air defense needs. But the move comes as he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have sought to bolster ties.

U.S. lawmakers from both parties have expressed outrage over the S-400 purchase and are likely to press for the toughest sanctions on a menu of options in the CAATSA act.

— With assistance by Selcan Hacaoglu

(Updates with Turkey’s reaction, beginning in eighth paragraph.)