The United States is officially removing Turkey from its F-35 stealth fighter jet program after Ankara accepted the Russian delivery of its S-400 missile defense system.
“Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible,” the White House said in a statement Wednesday. “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”
U.S. officials believe NATO ally Turkey’s decision to use Russian advanced radar technology could compromise the alliance’s military systems in the country. The S-400 could potentially be used to target NATO jets in Turkey, including the U.S.-made F-35, which is NATO’s newest stealth fighter jet.
Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday the U.S. and its other F-35 partners “were aligned” in the decision to suspend and begin formally removing Turkey from the program.
“Much of the F-35’s strength lies in its stealth capabilities, so the ability (of the S-400) to detect those capabilities would jeopardize the long-term security of the F-35 program,” she said.
Turkish companies had made more than 900 parts for the F-35 and is set to lose more than $9 billion in projected work over the life of the program, including $1 billion in current commitments, Lord said. She added the U.S. was spending between $500 and $600 million to shift the supply chain out of Turkey.
All Turkish pilots and aircraft maintainers training with the F-35 program have plans to leave the United States by July 31, according to the Pentagon. Turkey’s involvement in the program will be officially “wind down” by the end of March 2020, Lord said.
Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy David Trachtenberg said the U.S. would continue to participate with Turkey in international exercises in Georgia, Germany and Ukraine, but it remains unclear how or whether Turkey would be allowed to participate in any NATO or U.S. exercise involving air defense.
“The United States greatly values our strategic relationship with Turkey. That remains unchanged,” Trachtenberg said.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next secretary of defense slammed Turkey’s acceptance of the S-400, parts of which were delivered last week, as “wrong” and “disappointing.”
Mark Esper told lawmakers he emphasized in a phone call to Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar that “you can either have the S-400 or the F-35. You can’t have both.”
A Russian transport jet delivered the first parts of the $2.2 billion missile system last Friday to a Turkish military air base outside Ankara.
Turkey’s Ministry of National Defense has said its purchase of the S-400 defense systems was “not an option but rather a necessity.”
The ministry said last week that Turkey was still assessing the bid to acquire U.S. Patriot air defense systems.
But the White House countered Turkey’s assertion on Wednesday.
“The United States has been actively working with Turkey to provide air defense solutions to meet its legitimate air defense needs, and this administration has made multiple offers to move Turkey to the front of the line to receive the U.S. PATRIOT air defense system,” the White House said.
The White House added that Turkey has been a “longstanding and trusted partner and NATO Ally for over 65 years,” but that “accepting the S-400 undermines the commitments all NATO Allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems.”
Potentially more damaging for Turkey are U.S. sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which could hit Turkey’s already weakened economy.
The top Republican and Democratic senators of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Inhofe, Jack Reed, Jim Risch and Bob Menendez, issued a joint statement Friday condemning the delivery and urging President Trump to fully implement the sanctions.
“By accepting delivery of the S-400 from Russia, President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has chosen a perilous partnership with Putin at the expense of Turkey’s security, economic prosperity and the integrity of the NATO alliance,” the senators said.
“It did not have to come to this,” they added, stating that Turkey had “rejected multiple attempts” by the United States to preserve the relationship while protecting Turkish airspace with F-35 fighter jets and the U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air defense system.
Turkish officials argue Turkey is in a complicated geopolitical region, as it borders Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Three years ago, the Turkish presidential palace was bombed by rogue elements of its military in an attempted coup, and some analysts suggest the missiles could be used to protect Turkish President Erdogan.
While the S-400 is widely recognized as one of the most advanced missile systems in the world, its practical use is in question, given its incompatibility with the rest of Turkey’s NATO military systems.
From a military perspective there is no logic,” said retired General Haldun Solmazturk, who now heads the Ankara-based 21st Century Institute research institution. “This is not only a problem between Turkey and the United States, but it is a problem between Turkey and the rest of the 28 NATO members, so it’s a serious problem.”