- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Trump administration on Wednesday said it was formally kicking Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jet program, making good on its threat to punish Ankara for the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system and deepening a rift between the two NATO partners.

White House and Pentagon officials announced the move after days of speculation about how Washington would respond after Turkey began receiving shipments of the S-400 last week. While it will take months to fully remove the country from the program for the world’s most advanced fighter jet, officials said that Turkey has chosen a side and there will be no turning back.

“Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry immediately fired back Wednesday night at the Pentagon announcement, saying it “neither complies with alliance spirit or is based on legitimate grounds.”

“We invite the United States to return from this mistake which would open irreparable wounds in strategic relations,” a ministry statement said.



Mr. Trump telegraphed the move was coming at a Tuesday Cabinet meeting, although he has criticized the Obama administration for not selling Turkey a comparable U.S. missile defense system and has sent mixed signals on his willingness to impose new economic sanctions on Turkey over the move.

But Wednesday’s move underscores how seriously Washington takes the issue, and how troublesome it views the burgeoning military partnership between Turkey and Russia. There are also signs that the alliance between Ankara and Moscow could grow even deeper in the coming months, with Turkish President Recep Erdogan saying this week that he envisions the two nations embarking on joint production of the S-400.

While it boasts one of the strongest militaries inside NATO, Turkey has diverged from Brussels and Washington on a number of fronts in recent months, including the endgame of the Syrian civil war, the state of civil liberties in Turkey and the U.S. campaign to isolate Iran.

Mr. Erdogan’s stunning comment could drive a deeper wedge between Turkey and the rest of its NATO partners, though administration officials on Wednesday stressed that the broader U.S.-Turkey relationship remains intact.

Compromising

The White House, State Department and Pentagon have spent the past 18 months trying to convince Turkey to change its mind and reverse course on the S-400. They’ve stressed that the Russian-made system is not compatible with the American F-35 fighter jet and have publicly said they believe the S-400 could compromise the very nature of the F-35 program itself by giving Russian military officials an inside look at its capabilities and uses.

Defense Department officials reiterated those concerns on Wednesday and made clear they believe the S-400 could undermine the core of what makes the F-35 such a valuable next-generation aircraft.

“Much of the F-35’s strength lies in its stealth capabilities. So, the ability to detect those capabilities would jeopardize the long-term security of the F-35 program,” Undersecretary for Defense and Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen M. Lord told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday afternoon.

President Trump earlier this week had made clear Turkey would lose access to the F-35 program, but he again blamed the ordeal on an Obama administration decision to withhold sale of American-made Patriot missile systems to Turkey.

“What happens is we’ve got a situation where Turkey is very good to us and we are now telling Turkey that because you have, really, been forced to buy another missile system, we’re not going to sell you the F-35 fighter jets. It’s a very tough situation that they’re in,” he said Tuesday. “And it’s a very tough situation that we’ve been placed in the United States. With all of that being said, we’re working through it.”

Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to block Turkey’s participation in the F-35 supply chain if the Russian deal went forward. He said the purpose of the measure was not to punish Ankara but to encourage it to drop the Russian deal.

Unfortunately, Turkey has ignored multiple warnings and they will have to face the consequences of their decision,” he said Wednesday.

Along with the public rebuke from Washington, officials say Turkey will suffer tangible losses as a result of its decision.

Specifically, Turkish pilots currently in the U.S. participating in F-35 training programs will leave. All Turkish involvement in producing parts for the F-35 will end, officials said, and all Turkish personnel will be prohibited from any access whatsoever to the program.

Turkey will certainly and regrettably lose jobs and future economic opportunities from this decision,” Ms. Lord said. “It will no longer receive $9 billion in projected work share over the life of the program. Turkey made over 900 parts from the F-35 and had been assigned more than $1 billion in industrial participation across 10 Turkish suppliers. All Turkish F-35 students and instructor pilots currently in the United States have firm plans to leave the country.”

Officials said Wednesday’s action is separate from any congressional sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of the S-400, and lawmakers from both parties have made clear they intend to punish Ankara financially for its decision.

Despite all of that, officials stressed that the two nations remain strong partners. The U.S. military is a major presence at Turkey’s massive Incirlik Air Base, a key staging area for American operations across the Middle East.

But U.S. officials conceded that the S-400 decision will have a lasting impact.

“As NATO allies, our relationship is multi-layered, and not solely focused on the F-35,” Ms. Grisham said. “Our military-to-military relationship is strong, and we will continue to cooperate with Turkey extensively, mindful of constraints due to the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey.”

It seems likely that the relationship could come under even greater stress moving forward. In addition to standing up an operational S-400 system by next year, Mr. Erdogan said he wants Turkey to work with Russia to jointly produce the system. It’s unclear how the administration would respond if such a partnership between Moscow and a key NATO member comes to fruition.

“We have begun to receive our S-400s. Some said, ‘They cannot buy them.’ … God willing, they will have been installed in their sites by April 2020,” Mr. Erdogan said during a speech Monday in Ankara. “The S-400s are the strongest defense system against those who want to attack our country. Now the aim is joint production with Russia. We will do that.”

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